Gruen Planet chided over ad ethics

Gruen Planet chided over ad ethics

The hard thing about judging comments made on highly edited TV shows like Gruen Planet, is that unless you were in the audience during filming, have access to the full tape, or can easily speak to all those who participated, you never really know what claims may be out of context, or what subsequent discussions ensued that did not make it to air.

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With that proviso in mind, I found two comments made on last week's Gruen Plant (series 3, episode 1) by the MD of Pulse Marketing Lauren Fried, extremely disturbing. Firstly because of what they inferred about the ethics of marketers, advertisers and their clients, secondly because one million Australians heard these, and thirdly because they appeared to go unchallenged.

The first comment was made when discussing how the boy band One Direction had teamed up with Coles for an exclusive concert ticket promotion. Ms Fried stated "I just think any promotion is about bribery".

The online Oxford dictionary defines a bribe as an action to "dishonestly persuade (someone) to act in one’s favour by a gift of money or other inducement" and it would be reasonable to assume that for most people, this term carries an ethically negative connotation.

So given this it begs the question, in the field of marketing and advertising, is all promotion really devised and intended to be dishonest?

It's often hard to know people's true motives, and marketers, advertisers and clients are no exception, however from my experience I'd strongly suggest that for the majority of those working in and for the industry, this is simply just not the case. Certainly promotions like this are designed to act as an inducement, however I wonder if Coles would agree that their campaign was designed to bribe young people?

The second comment came when discussing GetUp's election advertisement, where it was stated that "Good advertising manipulates, and I was not at all manipulated …"

Manipulation occurs when one is trying to "control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly or unscrupulously" and "…alter or present (data) so as to mislead" (Oxford dictionary online). Psychological manipulation extends to influencing someone with the aim of changing their perception or behaviour through underhanded, deceptive, or even abusive tactics. 

From a marketing ethics perspective, manipulation is normally seen as just one of four possible ways to influence people, the other three being coercion, persuasion and education. Not surprisingly, of these four, persuasion and education (including the provision of data) are normally deemed morally acceptable, whilst coercion and manipulation are not.

Given this, if we ask the question 'is advertising's main objective to influence their target market in such a way that causes them to change their opinions or their behaviour?', I think most people would answer with a categorical 'yes'. If we asked however 'should advertising be designed to manipulate?',  'should we ever deem so called good advertising as that which is designed to influence its audience via Machiavellian motives?' and 'is the majority of advertising really manipulative?', I'd suggest the answers would be no, no and no. 

Now maybe the opinions expressed on the night have been taken out of context, or maybe the words used were just poorly chosen. Maybe a vigourous discussion did ensue around the claim that all promotion is a form of bribery, or that good advertising manipulates, but I and the rest of Australia didn't see it. Or maybe I am just taking the program too seriously about being a very lighthearted, humorous, however fairly balanced examination of marketing and advertising, versus (ironically) a sound bite festival piece of entertainment.

Nevertheless, it's a pity for an industry which often struggles to establish positive brand associations within the community, and for those marketers, advertisers and clients who work diligently and ethically within it, that last Wednesday night one million Australians were presented with the apparently unchallenged perspective that for marketers and advertisers, any promotion is about bribery, and good advertising is about manipulation – when in fact this stereotype is neither always the case, nor should it need to be so.

Doug Gimesy is principal at The Framing Effect  and teaches CSR, marketing and business ethics at Monash University and the University of Melbourne.