Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Brain Hacking, Commercial Speech and Ethics In Marketing

I may be wrong but my experience in associations over the years, particularly on legislative committees, makes it pretty easy for me to see how a small number of individuals would have been able to get the American Advertising Federation and the Association of National Advertisers to file briefs in U.S. District Court objecting to the new visual marketing the FDA plans to add to tobacco packaging next year.

Of course when the government wants to use marketing to warn consumers, many marketers argue, as I assume this brief will try to do, that it is being propagandistic.  They argue freedom of “commercial speech” which is ironic since they essentially seek to deny freedom of information.

Many marketers view the new warnings on cigarette packaging as hypocritical because they still think of taxes on tobacco and alcohol as they functioned up until the early 1900s when prohibitionists supplanted them with the progressive income tax as the means of funding public services.

Prohibitionists and other groups may have been able to push through the income tax in part because so many people didn’t think they would have to pay it.  Southerners in particular relished the fact that the substitution shifted 44% of the tax burden to New York State alone, a kind of payback for Reconstruction and the prohibition of slavery.

Following the repeal of prohibition, taxes on tobacco and alcohol resumed but evolved more as “sin” taxes, used to curb consumption or recoup healthcare related costs.  So this is one tax where government is actually hoping to put itself out of business.  It is also why legalization of drugs is one area where conservatives including libertarians and liberals seem to agree.  Even after nearly 100 years, we have yet to fully apply the lessons of prohibition.

The argument by thoughtful marketers regarding the new warning labels for tobacco is that, if it is legal to produce and sell a product to the public, it should be legal to market it even if unfortunately for far too many marketing is still  restricted to just one element: advertising.

Fair enough, but it doesn’t appear that  new warning requirements will actually curb the ability to produce or market or advertise tobacco, just make it more complex.  The graphic warnings  are just based on the principle that many smokers don’t read text, nor do they have any idea the taxes in return that smokers levy on society in general in the form of healthcare costs.

As a marketer for nearly four decades in community/destination marketing organizations, I’m also very conscious of surveys about “truth in advertising,” which is just one element of marketing.  It is clear that neither attempts at self-regulation within the ad industry or the Federal Trade Commission are very effective.

It isn’t the 19% of Americans who believe advertising is truthful all or most of the time that worries industry ethicists; it is the 65% who trust advertising to only “sometimes” be honest and the 13%, or just over 1 in 10, who say they never trust advertising.  It is just one factor that has led to the dramatic decline in the effectiveness of advertising, as documented in scientific studies and leading savvy marketers to shift to other alternatives.

Creators of an award-winning advertising campaign for Montana were just exposed for using images taken of Wyoming.  It reminds me of an excellent classroom presentation a few years ago on ethics in advertising by former Ogilvy exec Chris Moore of Brains for Rent during which he described the very slippery slope down which the creators of Montana’s campaign fell:

“So we tell the truth - but not always the whole truth. We want to put our clients in the best light…How much of the truth we owe to others is an ethical question. In practice, the answer depends on who they are and what's at stake.”

It is true that there are very thin slivers of Yellowstone National Park located in both Idaho and Montana, and there are a couple of popular gateways to Yellowstone from Montana, one of which I used during a visit a few weeks ago, but the vast majority of the Park is located in Wyoming.  It was deceptive advertising and sadly there are far too many excellent reasons to visit Montana that are actually located there to take such an unethical risk.

When I arrived in Durham more than two decades ago to jumpstart community/destination marketing here, this type of unethical advertising was rampant in North Carolina.  Raleigh was claiming scores of Durham assets in brochures about that community, State officials were marketing the airport, which is located midway between and co-owned by Raleigh and Durham, as the Raleigh airport, Greensboro was blatantly advertising itself as the location of the North Carolina Zoo actually located in Asheboro and Charlotte was claiming to be the location of stock car races actually located in Concord.

Sadly, I had to pull out a copy of the code of ethics for destination marketing to get Raleigh to back off and then begin the decades-long task or rectifying the deliberate misinformation and reclaiming Durham’s identity.

The ethical issues surrounding advertising are also the reason why so many entrepreneurs find that customers prefer fee-based models even though competitors offer something similar for free but subsidized by advertising.  As one was quoted by Clive Thompson in Wired Magazine recently, “once you’re not just charging people straight up, you get into all these murky ethical things.  You have to sell their eyeballs.”

Of far more concern to me, even as an outspoken proponent of research-driven marketing, are the new ethical issues surrounding innovative new methods of “hacking into consumer brains” such as the neuro-marketing described in a Fast Company magazine article written last month by Adam Penenberg.

The article is about a breakthrough approach pioneered by NeuroFocus that according to the author “will collect the resulting streams of data and use them to analyze the participants' deep subconscious responses to the commercials, products, brands, and messages of its clients.”

It will only intensify the debate about ethics in advertising.  Will the “deep subconscious responses” be used by product developers and marketers to benefit consumers or harm them by plumbing into addictions for everything from obesity-driven fat and snacks and sugar?

People involved in marketing make numerous ethical choices every day, especially when it comes to the element of advertising and few are black and white.  One advertising ethics presentation likens an advertisement to a job interview:

“When you go on a job interview or a first date, you don't assume a false identity - but you probably don't make a full disclosure either. Chances are you keep your lactose intolerance and foot odor issues in the background…”

We know that consumers only pay attention to an advertisement for an average of 6.5 seconds and even though more than 80% of all American companies now have a written code of ethics, there are no simple answers.

With so many ethical considerations to be resolved, the two advertising organizations mentioned at the beginning of this blog are making a huge mistake by making product warning labels an issue of commercial free speech.  All this will do is further alienate consumers and make them even more skeptical of marketing.

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