When a Sin Product Makes for a Sinful Marketer

by , Feb 27, 2002, 12:00 AM
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Man, I love advertising. As a liberal arts graduate, there isn't another field I could have possibly chosen that would present more ethical and moral dilemmas. This is an industry that tests our very souls.

I remember sitting with my fifteen compatriots at the end of Leo Burnett's training program in 1993, waiting for our account assignments. The first question everyone asked was, "Have you gotten your assignment yet?" which was invariably followed up by the next: "If you get Philip Morris, will you turn it down?"

At the time, PM spent about $400 million with Leo Burnett. Turning the account people down didn't win any favors, and the job market was about as bad as it is today. Through this process we learned something about ourselves. I learned where that line was drawn on my own soul.

At the time, I was such a goodie-two-shoes that I even worried about getting put on the Miller Beer account. I later revised my stance, finding that the people running that account were pretty fastidious about not marketing to kids. They were much more concerned about stemming the tide of Budweiser than fighting against the morals of sobriety and abstinence.

That became my own measure of whether an account was a "sin" account or not. If the intent of the participants was to promote acceptable marketing objectives, the type of product mattered very little on my moral radar. This logic would later allow me to help run the accounts of several other alcohol, gambling and even some software firms.

Sometimes, though, the acceptability of the objectives came into question. I was once sent to New York to get Philip Morris to spend a large sum on the then-nascent online marketing. After a few hours of meetings with people who ran the cigarette brands, I didn't feel comfortable. This was back when the companies were still testifying that cigarettes didn't cause cancer. It was malarkey, and I didn't want any part of it. I quit the account two-thirds of the way into the meeting, not because I wanted to make a dramatic exit, but because I was physically nauseous. I had thought that I could make it through the pitch, winning some much-needed money for a very under-funded medium.

I had uncovered that invisible line in my head, where my hard-wired programming just wouldn't let me slip any further into moral oblivion. The difference was that the beer marketers would tell you that their product, in excess, was hurtful. The cigarette marketers, on the other hand, were fighting efforts in foreign countries to limit marketing tobacco to minors.

The Denial

Other friends of mine found themselves slipping over that line, only to come back with regrets years later. A type of denial sets in with many of the folks. It's very human for people to rationalize that what they do for a living isn't contrary to the common good. I found that my friends on the PM account were very vocal in their defensiveness on the morality of cigarette marketing.

They would say that, since it wasn't illegal, it really wasn't immoral. And further, it is the corporation's very fiduciary responsibility to exploit the market to the degree that the law will allow. Like a lawyer for a client, the marketer's role was one of advocating, regardless of other people's moral perceptions.

As a political libertarian, I can respect that argument to a point: the point at which their stated objectives (marketing to smokers) varied from their actual strategies and tactics (appealing to minors, which wasn't legal). In law, both sides have an advocate. In marketing, only one side does, and that marketer does bear the responsibility of both intentions and actions.

Just Whose Sin is It?

For myself, I don't think it's smart to trust governments to define for us what constitutes moral practices or products. I think this needs to be something more personal than political. Besides, even if governments were good at defining morality, which government would you listen to?

Back in the early 90's, I had trouble with developing some creative for our McDonald's client because different countries found different things to be acceptable. We decided not to put one image on an online service because it shows a woman hiking up a trail with bare arms. Saudi Arabia had passed a law that prevented such risqué exposure. Had we run the image, McDonald's would have fallen out of compliance with that country's guidelines.

(This was one of the first run-ins the industry had with the jurisdiction issue that continues to haunt us today. Some of the hardest issues of today - like European Union Internet taxes and the banning of the sale of Nazi paraphernalia in France and Germany - have at heart the unsolved jurisdiction issue.)

A decade of marketing has taught me two things about the ethics of serving on certain accounts. The first is that the existing marketing staff constitutes the single biggest factor affecting the degree to which a marketing effort becomes a force for good or evil. It's the people and their intentions. And, finally, that choosing immoral marketing objectives almost always comes back to haunt marketers. Often it comes back to hurt brands in the marketplace, but inevitably, it comes back to haunt the marketers.

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