Marketing Ethics: Change the World

curious thinking-04Another day, another week, another story about a brand getting their marketing so very very wrong.  That’s the thing, in the digital age, if someone doesn’t like something, they get to say so, publicly.  And that doesn’t mean a lone angry letter to the CEO.  That means a tweet out to their followers, RT’d, a blog, which turns into a Huff Post article, or Jezebel, and then gets into the comment section of the Guardian or the Independent and it’s gone viral; if you’re really unlucky there will even be a petition started to persuade you to change your policies.  Some of those tweets obviously, they just fall into the ether.  But many don’t.

Now, of course, what can feel like a Twitterstorm might be just that; a storm, and storms pass.  In the scheme of your business, it might be just a blip.  You might not notice a drop in sales.  You may only have succeeded in antagonising a segment of customers that you were never targeting in the first place.  But storms can often turn into hurricanes or tornados.  And those cause lasting damage.

Beyond the obvious risk to the brand, there is a wider societal issue at play.  Your advertising agency might defend the campaign as just another example of what is popular, part of the zeitgeist, that appealing to human base instincts sells product.  And, appealing to insecurities does work.  People will want to try things that will make them feel less insecure and more confident [fatgirlslim, I’m looking at you].  People will want to try things that will make them feel more sexual and more desired [American Apparel, I’m looking at you].  People might want to try things that will help them get what they want in life [Nine West, I’m looking at you].  People will want to try things that will make them feel superior to others [Garagista Beer, I’m looking at you].  Unethical marketing does sell.

But, take a step back.  Who created that zeitgeist?  You did.  And all the others like you.

The average consumer consumes (apparently, according to my Google search, so it must be right) as many as 5000 marketing messages every day (yes, that high surprised me too!).  Those messages influence what consumers think about the world around them.  Marketing influences societal norms – to an extent, marketing does more than influence, it creates.  Here’s a crazy idea – how about use the power and influence of marketing to create a better society?  Not overnight, but tweaking this and tweaking that, nudge theory, one campaign at a time.  And do it without losing sales.  Do it with your customers on your side, by making your customers proud to be with you, not fearful not to be.

Some brands realise this and are embracing what is being called ‘empowerment marketing.’  The Misty Copeland ‘Under Armour’ ad is a great example of this; and Always has been challenging societal stereotypes with its ‘Like a Girl’ campaign.  There is a fine line however, between empowerment and condescension.  Dove’s Real Beauty campaign is often cited as the leader of empowerment advertising – but they made a misstep too into patronising condescension with their ‘Patches’ campaign.  The fact they are owned by the same company who objectifies & sexualises women through Lynx is also oft-quoted by some.

Getting the balance right is always going to be difficult, especially when customers are mostly savvy to the insecurity you have been selling them.  They know the picture of the beautiful model is photo-shopped; they know even the models aren’t as beautiful as you pretend them to be.  So, there will be distrust and cynicism.  The only way to overcome distrust is to earn trust.

The challenge for marketing people is this: do you want to be paid to do your job and earn a nice, comfortable living?  Or, do you want to be paid to do your job, earn a nice, comfortable living and at the same time, change the world?


Top Tips:


Appeal positively to your consumers’ emotions

Be a positive force for good in the wider world

When using humour, laugh with your consumer



Trade on your consumers’ insecurities

Reinforce negative societal attitudes

When using humour, laugh at anyone


What do you think?  Do you have examples of any great marketing campaigns that show others how to do it?  Please share them in the comments here.  Thank you for reading.

Curious Decisions will help organisations and their people make more ethical marketing choices by showing you how to put those choices at the heart of decision making.  Interested? Get in touch.


  1. 12/09/2014 -

    […] less rules and restrictions for companies. This means that there aren't many restrictions within marketing ethics or competitive behaviour but religion usually plays a big part in many […]

  2. Emily
    13/09/2014 -

    Hi. Actually of course the advertising industry is regulated by the ASA here in the UK. I am really unsure what part religion plays – maybe it’s a bigger factor in the States? (I’m not sure where you are writing from). I don’t feel it’s my place to comment on religion, as I’m not a religious person, but I’ve not observed any impact of it in my 19 years of corporate life.

  3. 19/09/2014 -

    well sadly only the bad examples come to my mind 🙁 not long ago I was so frustrated about “great offer” that turned rip off (had to pay almost triple for internet access becuse the wording was not clear!) by one of of big telecom I took the time to post on their Fan page to warn other customers and let the company know what needs to be improved. Can you imagine no one apologized for the inconvenience? Is it so hard to say apologize and admit the fault?

Drop a comment

Curious Decisions