Digital MarketingStrategiesProtect the Marketing Commons

Protect the Marketing Commons

We're on the cusp of a tragedy in the marketing commons. Trust is the rapidly depleting resource.

Is talking about marketing ethics a big, fat, thankless waste of time?

Practically speaking, yes. If history serves as even a modest guide, this is one of those lose-lose issues where we’re better off just crawling under a hole and letting other righteous fools take the inevitable bullets.

Then again, in this age of consumer control and respect, there must be some point at which proactively setting guidelines, frameworks, and principles around acceptable and trusted ad practices can only help a marketing space that’s already battered by skepticism, distrust, backlash, and rampant ad shielding.

At minimum, we should put a bit of backbone behind the avalanche of CMO-level pontification about the newly empowered consumer. If I had a dollar for every CMO speech waxing poetic about consumers “in the driver’s seat” (including my own self-serving banter), I’d have enough cash for a down payment on a Super Bowl ad.

Can we both abuse and pay tribute to the consumer at the same time? Inevitably, incongruent marketing practices create unpredictable, often regrettable outcomes.

Chill the Book Shills?

I awoke from my hibernation on this issue after skimming results from a recent study we did on consumer attitudes toward advertisers. Try this on for size:

Recently it was revealed that authors and publishers have been posting favorable book reviews on, pretending to be unbiased readers. If you had discovered this, how would you react? (Click all that apply.) Agree With Action (%)
Wouldn’t care 13
Would be disappointed 60
Would write to tell the company, author, and publisher what I thought about this practice 44
Would never buy from this store again 25
Would immediately email everyone I know 30
Would complain to someone like the Better Business Bureau 25
Note: Sample size is 700 respondents.
Source: Intelliseek, 2005

Before you spring the inevitable retort that what consumers say in surveys often contradicts actual behavior, I’m going to whack these numbers in half. Let’s assume only 22 percent would complain to the publisher or only 12 percent would raised a fuss with the BBB. Could we live with that? Can the integrity of marketing survive such skepticism?

If so-called influencers truly move the needle, can we afford even 10 consumers complaining to the BBB about shill practices? These same influencers, after all, are usually the first ones to get under the skin of elected officials or regulators, and we all know ultra-sensitive bloggers have the attentive ear of the media.

Marketers are trained to sense and respond to market conditions by nature. But in general, we usually self-regulate only at the last possible moment. We all but blew off any action on spam until California nearly passed the most draconian, punitive law. Despite nearly 150 million downloads of pop-up filters over the past five years, it wasn’t until last week Claria publicly acknowledged pop-ups actually annoy and alienate consumers. Hello!

Emerging New Issues

Problems are only getting more complicated. Message boards, forums, and blogs are loaded with faux opinion. Business-to-business (B2B) blogs can’t resist the temptation to play fast and loose with the editorial/advertising line. Blog spam is so out of control these days that even BlogPulse had to turn off “comments” so we could take a breather.

Though it’s easy to dis Armstrong Williams for failing to disclose he was on the take with the Bush administration, what about this author failure to disclose he slipped his company’s blog search engine into the previous paragraph? Where’s the transparency?

We need a meaningful conversation about marketing ethics now, especially in the word-of-mouth space, where trust fortifies the power of the pass-along. It won’t be easy, and the only thanks we’ll get will come from our children, not from other marketers.

Not long after the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) took a crack at ethical guidelines, a handful of “viral” marketers freaked and a children’s advocacy group publicly screamed it wasn’t enough.

These issues are way bigger than WOMMA. If the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA), American Marketing Association (AMA), and Direct Marketing Association (DMA) are going to use the term “consumer respect” in their vocabulary, they too must plunge into this thankless but critical discussion.

Here are some critical thought-starters marketing stakeholders might ponder:

  • Definition of transparency. What do we really mean by “transparency”? More important, what do consumers think it means?
  • Seeding and shilling. What’s the real cost of artificially seeding buzz or not fully disclosing a consumer’s relationship with a brand? Who’s accountable?
  • Sponsorship disclosure. How explicit should bloggers be about the nature of blog sponsorships? What’s the cost of bloggers being labeled as shills?
  • Product placement. Should there be some level of disclosure in product placement, perhaps starting with children? What’s the cost of inaction?
  • Truth in advertising. If a movie is advertised as starting at 2 p.m., when should it actually start? Do we have an obligation to disclose or compensate consumers for their attention?

Perhaps we’d all be well served by dusting off Garrett Harden’s famous treatise, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” It teaches us about the fundamental conflict between individual interests and the common good. Hardin talks of a plot of land used by all livestock farmers in a village. Each farmer keeps adding more livestock to the common, lured by the fact it costs him nothing to do so. Meanwhile, he’s blinded to the painful reality of overgrazing and depletion.

We’re on the cusp of a tragedy of the marketing commons, and trust is the rapidly depleting resource. If everyone puts another cow out to pasture, will anything grow? If everyone lies or is on the take, who’s trustworthy? Next-day return-on-investment (ROI) pressure compounds the problem by blinding us to the long-term benefits of tending to the common.

I hardly have the solution, and I’m sure I’m part of the problem. But I know I just can’t ignore it.

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