“Ethical marketing – isn’t that an oxymoron?” I hear you ask. I think it need not be. Marketing should be true to the brand and, for me, a brand is a promise kept. Brand is vital for small businesses. So often, the business owner is the brand. We may have some brand extensions such as our qualifications or accreditations, but the core of the brand is us individually. Our brand is what we do, who we are; it is our values and beliefs and our overriding sense of purpose. We know the risks to our brand of not being ethical in all ways at all times.
As our lives become increasingly fast-paced and ever-more complex the opportunity for marketing to trick us increases exponentially and this is why I think ethical marketing is increasingly important. Let me develop the logic, the emotion and the response.
Technology develops faster than we do as a species. We know that often our modern day actions and reactions are little different from those of our cave-dwelling ancestors. We all recognise the “fight/flight” reactions that certain situations automatically produce within us. How often do we see groups of people all doing the same things and looking very similar – the “pack instinct” in us? As technology develops ever-faster, our natural capacity to process more and more information is increasingly likely to be insufficient to manage the excess of choice, change, stimulation and challenge presented to us by our increasingly complex world. I recently read a report identifying that the amount of data in the world is now doubling every two- to two and a half-years. This baffling complexity makes our brains hurt because the brain is unable to process the bewildering array of messages, possibilities, implications and interpretations presented to us. We need a mechanism to enable us to cope.
Fortunately, we have such a mechanism that we use without cognitive recognition. In many ways, the use of this mechanism is similar to other species who cannot cope with complexity. If we look in the animal kingdom, where there is less brain power available to the species, we see how they cope. Their intelligence is often insufficient to process all the information available to them, so they don’t. Instead they rely on single pieces of information.
An experiment by the animal behaviourist M.W. Fox, undertaken in the 1970’s, illustrates my point. The study involved turkeys, specifically mother turkeys. These creatures spent (and still do spend) great effort looking after their chicks; warming, cleaning, tending and generally looking after them and huddling the chicks underneath them. Fox identified that the turkeys doled out their tender loving care based on one single piece of information. Available to the turkeys was a range of information to enable them to identify their chicks – their smell, their feel, their appearance and so on. However, Fox concluded that the turkeys relied solely on one piece of information, the “cheep, cheep” sound of young turkey chicks.
Unconvinced? Fox’s experiment introduced individual mother turkeys to a stuffed polecat (it was an experiment conducted in America) – the natural enemy of the turkeys. Unsurprisingly, the introduction of the stuffed polecat invoked a response from the turkeys of squawking, clawing, pecking rage. However, if the stuffed polecat had within it a small recorder that played a recording of young turkey chicks making “cheep, cheep” sounds when the stuffed polecat was introduced, a very different response was invoked. The mother turkey not only accepted the stuffed polecat, but drew it underneath her. Switching off the recorder led to the vicious attacks seen without the identifying noise. This behaviour is known as fixed-action patterns. Similar experiments have been reproduced in other species, for example substituting the red feathers of a stuffed robin with blue feathers produced different behaviour.
Surprisingly, we see humans frequently also rely on single pieces of information. To take one example, how often do we look to see what other people are doing in a situation where we are uncertain, and then mimic their actions? If everybody else is acting the same way, that must be the right thing to do – right? Often we don’t bother to process all the information available to us, we just rely on one piece – in this case what everybody else appears to be doing. Just because everybody else is doing X doesn’t make it right. Everybody else is walking past the man collapsed on the street, so we do the same – ignoring his moans and clear distress. Maybe everyone else knows he is drunk and it is his own fault. Why bother to process any more information than the single piece of what others are doing?
It works in reverse (what people are not doing) too. When I lived in Japan, I had a visa that permitted me to enter the country through the passport queue used by Japanese nationals. Narita Airport queues were often long, and frequently there was great disparity in the size of queues at the respective passport checks for nationals and for foreigners. After a long flight, and before a long train journey from Narita to my home in Tokyo, the last thing I needed was a long queue. Accordingly, I went to whichever queue was shorter. If that was the queue for foreigners, I passed through without incident. Almost without fail, when I went through the queue for nationals there was pandemonium and great unease and muttered conversations around me, and several people would earnestly explain to me in halting English that I was in the wrong queue. My explanation in Japanese that I was permitted to use the queue for nationals led to even more earnest urgings to use the other queue. One piece of information, my looks, was all those around me (apart from the passport inspectors) needed to govern their behaviour.
So as the world becomes ever more complex, our brains come to rely more frequently on fixed-action patterns and single pieces of information. This makes us vulnerable to unscrupulous marketers who bombard us with erroneous information, as we exhibit more of a tendency not to process all that is available.
I want to be very clear that I recognise the benefits of fixed-action patterns and using single pieces of information. Their use can make our lives easier; I am not an advocate of the brain ache caused by considering every single piece of information all the time. When making decisions, we will less frequently enjoy the sumptuousness of a fully considered analysis of all the information. Instead we will rely increasingly on a focus on one single, usually reliable feature. Where those single features are truly reliable, there is nothing inherently wrong with our shortcut approach of picking a single factor and using fixed-action patterns to arrive at an automatic response. The problem arises where something causes the normally trustworthy to lead us to errant actions and wrong-headed decisions.
The “something” in the previous sentence is often the result of unethical marketing, aimed specifically at tricking us into the rather mindless and mechanical nature of our shortcut approach. This can be as crass as marketers adding canned laughter to a TV programme (everybody laughed, so we laugh too) or making up statistics to try to convince us that their products are the “fastest selling” products (Where? For how long? At a fraction of the price you are now offering it to me?) This is why I think ethical marketing is so important, and will become ever more important as our world becomes increasing complex. Marketers can help us to cope with complexity by giving us information that is genuine and does not pervert and distort. The treachery is when the profit motive tempts them to make their profits in a way that threatens the reliability of our shortcuts. To avoid brain-ache we have to have reliable shortcuts, faithful rules of thumb that we can depend on. These are no longer luxuries for us; instead they are increasingly becoming vital cornerstones that allow us to cope with modern life. Where we see unethical marketing we should shout about it from the rooftops and shame those who use it.
Better still, we should boycott the product or service being unethically marketed, and let the marketer know why we are so doing. Maybe I am being too cynical, but when I see a retailer, who has a price-match promise, increase the price of an item by 40% I begin to think. They get 40% more at the till, and give you a coupon so you get the money back when you next shop there. “No harm, no foul”? I think not! This is unethical marketing. You may get your money back off your next shop, but they get the cash flow and the return visit. The hyper-cynic in me is just waiting for the future promotion that proclaims “Great Price Reduction, Previously Priced 40% Higher!!!” Leave the item where it is and tell the store manager why! Better still, don’t use the retailer at all and tell them why.
It’s time to fight back against unethical marketing. Ensuring we market our businesses ethically is no longer enough, because unethical marketing is compromising the vital cornerstones and faithful rules of thumb that we need to thrive in our increasingly complex world.