Skip to content

New Challenges in Marketing Ethics

    New Challenges in Marketing Ethics


    • Identify ethical issues introduced through new marketing channels

    New marketing channels create opportunities for new tactics, but sometimes these developments bring new ethical challenges. Eventually society may establish what is acceptable behavior and what is not, but that process takes time.

    In the following blog post, marketer Augie Ray explains growing sensitivities around the appropriate uses of social media, and shares his guidance to marketers who are seeking to create a trusted relationship with their customers and prospects.

    Social Media Ethics on Display (or Not) During Week of Boston Marathon Tragedy

    Michelle Obama visits a child and the child's family in a hospital. The child is in bed; his family stands next to him, along with Michelle Obama. Instead of considering this in the abstract, let’s examine two brands’ actions last week, during the frightening events in Boston. NBC Bay Area posted a photo of a young bombing victim and implored people to “‘Like’ this to wish him a continued speedy recovery.”  This desperate attempt to trade on people’s feelings for a young victim of the bombing in order to receive a bit of EdgeRank-building engagement is horrifyingly unethical, in my book. (And if you do not agree, then please tell me how “liking” an NBC post lends support to or otherwise helps this poor hospitalized child.)

    Ford, a brand I praised for authenticity in my last blog post, waded into dubious water with a Facebook status update following the capture of the second bombing suspect. The brand said, “To the first responders of Boston: Thank you. You are true American heroes.” Nothing wrong with that—in fact, I love that a brand like Ford feels it can express sincere appreciation for the sacrifices of those who serve. The problem was that Ford didn’t post that as text but included it within a beauty shot of their products, complete with the Ford logo and tagline.

    Not everyone will agree, but I feel that Ford’s use of brand imagery not only reduced the sincerity of the message but demonstrated questionable ethics. Before you disagree, I would ask you to view the two status updates below—one Ford could have posted and the other it actually did—and consider three questions:

    1. Which is a more authentic expression of appreciation to people who sacrificed their safety to protect us?
    2. What does the product and brand imagery of the post on the right add (if anything) to the sincerity of the gratitude compared to the simple text version?
    3. Which version more clearly puts the focus on the heroes in Boston?
    What is the difference between the post on the left (which was not made) and the one on the right (which was)? On the left is an image formatted like a Twitter tweet from Ford Motor Company that reads To the first responders of Boston: Thank you. You are true American heroes. On the right is an image of two police cars with their lights on and a helicopter flying above them. The cars are on a road with dramatic lighting and are viewed from a dramatic angle. Text over the photo says To the first responders of Boston: Thank you. You are true American heroes. Sincerely, Ford Motor Company.
    The version on the left imagines what Ford could have posted as text while the one on the right is what Ford actually posted following the capture of the second bombing suspect in Watertown, MA.

    Issues of ethics are difficult to discuss. They often are not clear cut, and while it is easy to see when a company crosses the line with both feet (as did NBC Bay Area), it can tough to discern as brands toe the gray line (as did Ford, in my opinion).

    It is even tougher to see when you yourself cross ethical lines. If your boss wants to know why your brand has half a million customers but only 25,000 fans on Facebook, a sweepstakes to accumulate fans may not seem unethical. Your perspective may change, however, if you put yourself on the other side of this equation; if you do not want to see your friends becoming shills for brands in return for freebies and giveaways, then your brand should not follow this path. It is unethical to treat your own customers in a way you would not appreciate from the brands you buy or the people you know. (Fifty years ago, David Ogilvy, the father of modern advertising, expressed the same sentiment when he said, “Never write an advertisement which you wouldn’t want your family to read. You wouldn’t tell lies to your own wife. Don’t tell them to mine.”)

    We are roughly five years into the social media era, and I think perhaps it is time to reset our moral compasses, not to save our souls but to improve business results. Study after study demonstrate that consumers want something more from brands than silly images and memes; they want ethical behaviors and communications. The 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer Study found that customers increasingly expect brands to “place customers ahead of profits and have ethical business practices,” and Interbrand’s 2012 brand study noted that “Consumers… want to feel that the brands they love are, in fact, worthy of that love.”

    I’d like to believe this is always the case in every business situation, but when it comes to social media marketing, the ethical path also happens to be the best one for enhancing brands and business results.

    Before you click “submit” to your next social media post, don’t simply ask whether it will achieve its goal, fit best practices, or suit the brand. Ask yourself if it is honest, transparent, and ethical. That is a much higher standard, but higher standards are what consumers want and what brands increasingly wish to deliver, aren’t they?

    Open chat
    Scan the code
    Can we help you?