Archive for the ‘advertising’ Category

Unethical Innovation

Innovation is a hot topic these days, and has been an important buzzword in business for some time. As Simon Johnson and James Kwak point out in their book, 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown, innovation is almost by definition taken to be a good thing. But, they also point out, it’s far from obvious that innovation is in fact always good. They focus especially on financial innovation, which they say has in at least some instances led to financial instruments that are too complex for purchasers to really understand. Innovation in the area of finance — often lionized as crucial to rendering markets more efficient and hence as a key driver of social wealth — is actually subject to ethical criticism, or at least caution. And the worry is not just that particular innovations in this area have been problematic. The worry is that the pace of innovation has made it hard for regulators, investors, and ratings agencies to keep up.

In what other cases is “innovation” bad, or at least suspect? One other example of an area in which innovation might be worrisome is in advertising. Consider the changes in advertising over the last 100 years. Not only have new media emerged, but so have new methods, new ways of grabbing consumers’ attention. Not all of those innovations have been benign. When innovative methods have been manipulative — subliminal advertising is a key example — they’ve been subject to ethical critique.

Some people would also add the design and manufacture of weaponry to the list. But then, almost all innovations by arms manufacturers have some legitimate use. Landmines and cluster bombs are controversial, largely because of their tendency to do too much “collateral dammage” (i.e., to kill civilians). But they do both have legitimate military uses. So it’s debatable whether the innovation, itself, is bad, instead of just the particular use of the innovation.

Are there other realms in which innovation, generally taken to be a good thing, is actually worrisome? One caveat: the challenge, here, is to point out problematic fields of innovation without merely sounding like a luddite.

HuffPo, AOL and the Ethics of Unpaid Labour

AOL bought the Huffington Post this week. Now, many of HuffPo’s volunteer bloggers are up in arms, accusing the left-leaning news-and-aggregation site of two related crimes: selling out to a (presumably) evil corporate media giant, and failing to share the wealth with thousands of volunteer bloggers who, over the years, have contributed probably millions of words to HuffPo’s archive of content.

But criticism was not limited to the volunteer bloggers themselves. Tim Rutton, of the LA Times, wrote:

To grasp its business model, though, you need to picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates….

Adbusters — the slightly-past-its-best-before-date organization whose sole purpose is to bash capitalism and consumerism — put it this way:

Socialite Arianna Huffington built a blog-empire on the backs of thousands of citizen journalists. She exploited our idealism and let us labor under the illusion that the Huffington Post was different, independent and leftist. Now she’s cashed in and three thousand indie bloggers find themselves working for a megacorp….

On the face of it, this sounds like a strong criticism. Use unpaid labour to build a truly massive (and profitable) online presence. Keep that unpaid labour in the fold by espousing values they believe in. And then sell out for hundreds of millions to a corporation that almost certainly could not care less about the aforementioned values. It really does sound tantamount to slavery, with a touch of ideological treason thrown in for good measure. But to understand this better, we need to know a little more about the economics of blogging. As a good starting point, see this piece by stats guru Nate Silver: The Economics of Blogging and The Huffington Post

The fact is, however, that sentiments like [the LA Times’s] Mr. Rutten’s reflect a misunderstanding of The Huffington Post’s business model. Although The Huffington Post does not pay those who volunteer to write blogs for it, this content represents only a small share of its traffic. And, to put it bluntly, many of those blog posts aren’t worth very much….

Silver goes on to be much more specific, calculating the likely dollar value of the contribution of the average volunteer HuffPo Blogger.

The point is that for something over 99% of bloggers, blogging is a hobby. The contribution of most HuffPo bloggers to the website’s success is minimal. Those thousands of volunteer bloggers on whose “backs” HuffPo was supposedly built were likely more important as audience than as generators of content. Should the volunteer bloggers feel jilted? I’m reminded of a commercial from a few years back, in which a mom consoles her 8-year-old boy whose team just lost a game of soccer or hockey or something. “Did you try your hardest?”, asks the mom. “And did you have a good time? That’s all that really matters.”

Of course, if the volunteer bloggers are worried about the integrity of HuffPo’s editorial voice, you would think they would be somewhat consoled by the fact that Arianna Huffington is retaining the reins in that regard, and in fact will be gaining the key editorial role at AOL as a whole. But then, that’s reason why the rest of us should be deeply concerned, given Huffington’s penchant for featuring dangerously bad pieces related to things like healthcare, including some that are the intellectual equivalent of evolution denial.

Groupon Does the Right Thing

On Monday I blogged about the controversy over the Groupon.com ad that played during the Super Bowl, which made light of the plight of the people of Tibet. I suggested the ad was deeply disrespectful, and even played (perhaps unintentionally) on some unfortunate stereotypes. (See Groupon Super Bowl Ad: Unethical.)

Now it seems the company is taking the widespread criticism to heart, and pulling both the Tibet ad and the others in that series. Here’s the story, by Wailin Wong for the LA Times: Groupon pulls controversial ads

Groupon Inc. Chief Executive Andrew Mason said the Chicago-based daily deals provider is pulling all of the Super Bowl ads that had provoked a negative reaction online over the weekend.

“We hate that we offended people, and we’re very sorry that we did – it’s the last thing we wanted,” Mason wrote in a blog post on Thursday, adding: “We will run something less polarizing instead. We thought we were poking fun at ourselves, but clearly the execution was off and the joke didn’t come through. I personally take responsibility; although we worked with a professional ad agency, in the end, it was my decision to run the ads….”

Now, Groupon (and in particular, CEO Mason) seem genuinely contrite; they appear not to have foreseen the public reaction to their ads. Some might speculate, cynically, that they were actually banking on the controversy and the free publicity it would bring, but I see no evidence of that. Well, better late than never I guess. But even better would be a corporate culture that empowered insiders to say, at some point during the planning & production process, “Hmm, is this really a good idea?”

