Marketing ethics: How far can you go?

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Think of a city. Any city you like, anywhere in the world. Just pick one city and think about it…

You feel that you have picked the city of your choice freely. You have free will and you used your free will to pick this one specific city simply because you wanted to. Right?

Well, think about how you came to your choice. I bet you reviewed a couple of cities. Perhaps New York, Rome, Paris, Tokyo? And then you made your pick from those. How about Tel Aviv? I am sure you have heard of Tel Aviv, but perhaps you did not take it into consideration here. Or Miami? Or Cancun? You forgot to consider most of the cities you know!

This is a great thought experiment by philosopher Sam Harris. The instant I told you to think of a city your brain served up a shortlist. Three or four cities that were top of mind. Perhaps if you took more time you would have considered twenty cities, maybe even a hundred if you spend a day thinking about this. Still, you would not think of the majority of the options you have. Even though you are familiar with them. Strange right?

It is in fact quite an ingenious mechanism our brain uses to keep our lives manageable. We can only process so much information, so our brain makes some pre-selections for us. It is for the same reason we cannot see extremely fast or extremely slow movement. Our brain is not tuned for that, because it is considered irrelevant to our functioning and is therefore discarded to keep the data we have to process manageable.

This does however mean that we are perhaps not as free as we like to think. You were free to pick any city you like, yet your brain forced you to pick from a shortlist. You had nothing to do with selecting that shortlist. So how free are you really?

If you dive into the functioning of the human brain you will be shocked to find how many of your actions and thoughts are triggered by events you are not conscious of. Some people, including the aforementioned Sam Harris, even argue that there really is no such thing as free will. That it is just an illusion of the mind.

Take for instance a recent experiment conducted at a fast food restaurant. Researchers found that when they made the atmosphere of the restaurant more comfortable, with dimmed light and subtle jazz music, customers ate on overage 174 calories less while ordering the same products. The customers were manipulated into eating less, without knowing it. They were just more relaxed and took more time, which led them to feel full before finishing the whole meal.

Marketers, like myself, use the manipulable human nature to get people to do what they want. Buy a certain product, sponsor an event, visit a museum, anything. Basically it is the study of how to bypass that thing we perceive as free will.

This raises the question how far you can ethically go. A delicate subject that I think all marketers should think about. It is my personal opinion that as a marketer you are obligated to use the powers you have responsibly. So let’s look at the different aspects we should be aware of.

First, there is the problem I sketched above. Human behavior is manipulable and you have to tread carefully if you set out to use this to your commercial advantage. I myself, for instance, optimize retail environments to maximize their profitability. I am quite aware that this requires me to make people more inclined to spend money. Is that ethically correct?

The answer might seem simple: no. One might argue that we are manipulating people and limiting them in their freedom, which would be unethical. But there is more to this question.

First there is the depth to which the manipulation extends. Yes, instore media makes people buy more. It soothes them into a mood that might make them more susceptible to spending a bit more money. In fact, up to 20% raise in sales revenues is not uncommon. But have you ever come home from shopping thinking: “What the h**** is this? Did I really buy this?” You probably haven’t. Perhaps you have bought the more expensive alternative. Perhaps you picked up a packet of cookies that you did not plan. But you have never come home with something you really don’t want.

So maybe the battle for the consumer’s sympathy (and dollar) is more innocent than the free will debate suggests. One might argue it is even crucial to the endurance of our western society.

We found a system that works for us. Western society and its capitalism have brought us a level of wealth, luxury and commodities that is unparalleled. It is a system that makes sure that the majority of people can have a pretty happy life in relative freedom. It does imply that we need to persuade and compete. That is a direct result of the free market. Look around you, basically everything is made to persuade and manipulate.

So where do you stand? I think the subject is too complex to reach a definitive answer so I can only do as I feel is right. Again, I think as a marketer you are responsible for your own actions. If anything, I hope I encourage a few of you to be conscious of the powers of manipulation. Marketing education programs don’t usually cover the subject of ethics. I think they should.

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