Shades of Gray

I cap off my “Introduction to Marketing” class at a local college with an ethics discussion. It’s not a lengthy list of thou-shalt-nots because, as I tell my students, there aren’t that many shalt-nots in our field. With the obvious exception of rules and regulations we’d be out of our minds to disobey (the Consumer Protection Act comes to mind), the fact remains that some marketing activities slip into murky, gray areas. Whether we find ourselves edging into these treacherous terrains involuntarily or not, it helps to approach such situations with forethought.

I ask my class to consider the following:

  • If you were part of a public relations agency asked to represent a cigarette manufacturer that wants to counter negative publicity from wrongful death suits, would you participate?
  • Would you use a spam email marketing list to help a client launch a product?
  • Knowing the power of latching onto lifetime loyalty among the young and the impressionable, would you employ rap stars, cartoon characters, or other youth-oriented icons to promote an alcoholic beverage?

It’s interesting to hear the mixed responses from my students. There are those who answer affirmatively to all the above scenarios, but I suspect their quick replies are colored by showmanship or cynical bravado. Most ponder the situations and squirm at their indecision. These are students who realize that marketing, and marketing communications, can be paved with ethical minefields.

The business of content development (which I consider a subset of marketing) is no different. Have you ever been guilty of the following:

  • Light to moderate lifting. I’m not talking all-out plagiarism. However, how many times have you picked up an idea or two from another author without appropriate attribution? What if you elaborate on the idea, add more meaning and style, and twist it so the core idea is hardly still recognizable? Is that “lifting,” too?
  • Hyperlinking and all-out content usage without permission. About a year ago, I wrote an article suggesting that we should ask permission or at the very least provide a courtesy notification when hyperlinking someone else’s work to our sites. One reader called me a troglodyte because, after all, hyperlinking is the way of the Web. Other writers told me they were flattered to find their articles linked around the world. I must admit that I, too, enjoy seeing my pieces pop up on other sites Still, it would be nice to know where those links are landing. For those whose mortgage is linked to payment per word, I believe (troglodyte be damned) that it’s important to recognize sometimes a hyperlink — or worse, reproduction — can represent lost income.
  • A “For Kids” section when your product is clearly for older consumers. Remember all the flack surrounding Joe Camel? Even if you’re not selling beer or alcohol, have you fallen into the trap of fishing for “lifetime loyalty” in inappropriate age groups? If you are marketing to children, do you do it with appropriate discretion?
  • Misrepresentation of e-research. Are you completely honest about what you will do with data collected from online surveys, registration, quizzes, and so on? Are your opt-out options tucked away at the bottom of the page where no one can find them?
  • Tentative testimonials. Are your testimonials posted with absolute permission to reprint on your site, or are they doctored compilations of a few good endorsements? Have you ever posted an email address without consent? (My advice is to err on the side of caution and consider an email address as private as a mailing address or phone number.) What about including in your client list organizations you did a minimal amount of work for over 10 years ago?
  • Bag of dirty clicks. There are a million dirty tricks out there to optimize search engine rankings and draw traffic. These include keyword spamming, seeding content with select phrases, and mirror sites (a virtual twin site with only subtle changes to text, keywords, and meta tags). Although your programmer may have a blast concocting these ploys, why expend the energy when you could improve content (a better way to ensure heavy traffic)?
  • Promising content that’ll leap tall buildings with a single keyboard pound. Ever overpromise to a client? A Web site is only one part of a marketing communications mix, and every site — no matter how inventive — has limitations. Even if you are the best content provider on the planet, the International Association of Business Communicators reminds us that ethical professionals in our field do not guarantee results beyond their power to deliver.
  • Pitching unlovely spam. Are there still marketers who spam message boards and discussion groups with blatant product pitches? That’s so ’90s.

Have a question about marketing ethics? Consult the code of ethics posted by the American Marketing Association and International Association of Business Communicators. Both are worth visiting when you see that gray area lurking ahead.

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