How can brands and communications experts operate in an ethical way?
As with ethical issues facing many professions, awareness is key. Marketing and communications impact people, in both positive and negative ways. Being aware that marketing/communications doesn’t take place in a vacuum, but within wider society where people can be hurt, deceived, offended, desensitized, and have their privacy violated, is crucial.
There’s work to be done around emphasizing the importance of consent and making consumers feel less like an object and more like a human with agency, by making people aware of exactly what data the company has, and exactly how it will be used, for instance.
How do you see the role of ethics in marketing changing over the next five, 10 years—do you see a growing demand for total transparency, or a move towards acceptance that marketing will serve to obscure the truth in some way?
It’s hard to give a completely accurate picture. Looking at the EU’s intervention with GDPR, we see a real recognition of the harmfulness of big data and privacy violations. There are also wider issues around technological advancement and AI that will have implications for how big data is computed, stored and used. So, it may well be that further legislation is introduced to mitigate harms.
I’m hopeful that companies will be more proactive when dealing with potential ethical issues. The current interest in ethics and transparency is due to companies responding to new legislation—the response has been a reactive one. But I hope that marketing—and other sectors—now take ethical issues seriously and will take steps to proactively engage with them.
Who does marketing serve—can it be a force for good?
It’s common to hear people talking about the evils of marketing. There’s a truth to this—marketing can sell gambling to children, get people addicted to cigarettes, undermine people’s body image, amongst other harms.
But it can do good as well. It can give people greater choice, make them aware of new products, of charity campaigns, and global issues such as famines and foodbanks. There’s also a role for marketing in a healthy democracy—promoting awareness about political policies and candidates.
Truthfulness is key here. Think of the case of the ‘£350 million to the NHS’ claim, that led a lot of people to vote for Brexit based on false information. If democracy requires people to make informed choices, then that doesn’t look like democracy at all. It’s deceptive marketing, which is corrosive on the democratic process.
On the topic of purpose-led marketing campaigns—can these ever be truly altruistic when they’re pursued by companies whose aim is to turn a profit?
There are certainly cases where profit and ethics meet. Think of Fairtrade or the Rainforest Alliance. These initiatives make a profit, but they do so by promoting an ethical cause. It’s conceivable that the same is true of purpose-led marketing.
Some say this isn’t ethical, because it’s ethics done for the ‘wrong’ reasons–i.e. for profit. Good intentions are generally considered crucial for truly ethical conduct. However, even if it’s not an ideal case of perfect intentions, we shouldn’t be averse to companies making a profit through improving or benefitting the world some way. The cases of Fairtrade and the Rainforest Alliance show that this can work.