There you are, sitting at the café around the corner from work on your lunch break with your coworkers when “that topic” comes up. You can insert your own “that topic”, but we all know those conversations that may start innocent enough, but turn into something bigger, maybe even an argument which leaves you less than hungry for your lunch.
These arguments stem from beliefs we all have, what is right and what isn’t. What’s “acceptable” varies by person. So how do you market to consumers whose beliefs range from one end of the ethical spectrum to the other and who sets the standard of what’s considered ethical?
The American Marketing Association lays ground work for the norms of ethical standards in advertising. The three main points they focus on are:
1. Do no harm
2. Foster trust in the marketing system
3. Embrace ethical values
It’s the third that creates a gray area that marketers are forced to operate in. Spelled out verbatim from the site, embracing ethical values “means building relationships and enhancing consumer confidence in the integrity of marketing by affirming these core values: honesty, responsibility, fairness, respect, transparency and citizenship.” But don’t core values differ from consumer to consumer?
One example that comes to mind when thinking about this marketing challenge (and actually inspired this blog) is Subway’s choice of spokespeople. The catastrophe involving Jared Fogle is an unarguable fracture in ethical values and his actions were inexcusable. Subway made the obvious decision to cut ties immediately. However, the company took a stance on the ethical position of Micheal Phelps’ controversial photo with him smoking marijuana from a device was not enough to end his relationship with the sandwich chain. Their statement? “…like most Americans, we accept his apology. Moving forward, he remains in our plans.”
While the popularity of the legalization of marijuana was recorded by a Gallup poll in 2015, 58% of those surveyed were in favor, that same poll listed 44% thought it should be legal in 2009 when the incident occurred. But at the end of the day, marijuana wasn’t legal, so didn’t he commit an illegal act and present a tarnished image most parents wouldn’t want their children to look up to? What laws become acceptable to break by apologizing and what illegal actions are considered unethical? His actions created dialog from those who thought his actions were acceptable and punishments were too harsh to those who felt his role model status shouldn’t be taken so lightly. By continuing to use Micheal Phelps as a spokesperson, Subway made a statement to consumers that they didn’t think his actions were improper enough to cause them to cut ties therefore continuing to use him and condoning his behavior.
This example leads us to understand the decisions marketers face…how far should we go and what will be acceptable to consumers? Some company’s products, such as condoms, and specific target audience may set the parameters for the level of riskiness to which marketers need to stretch. However, there’s a thin line between edgy and ethical which moves according to the message’s acceptance among the majority of the audience. In a world where advertising hits an average consumer over 5000 times daily, getting those consumers’ attention may require towing this line.
Going down this edgy path leads companies to an obvious risk: offending the consumer. But, if in the example previously mentioned, American’s were offended by Phelps’ actions, it didn’t seem to slow down Subway sales enough to make headlines other than to call it a “snag”. Everyone seemed to have moved on and began cheering him on as he returned to his Olympic swimming and Subway eating. In fact, there isn’t even a mention of the incident on his Wikipedia page.
Marketers just need to follow one rule when it comes to ethics. Offend the least amount of people and you’ll be fine.
Brandau, M. (2103). Study: Subway ads succeed by relating to consumers. Nation’s Restaurant News. Retrieved from: http://www.nrn.com/advertising/study-subway-ads-succeed-relating-consumers
Hague, S. & Bradford, H. (2009). Michael Phelps Controversy. The Observer. Retrieved from: http://www.fordhamobserver.com/michael-phelps-controversy/
Johnson, S. (2014). New Research Sheds Light on Daily Ad Exposures. SJ Insights. Retrieved from: https://sjinsights.net/2014/09/29/new-research-sheds-light-on-daily-ad-exposures/
Jones, J. (2015). In U.S., 58% Back Legal Marijuana Use. Gallup. Retrieved from: http://www.gallup.com/poll/186260/back-legal-marijuana.aspx
Retrieved from: https://archive.ama.org/Archive/AboutAMA/Pages/Statement%20of%20Ethics.aspx