the role of ethics in marketing/advertising

An assignment from a marketing ethics class I'm currently taking...

How do ethics play a role in the marketing and advertising strategies of a company?

The predictable answer is that, ideally, the role of ethics in marketing and advertising is to enable the creation of a trusting, mutually-beneficial relationship between a company and its customers – a relationship that ultimately drives a company’s financial success by reciprocally delivering value to customers.  However, the question as framed implies that ethics is a separate, detachable component – an optional subset, in essence – of marketing and advertising. This historically persistent distinction has been the underlying factor in the operations of companies who, in an economic utilitarian manner, have evaluated business decisions on the basis of consequences for financial growth (and the accumulation of personal wealth) rather than societal, ecological, and humanitarian considerations. Money becomes the end result of a business process rather than one of several possible means of achieving greater goals.

By attempting to retrofit ethics on an existing business model, a meta-ethical quandary is created whereby the use or rejection of ethics in itself becomes a cost-benefit proposition. Asking how ethics can play a role in business thus misconstrues ethics in which right actions should be undertaken precisely because they are right actions and not because of any instrumental value they can offer independently of their rightness. (Obviously, the challenge is defining what constitutes a right action at the outset.) When instrumental value becomes the prime motivator, with or without the disincentive of punishment, the ethical quality of a business or individual can only be as strong and durable as the methods used to enforce morally appropriate behavior. This is evident in the cyclical nature of business in which ethical lapses with catastrophic results prompt more stringent regulations and oversight only to loosen over a subsequently uneventful period of time. Regulations are then repealed or weakened, often under the guise of promoting economic growth, thereby setting in motion yet another catastrophe that prompts, once more, demand for stricter regulations. For an example, consider recent events in the banking industry.

This is not to reduce the question merely to a problem of virtue ethics in which the challenge entails defining moral character, although that is a critical problem. Designing ethical social structures that nurture moral behavior while discouraging immoral behavior is certainly an important consideration. In this respect, structuring marketing and advertising strategies within a specific and measurable ethical framework is reasonable and desirable. However, if we accept that thoughts influence behavior then it is necessary to question the psychological segregation of ethics (e.g. through our use of language) from other human activities such as business, especially considering how easy it is to forego moral actions when economic survival is threatened. A better question, then, is:  what kind of business practices can be derived from any given ethical perspective? Also: what are the defining qualities of moral agency in an economy that uses business to further ethical goals rather than the reverse? Finally: how do we organize society, and the business practices within it, to enable individuals to develop the ethical skills necessary to participate in an ethical economy?

Whether ethics is interpreted as the ground of a business practice or its shepherd, there is no question that its role remains to serve as a necessary arbiter for a company’s marketing and advertising strategies. The reasons for this are, in practice, both intrinsic (the right thing to do in-and-of-itself) and instrumental (financially beneficial). Nevertheless, the ultimate role of ethics should be not to have a role but to instead blur the distinction between itself and other activities whether economic, social, or interpersonal.


Catherine said...

Mitt Romney's brag that if he paid a dime more in taxes than he could legally evade would disqualify him from running for president says everything you need to know about actual business ethics. It is therefore stupid (and unethical?) to care about the collective or longer term goals than immediate profit/power maximization. And that's coming from a guy who takes his religion semi-seriously as opposed to say, Jamie Dimon or Lloyd Blankfein. Chomsky's observation that only individuals have morals, but not states applies equally to corporations.

In Germany, corporations are, by law, required to include social benefit as part of their charter but how long before they adopt the American/transnational model? Contemporary experience tells that if a company can get around or away from ethical considerations it will.

Smaller businesses that rely on goodwill need an actual social contract of sorts with their customers, but that too is grounded largely upon profit or, in the case of closely held corporations, family integrity. Monopolized industries can get away with lying because where else can you go? Sure some schmucks like me will shop somewhere else but the vast majority will opt for the convenient. Our current legal system actually encourages moral hazard with nonexistent supervision, unenforced (if any) regulation and minimal fines. But even that is not enough as we continue to hear the yowls about tort reform. The pendulum may swing back but outraged citizenry are running out of time.

Frederik Sisa said...

Agreed. Unfortunately, the ethics class was heavier on marketing than ethical reasoning. Surely the very construction of our capitalism economic systems raises ethical concerns, but it's less than popular to raise that sort of issue.