Bad Advertising And Irresponsible Marketing: Is It Worth It?
“With the strength of Zantac handling your heartburn you can keep on enjoying all the foods you love…”
This is a line from the 2011 ad for Zantac that shows a man loving all his favorite foods including pizza, burgers, and other foods that usually give him heartburn. The main message is that now you can keep on eating all your favorite foods that would have given you heartburn because Zantac is there to give you relief.
You can watch the ad here:
Do see something wrong with this scenario? If I am getting the message correctly, the company is saying that it is ok for me to eat all the junk food I want because I will not get any heartburn with Zantac.
To me that was the most unenlightened ad a company can come up with and really reflects on the values of that company and even the quality of its products. But that’s just me, so I thought of writing this post to see how other people think. Here is what I think about business ethics, consumers responsibility, and the changing trends that to me mean we need to have a bigger vision that selling more at any cost attitude.
Ethics in Advertising
Lets take a brief look at some of the main causes of heartburn:
1) Too much food in the stomach (overeating)
2) Too much pressure on the stomach (frequently from obesity)
3) Fatty and fried foods (Like burgers and French fries)
Interestingly, for a company offering a cure for heartburn, Zantac is promoting all three factors that contribute to heartburn in their ad.
Even if the magic pill they are promoting in this ad did take care of the heartburn in the short run, they are promoting other health problems related to bad foods such as obesity and diabetes.
Who do you think should be held liable for communicating responsibly with consumers – the ad agency who made this commercial or the company who is selling the drug?
Or you may say this is the responsibility of the consumers – they need to be aware of the choices they are making.
Indeed, we the consumers are responsible for the choices we make. We know what fatty foods can do to our health regardless of Zantac. We know that fresh foods made at home, preferable organic are better for us than all the fast food options shown in the ad.
But what if I didn’t know that? What if I didn’t grow up with the information and education I have? What if my parents were too busy making ends meet and I was left to decide as a child what to eat? What if I was an uneducated farmer in India and was relying on “good” companies to give me the information I need to make choices – what if the only information I had was what I saw these companies share with me in ads? Whose responsibility would the content in ads be then?
It is not a black and white picture when we start to think about market place decisions and whose responsibility it is. Very often the reality we experience is co-created by businesses, consumers, and other agencies such as the FDA. And very often the group with the most power has the most impact and therefore carries the maximum burden of making responsible decisions in the marketplace. But what about the responsibility to the shareholders, you may ask. After all a business is in business to make profits.
Can a Business Be Responsible and Profitable?
For the longest time we taught students at business schools that maximizing shareholder value is the only responsibility of a business. And we are realizing that the old paradigm with the narrow vision of maximizing profitability is not sustainable in the long run, not even for the business. If you are not sure about that last statement, here are some facts for you to consider:
1) Conscious Capitalism: Patricia Aburdene described conscious capitalism as an emerging megatrend in her book MegaTrends 2010. This trend also makes business sense as suggested by a longitudinal study over 10 years in which conscious businesses out performed the S&P 500 by a factor of 9:1 as cited in the book, Firms of Endearment.
2) Changing Consumers: A look at consumer trends in 2011 reveals that consumers are moving away from mere treatment of disease to healthier lifestyles that will prevent diseases and enhance their quality of life. Further, with the growth in Social-Lites and Twinsumers, consumers are actively discovering, creating and broadcasting content and sharing recommendations, which mean consumers have access to more sources of content than those generated by businesses. It is not easy to fool or mislead the educated consumers any more as they actively seek marketplace products and experiences that improve the overall quality of their lives.
Also see this interesting survey of 50,000 consumers in 14 markets around the world according to which 85% of the participants expect companies to become actively involved in solving world problems (an increase of 15% from 2010)
3) Social Movements: According to Adage, “Occupy and the saga of the 99% has become a bona fide international-social-movement-as-meme.” The Occupy Wall Street movement and similar movements globally are indicative of a collective action being taken to create a world that is more equitable and just. While there is no way of knowing at this point how this leaderless movement will end or what will be its impact, one cannot ignore the rising discontent among people against unethical business practices and the power they have to make their voices heard.
4) Quantum Entanglement: This last consideration may require some stretch of imagination but what if it were true. Quantum entanglement suggests that every single atom is connected in some way, where space and distance is not relevant. Watch this sweet animation to get a basic understanding of quantum entanglement. Meanwhile, if I may jump to the conclusion, what this implies is that we are all connected. What this means for us in business is that we cannot ignore the consequences of our actions on the environment and people involved because ultimately it will affect us.
Awareness of the impact of our actions on others (besides shareholders) is important not only from a spiritual but scientific and business perspective.
How do you sleep at night?
There are so many indicators out there pointing to the need for a new paradigm in business that will maximize the well being of all stakeholders and not only the shareholders. Of course we see what we want to see and I have selectively chosen trends that support my argument. But in the end, I am answerable to myself - if I am sleeping well at night and working diligently through the day with the intention of making the world a better place, I am content. Likewise, only you know if your actions are consistent with your true nature and if you are at peace with your self.
Going back to the case of Zantac, if you had to design an ad for Zantac, what would that be, given all the stakeholders and long term repercussions of your message?
For inspiration or different perspective in advertising see the ad on Patagonia’s website requesting people: Don’t Buy This Jacket
If you are an advertiser or marketer, how do you make decisions that juxtapose ethics and profitability?
How do you think we can be responsible and profitable?
If we had to recreate capitalism, what would it look like for you?
If this post made you pause and think, you may also find these posts provocative: Self Awareness in Business Education