Yesterday I was searching for a few blog posts my friend Patrick had written regarding presuppositional apologetics and logic. While doing so I came across another entry that piqued my interest. Patrick, a student of philosophy, attended a presentation on marketing and was “reminded … about how it seems honesty is always demanded and assumed in personal relations but how quickly that demand is forgotten when it comes to effective market strategizing.”
I couldn’t shake a discomfort I had about appealing to people’s unconscious fears and greed to get a foot in the door. It reminded me of Aristotle’s book on rhetoric where he draws a sharp distinction between the practice of rhetoric and dialectic; the former being the art of persuasion and the latter being a strategy of getting at the truth of the matter between two conflicting viewpoints.
I agree, quite wholeheartedly, with Patrick’s assessment. This, despite the fact that a significant portion of my work life involves marketing technology products and services. However, Patrick’s observations on marketing — as a philosopher — caused me to think of some of the moral and economic nuances that must be considered in considering the ethics of marketing more broadly.
It is important to note that while there are some broad “universal” marketing principles, some specific practices are common to certain industries. Marketing the iPhone is vastly different from marketing heavy-duty construction or mining equipment. To speak generally, I would argue that developing ethical marketing strategies for consumer products like the iPhone, cars, tooth-paste, or toilet paper presents unique challenges not usually experienced by those who market to government or commercial buyers.
Patrick compared rhetoric and dialectic and I think to a large degree, consumer product marketing must rely on rhetoric because these product messages are aimed at irrational, emotional, sentimental human beings who generally make these types of buying decisions in isolation. A marketer of toothpaste, for example, is competing against many other brands all vying to become part of a consumer’s evoked set; the constrained set of brands consumers relate to any given functional product. This marketer wants the consumer to become aware of their brand so that when then think toothpaste, they automatically think of the brand. Because the field is so populated and there is really not much marketers have to work with as far as product differentiation goes, they must rely on what we know about consumer behavior — even at the psychological level. But in the end, a fair exchange has occurred between buyer and seller. The buyer gains value from the toothpaste and the marketer enjoys profits from the transaction.
Where all of this can go horribly wrong is when products that have absolutely no efficacy and provide absolutely no value to consumers. The marketplace is full of useless products with clever names. When consumers buy these products, often as a result of targeted, manipulative, and untruthful marketing messages, I don’t think anyone would question that a moral wrong has been committed by the marketer of the useless product. The key here is value. In a moral business transaction, both parties gain real value. I say real value in contrast to perceived value. It is possible, and far too common, for marketers to position their products in such a way as to instill a perception of value for the consumer when, in reality, the consumer has received no benefit.
I also think that as a consumer marketer it is important to simply be a decent human being. It is one thing to understand that certain colors or smells evoke certain mental reactions within consumers. It is quite another to use some thin young women — made even worse by the doctoring of photographs — to convince other young women of the inadequacy of their bodies. All for the purpose of exploitation.
In commercial or business-to-business transactions I actually do think that marketing must be more dialectical. That is, marketing in this context must be able to help the buyer understand how a given product or service will provide more value for less cost. Certainly some of the same techniques employed by consumer marketers are also used by their commercial counterparts. However, these are only effective in garnering initial attention. Commercial transactions are (mostly) rational. Another business will only buy my product or services if I can demonstrate real value.
Again, I am speaking very broadly here and I think the bottom line for all markets is be honest. Find ways to provide value to your potential customers and demonstrate that value. Be mindful of color implications when designing your brand logo. But don’t manipulate the vulnerable in order to exploit the very fears you are responsible for instilling.