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Marketing: The theatre where every line warrants scrutiny

In the age of hyperbole, ethical marcoms in more important than ever, writes ethics expert and director of the Ethics Conversation, Jane Arnott MNZM

Marketers are not immune to ethical challenges as they juggle the task of achieving sales targets or increasing margins, along with maintaining consumer trust and confidence.

To date, ‘trust and confidence’ measures are unlikely to secure a promotion or a bonus – but sales undoubtedly do.

And yet, marketing is a theatre where every line warrants scrutiny. And there are major players who have major reputations at stake.

Marketing departments are not immune from ethical lapses – the moments where increasing sales eclipse all else – including good judgement.

Too often, however, the people that make up the marketing value chain operate in silos.  They may well see their role as one piece of the jigsaw but fail to piece it all together. And so accountability or responsibility falls away.

Cracks appear and outright deception, manipulation and artfulness take hold.

That’s probably a pretty reasonable explanation of how packaging and associated written content, designed to please and attract sales, falls foul of basic compliance – such as the Fair Trading Act.

From a company perspective, too often departments, functions and outputs aren’t considered when conversations about ethics or speaking up take hold. The governance aspect focuses on overall business behaviour without diving into the details of areas where risks accrue.

Marketing departments and the range of roles that feed into any product, be it financial or edible, are a prime example.

Turning now to chicken. Chicken and Herb tortellini to be precise, qualified by a secondary headline that refers to ‘succulent chicken,’ and then adds the visual association of beautifully sliced, juicy and tender breast meat.

All of this, I will argue, is seriously divorced from a list of ingredients that state 3.5% chicken in tiny font on the reverse. 

Could these headlines and subsequent wording comprise an accidental overstatement or a deliberate attempt to confuse and tempt the consumer?

Further, and above all else, has the opportunity to guide employees in their understanding and application of values such as integrity, honesty – along with speaking up – been overlooked?

Someone could and probably should have spoken up. This type of misleading headline is surely a breach of the Fair Trading Act. It could have been avoided.

Companies like Report it Now are geared toward listening and subsequently ensuring that an intervention can occur before a concern leads to a production and reputational disaster.

Speaking up is the one area that can save reputations if undertaken early enough. Speaking up can also be the backstop to ensure due process doesn’t overlook ethical considerations.

For example, had the product manager and product designers talked to the product tasters, and those tasked with the graphic design and body copy? Who was tasked with overseeing the overall accuracy and positioning of the product given its brand promise?

The company itself, Pams, is quite a namesake to us all. Under the heading of ‘social and ethical,’ Pams outlines that it plays an active and privileged role in delivering value, quality and care.

This is clarified to include responsible sourcing, healthy living, sustainable packaging and transparency around practices and production.

Truth-telling, unfortunately, is missing.

Controversy, we know, is not always unwelcome in marketing departments, but in the midst of a cost of living crisis and exorbitant inflation across food prices, truth-telling rises to a class of its own. It becomes very, very important.

Marketing departments benefit from vigilance and a well-honed understanding of consumer behaviour, even when times are tough. There are plenty of customers hoping to find value for money and this is well documented.

And so to the learning. Ethical pointers for marketers starting now:

  • Ensure any claims around features or benefits are able to be substantiated.
  • Recognise that becoming a trusted brand represents a substantial (as opposed to inconsequential) benefit. Trust is an economic driver and a performance enhancer.
  • Weigh it up. When something good comprises 3.5% and there is 96% of potentially ‘less good’ stuff – have the sense to avoid making a song and dance.
  • Aim to make claims that are meaningful and well-understood.
  • Check they are relevant and aligned with the nature of the product.
  • Review how all the claims, when read together, build on each other. Does something mentioned once – then repeated and amplified through photography and graphic design – become over-the-top and grandiose?
  • Ensure there is no misunderstanding around the inclusion of additional labels or awards that lack credibility.

In other words, Pam and all those who sail in her – show us your good side. Navigate a course that dispenses with hyperbole and achieves sales that reflect customer decisions based on their appetite for the actual product on hand. 

Disappointment will only make for the biggest letdown of all – your own.

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