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Marketing & Morality: Moral Code for a Digital Industry

As technology accelerates, reshaping our world and changing the way we organize our lives, it brings new moral and ethical complexities that humanity must navigate.

Whilst what drives us may not have fundamentally changed, how we communicate, consume, shop, and form our ideas and opinions has. Digital has been the transformative catalyst, the key to Pandora’s box, unleashing increased creativity upon the world. As professional communicators, marketers, advertisers and opinion formers, our industry sits at the forefront of this creative and disruptive wave.

To build on a Marshall McLuhan concept, most of that innovation and transformation has occurred in the medium, and not in the message. Limited mostly by bandwidth, the message remains unaltered. We cling to banner and poster formats as old as communication itself.

Meanwhile, the number of channels and ways to share our message has multiplied. At the same time, we have been given almost carte blanche by government, regulatory bodies and the law to try an experiment with, and use technology as we please. Inevitably perhaps, this wild west, lawless environment has led to great innovations, but also significant missteps along the way.

We now find ourselves with a half-transformed, Frankenstein’s monster of a communications reality.  We face a crisis of fidelity – swamped by an exponential deluge of feeble, capitalised, ‘shouty’ statements of opinion and modified images, leaving society more divided and less able to ascertain what is real or meaningful than ever before.

Taking advantage of this brave new world is a new generation of experts – calling themselves ‘thought leaders’ and ‘influencers’, they meddle, peddle and pitch their ideas for us to consume. Whilst establishing their own authority, some of them seek to supplant and undermine traditional expertise, even though their alternative messages – credible or not – are indistinguishable by any traditional or reliable method. The traditional signifiers of authority, such as production values, provide no barrier to entry in a digital world where anyone can publish an article with little or no effort.

Digital space

In the digital space, individuals are represented by data. A cookie crumb trail of behaviors, what we like, what we read, where we visit and what we buy is captured, encrypted and incarcerated so that brands have an idea of what we might want to do, how we might behave and what we might buy from them in the future.

GDPR enshrines in law our right to our own personal data. Our data is as close to a manifestation of our digital self as is currently possible. But only the naivest would say we really have any control over or an idea of who has access to it and how it is used.

But as an industry, we have treated people’s data like monopoly money – treated our customers like slot machines – gamified, influenced, persuasively designed to within an inch of sale – and then used every technique to keep them coming back.

Tricking or manipulating people’s behaviors for financial gain used to be solely the domain of the shark, sharpie or fraud. Now marketers call it ‘strategy’.

At what point does the professional communicator become the professional con artist? It is up to our industry to understand where to draw the line.

Abuse of power or a lack of understanding?

A survey undertaken by Phrasee and Vitreous World, looked at both UK and US marketers and asked what best described unethical marketing practices and their results spelt loudly. Two-thirds feel that marketing which exaggerates and distorts the truth was unethical. Just over half were against marketing tactics that induce anxiety and fear, but only 40% felt a lack of transparency around use of data was unethical. It seems that there is no clear picture of what is ethical and unethical in a modern marketing context.

The poster child for unethical marketing practices is without a doubt the Facebook – Cambridge Analytica scandal, where our data was used to influence the outcome of elections around the world without our permission. But the examples are many and varied, with both British Airways and Marriot Group due multi-million pound fines because of poor data protection.

More often than not, despite the data and insights at our fingertips, we fail to deliver any additional value whatsoever to audiences. Bad experiences, less meaning, more spam.

A blasé attitude to ethics and a lack of value delivered to the end-user demands a response from the industry.

Regulation, Purpose, and Ethics: An Industry’s response

Technological advancement in our industry requires us to rethink and reinforce our moral and ethical codes for the digital age. In response, both regulation and brand purpose have risen in the zeitgeist.

Regulation can stifle creativity and innovation, and GDPR has created as many problems as it seeks to solve. As an industry, we must fix this ourselves, or face more limits on our creative freedom.

Purpose has its own challenges. Our industry is strewn with failed examples of Brands retrofitting purpose and values into marketing where they have no place or credibility. Pepsi’s infamous ad featuring Kendall Jenner is a prime example of this. The campaign’s message, that a can of Pepsi could unite both sides of the most divisive political movement in recent history, seriously missed the mark. Whilst the brand’s intentions were in the right place, it’s unequivocally clear that morality and direction must be authentic from the start. These cannot simply be retrofitted into an ad campaign.

It’s not all bad news though. Lush leads the way in ethical retail, and Patagonia tells you not to buy their jackets, setting the standard for other brands to follow in their footsteps. Purpose has its limits, but it can be a force for good.

Re-writing our Moral Code

If purpose and regulation are limited as responses to unethical digital marketing practices, we are forced to look to ourselves again to find a solution. As professionals within the industry, it is necessary for us to take on a shared moral responsibility of how we use technology and what we do with it.

We need to rewrite the moral code and design a better evolving ethical framework. One that is suited to a creative and communications industry that is now, fundamentally at its core, digital for good.