2012: The year in marketing ethics

We take a look back at how ethical issues have affected the marketing industry in 2012, from tax avoidance issues to gambling. Do any of them have the potential to become genuine crises in 2013?

Sexism in marketing

Supermarket Asda was surprised to discover that its “inventive” campaign focusing on mums was the recipient of numerous complaints about sexism. The TV ad, showing a mum carrying out numerous Christmas tasks for her family, prompted more than 180 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority for its apparently “sexist” take on Christmas.


The supermarket’s strapline – “Behind every great Christmas, there’s mum and behind every great Christmas, there’s Asda” – caused particular offence among male viewers who claimed it belittled non-mothers running households.

It isn’t just Asda that has been on the receiving end of moral outrage this Christmas. Both Morrisons and Barclaycard were also accused of sexism in their campaigns. Boots managed to throw a bit of variety into proceedings by being accused of animal cruelty after a dog was hairdried in its Christmas ad campaign this year. (The dog is absolutely fine, by the way, Boots confirmed.)

Gender marketing

Closely allied to sexism in marketing, this year gender-specific marketing has been under the spotlight. While not necessary sexist in itself, some pressure groups argue that focusing on people by gender leads to more inequality between men and women in the longer term, with children particularly being herded into roles defined by their sex, rather than their interests or personality.

Molson Coors admitted defeat on its beer for women, Animée, axing it after just 12 months in September 2012. The beer, which was described as “lightly sparkling” and came in variants including “zesty lemon”, was launched with a £2m ad campaign aiming to attract women in 2011. Yet also in September, Sainsbury’s beer buyer Nicky Millington reported a rise in women drinking beer.


Meanwhile, toy retailer Hamleys rolled into 2012 with a redesign of its flagship store to stop its practice of using a “girls’ floor” in pink and “boys’ floor” in blue to sell its wares. The store claimed it was simply bringing in better directional signage by categorising toys by their use rather than gender, but campaigners claimed this as a victory.

This issue is set to rumble on in 2013 as a 13 year old girl in the US, McKenna Pope, has taken on Hasbro over its marketing of a toy oven as a plaything for girls rather than boys. “I feel that this sends a clear message: women cook, men work,” she says as she makes yet another media appearance to support the cause.

Back in the UK, another campaign called ‘Let Toys Be Toys’ has sprung up in the last few months, with its research warning that Asda and Tesco, Wilkinsons and Debenhams, Toys R Us and The Entertainer were among stores using gender marketing to sell toys to either boys or girls.

The Let Toys be Toys survey showed that three times as many stores promoted construction toys, such as Lego and Mega Bloks, to boys as to girls; four times as many stores suggested play kitchens were suitable for girls rather than boys; and that three times as many stores believed girls would rather do something craft related than boys.

The campaign has already encouraged high-street store Next to reconsider gender marketing to children, admitting that it would be “misleading and inappropriate” to define certain toys as “stuff for boys … when they could delight children of either gender”. It says it will look again at how it approaches this issue for next Christmas.

Tax avoidance

Starbucks acknowledged the impact of consumer power in late 2012, when it agreed to pay an extra £20m to the treasury in order to quell public distaste for its tax policies, which means the company has paid just £8.6m since launching in 1998. To put this in context, its competitor Costa Coffee paid around £15m in the last year alone.

But Starbucks is a brand that relies on consumers walking through its doors or carrying around its cups, advertising the chain for it as they drink. If people are ashamed to be seen using its brand, the company suffers.


Google, meanwhile, has taken the view that it will pay what they need to by law and no more. Google chairman Eric Schmidt says he is “proud” of the tax policies that mean it paid just £6m in corporation tax last year despite £2.5bn in UK sales. He says that this is simply capitalism in action and the firm would not contribute more to the Treasury simply because it “felt sorry for those British people”.

As Google dominates its market, a consumer boycott may seem less feasible to UK users than simply wandering into the Costa Coffee next to the Starbucks. Margaret Hodge MP, however, who chairs the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, is not satisfied with Schmidt’s view, calling him “arrogant” and warns that “ordinary people who pay their taxes unquestioningly are sick and tired of seeing hugely profitable global companies like Google use every trick in the book to get out of contributing their fair share”

Badly behaved celebrity ambassadors

This year, the relationship between sponsors and celebrities came under intense scrutiny. From the endorsements of Olympic athletes to cyclist Lance Armstrong’s sponsors, the detail about the relationships between brands and famous faces came into question.

The London 2012 Olympics provided a large global stage for the issue of whether athletes could promote their own personal endorsements or simply the official Olympic partners.

A group of athletes felt so strongly that they should not be banned from endorsing whichever brands they chose that they launched a campaign against ‘Rule 40’, which prevented them from mentioning their individual sponsors on social media.

Olympic Stadium

Meanwhile, headphones brand Beats By Dr Dre successfully ambushed the Olympics by handing out headphones sporting Union Flag colours to British athletes including tennis player Laura Robson and footballer Jack Butland, leading Butland to tweet his appreciation for the guerilla marketing stunt .

It was also a tough ethical time for the sponsors of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, who has been stripped of his winning trophies after the cycling body USADA released an extensive, damning report accusing him of doping. Should they stick with Armstrong or drop someone now acknowledged by most of the world as a cheat?

Nike, AB InBev and Radioshack took a week after the release of the report to sever their associations with Armstrong, first saying that they would stand by him. Francis Ingham, the director general of PR body the PRCA, says the actions of the sponsors in question was either an “act of unbelievable trust – at worst – utter casualness”.

Social gambling

Facebook’s deal with online gaming firm 888 has raised eyebrows, with many questioning whether a social networking site is a suitable environment for gambling. The social network will offer Las Vegas-style slot machines and other games for bets up to £500 using a credit or debit card.


Critics of gambling say that the deal will normalise it for younger social network users. Mark Griffiths, professor of gambling studies at Nottingham Trent University, warns: “Research has shown again and again that one of the biggest factors in developing problem gambling is playing free games online first. These children and teenagers today are the problem gamblers of tomorrow.”

While Facebook says it will not promote gambling to under 18s, it is believed the site may get as much as 30% of every bet placed. While social networks are still looking for sources of revenue to keep them free for users, this move into gambling may prove unpopular with many people with no improvements of the economy predicted in the near future.

See all our 2012 round-ups here



Burberry launches Christmas events

Josie Allchin

Burberry is launching a raft of experiential activity as part of its festive campaign, including a branded retro delivery van laden with gifts that will tour London in the run up to Christmas.