On Morality in Marketing
Some marketers justify subterfuges with, "Our customers are intelligent people who research our claims." Nonsense. That is caveat emptor in a new suit of clothes. Nor can we count on the oft-quoted maxim that "effective advertising only speeds a bad product's demise" to weed out abuses. To take just one example, consider magnets with purported health benefits, a popular direct response offering. Blinded tests show that magnets have no therapeutic effect, a Federal District Court has ordered at least one magnet marketer to refund up to $87 million to defrauded buyers, and the iron in our bodies doesn't respond to magnets in the first place. Yet millions of people continue believing in and buying so-called "therapeutic magnets." Effective marketing has built, not killed, this flimflam line of products.
Hopefully you agree with me that out-and-out deceptive practices are harmful. Short of those extremes, there are varying shades of gray that will require judgment calls. David Ogilvy said, "Surely it is asking too much to expect an advertiser to describe the shortcomings of his product. One must be forgiven for putting one's best foot forward." Fair enough. Were full disclosure required in every exchange, none of us would ever have gone on a first date, much less sold a product. And while we can expect disagreement as to when putting one's best foot forward becomes misrepresentation, the very act of engaging in the dialogue beats failing to deal with the issue at all.
But when it comes to the darkest gray areas, marketers would do well to self-police. If the idea of higher moral ground fails to motivate, perhaps the prospect of obviating overly restrictive laws will do the trick.
Kudos to marketers who, at one end of the spectrum, showcase real benefits to sell legitimate products. Raspberries to marketers who, at the other end, find ways to deceive consumers while remaining technically legal.