Market ethics gone nuts

I love my marketing. Branding, products, advertising..Love it. However, it is also important to keep a critical look at it, and more generally, at market mechanisms. Market ethics are a big issue and it is every manager’s duty to keep in mind the ethical considerations of their actions. Sometimes, they seem to completely loose track of it. So get ready for a very left-wing, philosophical, one the verge of “naïve idealistic” post, which hopefully won’t be perceived as such, but rather as critical and reflexive.

A few days ago, I got really excited as I unpacked a book I had pre-ordered a few months ago (thank you Amazon!). The book is called “What money can’t buy”, by Michael J. Sandel. In a mix of light and serious tone, Sandel explains how our market economy has progressively become a market society. This means that money and market logics are infiltrating spheres of life where they do not originally belong. The book gives a few appalling examples. Schools paying kids to read books ($2). Lobbyists paying line-standing companies to hold a place for a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill ($15-20/hour).  Doctors selling their mobile number to be available around the clock for wealthy customers (from $1,500/year). Charities paying drug-addict women to get sterilized ($300) – sense the irony. These are just a few examples.

Can everything be commodified? It would be too easy to provide a one-fits-all answer. Things are not black or white, and such examples can lead to very long and heated arguments, depending on each stakeholder’s point of view and moral standpoint. My point is that, although creative revenue generation models and business initiative should definitely be supported, not everything can fall under a market logic; not everything can be up for sale, and it should be decided on a case by case basis.

Consider the schools paying pupils to read books. What mindset does that put kids in with regard to learning? And what value does it give to literature? Will these children consider that they must be paid to read course material when they go to college later on? (that certainly sounds appealing)! Are they ever going to support the book industry once they grow older, if instead they got used to think that they should get paid to read?

Here is a another example of the expansion of market logic. Product placement in movies. This is nothing new: James Bond movies are the perfect example, with a plethora of brands such BMW, Pan Am, Rolex, Omega, Heineken, …you name it.

More recently, The Great Gatsby was seen partnering with luxury brands such as Prada, Miu Miu, Moët & Chandon or Tiffany’s. The product placement industry is up to $8.3 billion in 2013 (11% increase from 2011) and brands are now even investing in movies, sometimes financing up to 25% of attractive movie projects with a luxury angle. Surely this benefits a lot to the movie makers and luxury companies alike, while making the final film production extremely aesthetically  pleasing…so what’s the problem? Isn’t art commoditized anyway? Who cares about having to see a bottle of Coke, Martini or pieces of jewelry if the end product is nice?

I leave this thinking up to you… hoping to have stirred a bit your consumer’s critical point of view on what you want and how you want to buy things.


Enjoy your day (and your book, movie, doctor appointment; whatever you are buying today!)

2 thoughts on “Market ethics gone nuts”

  1. Hi Lawrence,

    Thats a great thought provoking piece.

    The section about children being paid to read is horrendous, I can’t believe that anyone with any modicum of moral fibre would think that paying kids to read book is acceptable! Oh hang on, we’re talking about marketing aren’t we, my mistake! Back in the days of yore, when parents were up in arms about McDonalds showing burger ads at the wrong time of day, those seem idyllic, halcyon days in comparison now!

    One of the problems, it seems to me, is that someone, somewhere wants to make money from everything nowadays and thats whats leading to the loss of ethics. No sooner had Pintrest been launched they there were tweets flying around, driving people to blogs about how to make money from it and blogs themselves are now set up with the pure intention of becoming a money-spinner. What was wrong with ever linking something just because it was new or interesting. As soon as theres a potential mass audience for something, thats when ethics go out the window! Another irritating by-product of this, in a lot of cases, is loss of quality. Take Facebook, great place to keep in touch with everyone, floats on the stock market, now under pressure to perform, huge amount of ads and sponsored posts start to appear with no discernable improvement in ‘normal’ usage and people start to leave in big number for the first time.

    Most companies that are positioned as high-end won’t lose their marketing ethics (or at least not publicly) in the pursuit of the green because they understand what effect it can have on their brand and means they can charge higher fees as their item or service is desirable. Doesn’t always work that way though! In 2003, Cadbury ran an on-pack promotion where kids could swap empty wrappers for sports equipment for their school. Problem was, it meant kids eating HUGE amounts of confectionery just to get a relatively small item, like a basketball, and would have to spend 90 hours playing the game to burn off the calories consumed in getting it in the first place! To me, this seemed to say that kids health and well-being was up for sale, not a good ploy!

    1. Hi Steven,

      Apologies for the tremendously late reply, PhDing has taken over blogging recently. Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts anyway.
      The logic of money cannot and should not be applied in any instances, I agree. It however transpires in so many aspects of marketing, be it media, advertising, branding, or packaging, as the Cadbury example shows, and consequences can be horrendous. Ah but targeting vulnerable consumers is so easy, isn’t it?
      Do you find a way to embrace market ethics at Brightspace? Are ethics a concern for your clients, and do they ever try to position their brands according to such values? I’d be interested to discuss this further and meetup next time I am in Edinburgh!


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