The Future Of Ethics In Branding

Last year, I received an email I will never forget: One of the world’s tobacco giants wanted me to consult for them. It’s not that I’m a stranger to requests from the tobacco industry. In fact, ever since I published Buyology in 2008, my email address appears to be on every tobacco executive’s Rolodex. You see, among other things, the book addressed the issue of how the use of subliminal advertising in the industry was successfully getting smokers to smoke more. The fallout was spectacular, culminating in Philip Morris being forced to withdraw their $100 million sponsorship of Formula 1. After this, you would imagine the tobacco industry would not want anything to do with me. Surprisingly, they actually wanted to know more. That was the nature of the email in question.  

The email started off quite diplomatically, requesting I consult with them. Nothing out of the ordinary. The ending, however, left me dumbstruck. Like something out of a science fiction novel, the tobacco giant wanted six months of my service. The inducements were mind-boggling. They would pay me a fee that would propel me into a very comfortable, early retirement. Not a bad thought for a hardworking man in his 30s. The scope of the offer took my breath away. I had to sit down and take stock. My mother has smoked since she was 15, and I grew up hearing her coughing and wheezing through the long winter months. My mother-in-law, also a lifelong smoker, had only just recently died from a smoking-related illness. So, after much deliberation and consideration, I felt I had little choice but to decline.

But when my friends and family came to learn of this lucrative offer, they thought I’d made a big mistake. My own family thought me to be a little ridiculous turning down an offer that would guarantee lifelong security for a mere six months’ work. I began feeling twinges of regret. Was I too quick to say no? At the time, my doubt was painful and all-consuming. For hours on end I pondered the questions: Should I? Could I? Maybe...

As you can imagine, this was not an easy time. However, one year on, I’m convinced I did the right thing. More importantly, it forced me to think about the ethics of the advertising industry in ways I’d never done before.

As a brand guy who’s worked in advertising all my life, I’ve seen my fair share of ethical issues. To be frank, ethics and advertising don’t go together all that well. They are not exactly on first name terms. Pick up the phone and call any advertising agency anywhere, and ask them about their ethical guidelines. Chances are you’ll be met with an embarrassing silence. In the same way that there are few schools you can go to to learn advertising, there are even fewer where you can learn the ethics of advertising. Training for a career in advertising commonly happens on the job, and the ethical guidelines are filed away somewhere in legal departments’ archived rules and restrictions.

As a brand futurist, an important function in my role is to predict the future for whatever industry I’m addressing. In 2003, I wrote the book BRANDchild, in which I predicted that every kid would become a personal brand. Each would have his own homepage which would act as a promotional hub promoting the child's brand to the entire world. A bit like "I have a homepage, therefore I am." Facebook, the social networking site, was launched in 2004. In 2005, I wrote BRANDsense. In it I predicted that every brand would harness senses other than sight and sound. Today, it’s estimated that two-thirds percent of the world’s Fortune 1000 brands include a multisensory platform in their brand strategy.

My prediction for 2012 is a rise in the importance of ethics. I foresee a kind of WikiLeaks emerging to tackle the maneuvrings of less-ethical brands. The move will come from an independent organization with the sole mission of disclosing what those companies are up to. Most companies will be vulnerable to being targeted, despite having some sort of written standards. You see, in most cases, the small print is far too complex and removed from consumers’ daily reality. The safety net as designed will hardly save a soul.

So how would one go about establishing a true safeguard? As I said, I’m a brand guy who's worked in advertising for ages. So I’m not necessarily the right person to ask. Maybe we should ask the people most affected: the consumers. Last year, I began a study of 2,000 consumers in which I asked for their ethical perspectives. Their advice proved invaluable. We would be wise to take note of it:

  • Don’t do anything to kids and consumers that you would not do to your own children, friends, and family.
  • Every time you launch a campaign, a new product, or a service, secure an "ethical" sign-off from your target group. Develop your own independent consumer panel (a representative target audience) and disclose the perception of the product, as well as the reality. Let the consumers make the final call.
  • Align perception with reality. Your talents might very well lie in brilliantly creating convincing perceptions, but how do they stack up against the reality? If there’s a mismatch, one or the other must be adjusted in order for them to be in sync.
  • Be 100% transparent. Nothing less. The consumer needs to know what you know about them. Furthermore, they must be told exactly how you intend to use the information. If they don’t like what they see, they need a fair and easy way to opt out.
  • Almost any product or service has a downside, so don’t hide it. Tell it as it is. Be open and frank, and communicate the negatives in a simple and straightforward way.
  • All your endorsements and testimonials must be real—don’t fake them.
  • Does your product have a built-in expiration date? If so, be open about it and communicate it in a visible, clear, and easily understood manner.
  • Avoid fueling peer pressure among kids. Bear in mind you’d hate for your kids to come under such pressure.
  • Be open and transparent about the environmental impact of your brand (including its carbon footprint and sustainability factors).
  • Do not hide or over-complicate any legal language you must place in your ads or on your packaging. These should be treated just like any other commercial message, using a simple, easy-to-understand language.

My advice: The smart brand players out there should spend the next few years cleaning up their house. Honestly, you won’t find it that difficult. Furthermore, you won’t be forced to reject an offer that could fast track you to retirement. The worst thing that can happen is you’ll sleep better at night. Not a bad proposition, I’m sure you’d agree.

Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine's "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best–seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, was published in September. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best-sellers translated into 30 languages. More at martinlindstrom.com.

[Image: Flickr user Thomas Lieser]

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4 Comments

  • orson munn

    I have been in advertising and marketing my entire life, both agency and client side. While I have seen my fair share of unethical practices on both sides, I have also seen many within the business act with a great deal of integrity. I began my career at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample and they were known for their ethics and integrity on Madison Avenue. Today I have my own shop, and I demand that our people and our clients act with the utmost in integrity. While we do not have a formal code of ethics in the agency, my own personal code is pretty simple: "Never do anything where you will need to look behind you for something you did in the past". Seems to have worked for many years. 

  • Ellen Sonet

    Nearly 30 years ago, just out of grad school, I accepted a job at one of NY's biggest ad agencies.  My first assignment was on Nestle, a company I had been actively boycotting for its infant formula marketing practices in 3rd world countries.  I made a pact with the devil that I'd breach my ethics to start my career, but NEVER do it again.  After all this time, I still feel uncomfortable about accepting the assignment.  I applaud you for making the choice you did, and for wearing it on your sleeve. 

  • megan

    While your article and your work is admirable, I got the feeling you were implying that you single-handedly brought down Philip Morris's sponsorship of Formula 1, and it comes across as rather grandiose. I think it would have been better to say it influenced it.

  • KirkSoderstrom

    I tend to agree. The only place on the Internet where i see the claim regarding "Philip Morris being forced to withdraw their $100 million sponsorship of Formula 1" is on Martin Lindstrom's website.

    In Buyology, Lindstrom seems to understand the difference between causal relationships, and correlation; the comment above creates the impression that his book played a significant role in causing a fallout. According to several sources, the contract was valid from 2005, through 2011, at which point it was renewed. Am I missing something? (I hope that I am)

    While neuromarketing is still in its infancy, subliminal advertising was around long before Mr. Lindstrom was born. A 2010 article in ESPN showed that 'the Camel cigarette brand stopped its F1 sponsorship in 1993' (http://en.espnf1.com/ferrari/m.... Many factors shape these decisions.

    Looping back to the article's primary theme: Are exaggerated claims unethical?