Could Empathy Teach Marketers to Cease Fire?

Like circus impresarios or wrestling promoters of yesteryear, some marketers talk about their audience as if they are dupes or “marks.” If marketers were to consider how they feel as the “marketed to,” some of the most disrespectful marketing practices wouldn’t make it past the brainstorming chart.

As the father of a fifteen-month-old, I marvel anytime I hear people describe their hatred of children. After all, weren’t we all once children ourselves? Such passionate self-loathing from–let’s say–professional business travelers who otherwise seem to have a quite healthy hubris confuses me.


But I am even more perplexed by marketers who seem to have little to no respect for their audience. Because, while our time spent as a child might now be a fuzzy memory at best, advertising and corporate communication professionals are simultaneously “the marketer” and the “marketed to.” Ideally, we work for companies for whom we would be a potential customer, the best type of ethnographic knowledge possible. But, even if we are not the potential customer of the brands we market for, we are someone’s potential customer, and we find ourselves actively or passively on the receiving end of marketing pitches on a constant basis.

Despite that fact, I hear marketers constantly say things that defy all logic. Like circus impresarios or professional wrestling promoters of yesteryear, they talk about their audience as if they are dupes or “marks,” in carny or wrestling promoter speak: the aggregate of passive numbers (not people) that these marketers barrage with their “crap.” These professionals brag about the most people they can hit with direct mail campaigns, the return-on-investment of blast emails, the potential of nefariously infecting large groups of people with “marketing viruses” that will bring them powerlessly to a brand’s products or services; how long their list of blogger emails can get to spam with a pitch; and the large numbers of impressions or clicks that they can generate in order to have “sticky” and profitable sites, sometimes through programs meant to confuse people into clicking things, pressure them into accepting something they don’t need or even want, etc.

I’m not arguing that direct mail, email blasts, Web marketing, or other related fields are unethical or irrelevant. There are ways to conduct all of these types of marketing in a manner respectful of audiences. But the reality is often far from the ideal.

Take, for instance, this statement from a story on marketing a few years back that has stuck with me: “ubiquity is the new exclusivity”. In this case, the marketer was talking about a desire to barrage the audience at every moment, not to make the brand available for them to come to but to get in their face. In marketing, we apparently should want to be the bully.

And perhaps I should understand why. It’s largely driven by measurement. After all, we all do our jobs based on how we are going to be assessed. And, like that used car salesman who will say anything to get you to drive out of lot with that lemon, marketers find themselves subscribing to the Glengarry Glen Ross logic of ABC: “Always Be Closing.” ROI is so often measured without concern for the damage done to those who don’t end up a “return.” Hounding one’s audience might increase sales, but to what degree might it also increase deterrence among those who don’t buy? Measurement in many marketing circles doesn’t spend so much time concerning itself with that question, which is the only reason I can imagine why marketers would do everything in their power to harass the people with whom they want to engage.

Most marketers distance themselves from spammers, but the same ROI argument is an explanation as to why we get blasted with emails or blog comments for erectile dysfunction and fake designer shoes. After all, they must make some money at it, or else they wouldn’t do it. But, while spammers might not care so much what the world thinks of their products and services as long as they make a few bucks, I can’t imagine that the stakeholders of major brands feel the same way. And, as entities such as The Reputation Institute encourage us to look beyond momentary ROI and think toward long-term corporate reputation management, I hope that executives are becoming ever-more-sensitive as to how their company is being represented at any touchpoint with the audience.


People like Dev Patnaik and Peter Mortensen at Jump Associates have argued that businesses need to become Wired to Care, to put empathy for their audience at the core of their practices. In marketing circles, I must agree. I think that, if marketers were to think more often about how they feel as the “marketed to,” some of the most blatantly disrespectful marketing practices would not make it any further than the brainstorming chart (and, ideally, not even that far). But, meanwhile, marketers continue all-too-often blasting audiences with the same types of messages they lament as audience members. And too many, for some reason, seem unable to connect the dots between the telemarketer harassing us and the role we play with the audiences we bombard from our cubicle or office. We can only hope that our less empathetic brethren will somehow see the light and eventually cease fire, lest they slowly bring our brands and our profession down with them.

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom, a PR agency, and a research affiliate with MIT’s Convergence Culture Consortium. Ford was previously the Consortium’s project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work with The Greenville Leader-News and publishing a weekly column entitled “From Beaver Dam to Brooklyn” in The Ohio County Times-News. He also blogs for Peppercom’s PepperDigital. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.


About the author

Sam Ford is Director of Audience Engagement with Peppercomm, an affiliate with both MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing and Western Kentucky University, and co-author of Spreadable Media (2013, NYU Press). He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and a board liaison to WOMMA's Ethics Committee.