Consumers increasingly expect brands to meet high ethical standards, or otherwise risk large-scale revolts against their businesses. But what basics do marketers need to understand in order to define ethical marketing and then put it into practice? We discussed this with Amber Burton, course leader for Falmouth University’s MA Marketing and Digital Communications (Online), and module leader Dr Steve Dumbleton.
What is meant by the term ethical marketing?
Steve Dumbleton (SD): Getting to the crux of what is meant by the term ethical marketing is difficult, because it means so many different things to different people, and it tends to be experienced from a personal point of view. However, I think legality versus morality is a helpful way to approach thinking about marketing ethics, and also to look at it in terms of both the letter and the spirit of the law.
Take cookies as an example. If you just look at the letter of the law, that allows marketers to use them – they are a legal way to collect data. But the spirit of the law, the way that [data protection legislation] was written, was to try and move people away from the use of that technology.
So, there are things that exist that are legal to do, but they might not necessarily be the right thing to do. We teach students to always think about how consumers and society are affected by marketing and to identify any shortcomings in the laws that are designed to protect them.
Amber Burton (AB): There is also something about authenticity which falls into this space. A difference between what a brand says it will do and what it does creates a credibility gap, and if that gap is too wide, it can be unethical to make certain claims.
A lot of brands – whether in their advertising campaigns, social marketing or broader communications – are getting themselves into difficulties with talking about their environmental and sustainable credentials – aka greenwashing.
The other specific area we look at in terms of marketing ethics is representation. Are we actually giving voices to different people in our campaigns and marketing messages? Is that a truthful, accurate and fair representation? This is where we look at brands’ responses to the Black Lives Matter movement, the representation of people who are differently abled, issues surrounding the #MeToo era.
How have ethics become more visible in marketing over the years?
AB: It is tempting to say it’s become more of an issue because of social media in recent years – because of the opportunity for audiences to publicly have their say. We can all think of social media storms that have prompted a business into an embarrassing climbdown. However, I think it has always been a visible issue. Take the era of marketing activities for cigarettes. It was aimed at young women, making smoking synonymous with being cool and fashionable. It was entirely legal, but even at the time, it was recognised as not being very ethical.
SD: I think that the landscape, and technology, have become so complex that there’s no longer a way to develop a comprehensive understanding of the activities occurring within organisations. We don’t get the opportunity to dissect many contemporaneous ethical conundrums, because they are simply hidden away from sight. The sheer scale of the customer data that some companies have access to – and the ‘creepiness’ of that – is not well understood by consumers. That’s an issue that is only going to increase.
At the moment, Google Analytics is moving away from cookie-based tracking to an AI-based form of tracking. They will essentially be making predictions about people on best guesses, which is one way of saying the privacy of consumers is being protected by not tracking them. But in another way, AI is now making assumptions based on what could be inaccurate information – potentially even more intrusive and damaging.
Marketing can be a data-hungry profession, so we need to carefully consider the expectations of the consumer and the trust that they put in us to do the right thing.
What are some of the current ethical challenges facing the marketing sector?
SD: I think ‘hustle’ culture is a challenge for marketers. Facebook kicked off the ‘move fast and break things’ approach, which influenced a culture of rule-breaking in Silicon Valley in particular, permeating over time through to smaller startups.
Hustle culture and growth hacking are two lovely buzzwords that you see referenced, especially for entry-level marketing positions. It is both a cultural and an ethical issue, this idea of always being ‘on’, always trying to exploit things and to find the quickest routes to growth, and that everything else can fall by the wayside.
It presents problems, both for individuals – people burning out – and also when it becomes a company ethos. We’ve seen what happens when companies move fast and break things: scandal, infringements on people’s rights, lack of consideration for the end user.
It is a huge ethical issue, not only on its own, but also because it is often accompanied by co-opting of other political and social issues, such as the environment or Black Lives Matter – exploiting those issues purely for growth.
AB: Some brands’ answer to this is authenticity. In the face of challenges about greenwashing or about jumping on bandwagons like Black Lives Matter, authenticity and brand purpose in particular are terms that crop up. They are very misunderstood and easily misappropriated. But good brand purpose is about an authentic aligning of brand principles to those things that the brand wants to be known for.
Personal satisfaction and wellbeing also present an ethical challenge for early-career marketing practitioners. Taking your first step into getting a job in the marketing industry will challenge most people to think about their ethical choices. What sector do they want to work in, what practices do they want to employ, and how can they use their voice?
There are a lot of jobs out there where you need to think whether you really want to be involved in the activities of that company or sector. Fast-growing and profitable business areas tend to offer lots of entry-level jobs for people who want to learn about digital marketing. But is that something that you want to do? You will learn a lot, certainly, by getting involved. But how does that particular sector sit with you ethically?
I think it’s our business on the course to provide a safe space to have those discussions. It’s very difficult to have that discussion with your employer or where you’re about to go into a pitch for a piece of business.
A student gave me an example recently where she was on a photoshoot helping a brand to develop some content, and she realised that she was uncomfortable with the selection of models. She felt she had no power to say anything because that would have been the end of her career, at least in the very short term. But she could bring that into the course and have a conversation about it. And we can start to debate.
Can you give some examples of ethical marketing campaigns?
AB: A common example students like to cite is the Patagonia brand. They had a campaign called ‘Don’t buy a jacket’, which promotes their repair service over their new products. We like it because it is a fashion brand that recognises its base problem is that it is part of a polluting industry, but that it’s doing its part to reduce the impact on the planet as much as possible.
A lesser-known example is a phone case company called Pela, and how it is dealing with the issue of plastics. There are now more phone cases than there are phones. And so there will be more phone cases thrown away than there are phones thrown away. And since phone cases are generally made of plastic, certainly not biodegradable materials, Pela has focused on this and found a way of producing phone cases that are made of biodegradable materials. This is an example of a company that has gone through each step in its supply chain, to make sure that it genuinely can hold its hands up and say that it is doing everything it can to be a sustainable business.
SD: There are no brands we can hold up and say are 100% ethical – there are so many grey areas. And I think it is our responsibility as practitioners and as consumers to understand those grey areas and to strive to be better.
To learn more about putting marketing ethics into practice, apply for Falmouth University’s MA Marketing and Digital Communications (Online).