Commentary

A Market For Morality

Things are going to get interesting in the world of marketing. And the first indication of that was seen this past Sunday during the Super Bowl. As Bob Garfield noted, there were a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle undercurrents in the ads that ran in between the distracting sub-story that played out on the field. Things got downright political, with a number of $167K-a-second ad swipes at the current president and his policies.

I and many others here at MediaPost have been criticized over the past several months for getting political when we should have been talking about media and marketing. But as this weekend showed, we’re naïve to think those two worlds don’t overlap. And that overlap is about to become even larger in the future.

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Advertising has to talk about what people are talking about. It has always been tied to the zeitgeist of society. And in a politically polarized nation, that means advertising’s going to "go there.” That’s normal.

What’s not so normal is this weird topsy-turvy trend of for-profit companies suddenly becoming the moral gatekeepers of America. That’s supposed to be the domain of government, and -- if you believe in such things -- religion.

That’s in a normal world. But in the world of 2017 and the minds of 53.9% of America (the percentage of the electorate who didn’t vote for Trump) there is a vast, sucking moral vacuum on at least one of those fronts. And it seems corporate America is ready to step up and fill the gap.

Suddenly, there is a market for morality. Of course, we have always had “feel-good” advertising and codes of corporate responsibility, but this is different -- both in volume and tone. It is more overtly political and it plays on perceived juxtaposition of the mores of the nation and the official stance of the government.

Markets are built to be nimble and adaptive. Governments are seldom either of these things. Corporate America is sensing a market opportunity by taking the high road, and the Super Bowl marked the beginning of what may become a stampede to higher moral ground.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Around the turn of the last century, we saw the rise of welfare capitalism. In a rapidly expanding industrial market where there was a scarcity of human resources and little legislative regulation of working conditions, corporations became paternalistic. The reasoning was that no one could better provide stability for workers than the corporation that employed them.

What's different about the current situation, however, is that this moral evangelism is primarily aimed at the market, not internal operations.  We’ll come back to this in a bit.

This creates an interesting dynamic. In a free-market economy, citizens have the right to vote with their wallets. After a deeply divisive election, the debate can continue in a market suddenly divided along political lines.

This trend is compounded by the interconnected and interactive nature of marketing today. We have realized that our market is a complex system and plays by its own rules, none of which are predictable. Social network effects, outriding anomalies and viral black swans are now the norm.

As I said in an earlier column, branding is becoming a game of hatching “belief worms”: messages designed to bypass rationality and burrow deep into our subconscious values. Our current political climate is a rich breeding ground for said “worms.”

You might say, "What’s wrong with corporate America taking a moral stand?"

Well, actually, two things.

There is no corporation I’m aware of whose first priority is the safeguarding of morality. As economist Milt Friedman said, corporations are there to make a profit. Period. And they will always follow the path most likely to lead to that profit.

For example, Silicon Valley has been very vocal in its condemnation of the Muslim travel ban -- not because it’s wrong, but because it jeopardizes travel for employees from Muslim countries.

A century ago, welfare capitalism spread because it helped employers hang onto their employees and gave them a way to keep out unions.

Even if morality and profitability happen to share the same bandwagon for a time, the minute profitability veers in a new direction, corporations will follow. This is not the motivational environment you want to stake the future on.

Secondly, there is no democratic mandate behind a corporation's stated morality. There are many CEOs with robust ideological beliefs, but it is fair to say the moral proclivities of a corporation are necessarily tied to a very select special interest group: the employees, the customers and the shareholders of that corporation. Companies, by their very nature, should not be expected to speak for “we, the people.” Much as we would like morality to be universally defined, it is still very much a personal matter.

Take just one of these moral stakeholders: the customers. According to Blend, a Millennial messaging app, their users loved the Coke, Budweiser and Airbnb ads, all with overt or thinly veiled moral messages. But there was a backlash from Trump supporters asking for boycotts of all these advertisers along with others that got political.

The social storms stirred up on both sides were telling. Reaction was quick and emotionally charged. In a world where branding and beliefs are locked together at the hip, we can probably expect that morality and marketing will be similarly conjoined. That means that morality, just like marketing, will be segmented and targeted to very specific groups.

3 comments about "A Market For Morality".
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  1. Randall Tinfow from CLICK-VIDEO LLC, February 7, 2017 at 8:34 p.m.

    On target. 

    Easy to be cynical about corporations who pay minimum wage, take advantage of employees, and deliver tear jerking immigrant stories. 

    The commercialization of hypocrisy is nauseating.

  2. Jonathan Hutter from EMHS (Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems), February 8, 2017 at 11:43 a.m.

    Corporations have been taking stands about America through marketing for generations. See America in a Chevrolet, solid as a rock, etc. All have an undercurrent of American values. It seems the tide has changed in that stating these values is seen as more overtly political, and is seen as in opposition to current majorities in Federal government. 

    Curious though, these marketing approaches seem to be paying returns more quickly than previously. Budweiser certainly has received more notice and talk value than its previous Clydesdale/Americana ads. At this point, the boycott group is so small, a recognition like that should be considered further success. 

  3. John Grono from GAP Research, February 8, 2017 at 5:13 p.m.

    Gord, you raise a good question about people playing the morality card and trying to divorce the current political situation with the fact that this forum is centred on the media industry.

    It may just be my opinions from afar, and you would be in a much better place to judge than I am, but it seems that many of those crying foul and demanding that political comment now be gagged were amongst those most critical of the previous administration who are now finding a new morality.   Any modicum of truth to that in your opinion?   (Or should I just stick with it as an 'alternative fact'?)

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