Groupon Super Bowl Ad: Unethical

A collective gasp could be heard at one particular moment last night during the Super Bowl. No, I’m not talking about the gasp following Nick Collins’ 37 yard touchdown run in the first quarter. I’m talking about the gasp that issued at the punchline of the now-infamous Groupon.com commercial featuring Timothy Hutton.

You can see the 30-second spot here, on YouTube: Groupon – Tibet

And here’s the entire transcript:

“Mountainous Tibet — one of the most beautiful places in the world. This is Timothy Hutton. The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture is in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry. And since 200 of us bought at Groupon.com we’re getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15 at Himalayan Restaurant in Chicago.”

Immediately following the commercial’s appearance, Twitter lit up with comments about how “offensive” and “tasteless” the Groupon.com commercial was. Media outlets today have been abuzz with criticism and commentary. The headlines tell the tale. According to NBC Chicago: “Groupon Super Bowl Ad Not a Good Deal”. CNN Money.com‘s headline was “Groupon spends big on controversial (tasteless?) Super Bowl spots”. Time asks: “And the Most Offensive Super Bowl Ad Goes To: Groupon?”

But the ad was more than just tasteless. It was unethical. To recruit — and then trivialize — the plight of the people of Tibet to sell Groupon’s services shows a jaw-dropping level of disrespect. And while we often think of disrespect as a matter of bad manners, showing suitable respect for other humans’ basic needs and interets is a core moral principle.

It’s also worth pointing out that the commercial played, perhaps unintentionally, on the unfortunate fact that, for many westerners, complex Asian societies are often most closely associated with exotic dinner fare. Yes, yes, Tibet is exotic and troubled. But hey, they make a yummy curry!

Who knows just what the fallout will be? There have been predictions that Groupon will lose business over this — it’s been suggested that the company may have found the limit of the notion that “there’s no such thing as bad PR.” And, predictably, there have already been calls for a boycott of Groupon.com. Timothy Hutton (once an Academy Award winner) will likely have to go into the spokesperson’s equivalent of rehab, perhaps by working with a pro-Tibet charity of some sort.

Of course, some will cling to the notion that Groupon.com intended all this — that they knew the ad would be controversial, and were aiming directly at the enormous amount of free media coverage they’re now getting. Maybe that’s true. But it was a helluva gamble to take. And, if it was a gamble, it was a gamble that treated the people of Tibet as just another Asian trinket to be tossed in among the poker chips.
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Addition:
It’s been pointed out to me (by @Changents on Twitter) that Groupon is apparently donating money to the causes featured in its commercials. See: http://savethemoney.groupon.com/. I’m not at all sure that that’s sufficient to overcome the worries discussed above, especially given that the disrespectful commercials is all that most people will see or know about. What do you think?

Pepsi Makes the Best of a Super Bowl-Free Sunday

Talk about making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. PepsiCo has managed to make a win out of not sponsoring the biggest advertising event of the year.

See the story here, by Jennifer Preston of the NYT: Pepsi Bets on Local Grants, Not the Super Bowl

What’s better than reaching more than 100 million viewers during last year’s Super Bowl? For Pepsi, it could be 6,000 football fans during a high school game on Friday night in central Texas. Or a group of parents who wanted a new playground in their Las Vegas neighborhood.

That is the bet that PepsiCo made when it walked away from spending $20 million on television spots for Pepsi during last year’s Super Bowl and plowed the money into a monthly online contest for people to submit their ideas and compete for votes to win grants….

This is the first time in 23 years that Pepsi isn’t a sponsor of the Super Bowl. How did this happen? Who knows. Maybe the price-tag got too rich for them. Maybe they got outbid. (Though it’s worth noting that PepsiCo won’t be entirely absent from the Super Bowl: the game will feature ads for two of the company’s other brands, Pepsi Max and Doritos.) At any rate, Pepsi says it’s just a new strategy. Interestingly, they say — despite the fact that this new strategy involves giving millions of dollars to good causes — it’s not a philanthropic strategy:

“This was not a corporate philanthropy effort,” said Shiv Singh, head of digital for PepsiCo Beverages America. “This was using brand dollars with the belief that when you use these brand dollars to have consumers share ideas to change the world, the consumers will win, the brand will win, and the community will win.

It’s an interesting move. For one thing, it brings together cause-based marketing and social media on a supersized scale. And to me, whatever the motivation for the move, it’s a true-and-justified instance of corporate social responsibility. It’s not ethically obligatory: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing things the old way. It’s not unethical to spend $20 million-plus on commercials for the Super Bowl, like they did last year. And it’s not obligatory to support dozens or hundreds of local causes. So think of it this way: PepsiCo has $20 million to spend on building its brand. It had to choose a strategy, a choice regarding how to spend that money. They could give it to the NFL, or they could give it to a bunch of worthy charities. If they can achieve their objectives (and hence fulfill obligations to shareholders) while at the same time doing some social good, that’s a good example of CSR.

As the company says, though, it’s a gamble. But as gambles go, they’re sure making the best of it. PepsiCo is turning not sponsoring the Super Bowl into a straight-up victory, rather than a defeat. And notice also that, with the right media coverage, Pepsi still gets its name associated with the Super Bowl.

MTV’s “Skins”: The Ethics of Profiting from Teen Sexuality

There’s been a lot of chatter in the last few days about MTV’s teensploitation show, “Skins.” Of course, one theory says that that’s just what MTV has been hoping for — a lot of free advertizing.

I’m quoted giving a business-ethics perspective on the show in this story, by the NYT’s David Carr: “A Naked Calculation Gone Bad.”

What if one day you went to work and there was a meeting to discuss whether the project you were working on crossed the line into child pornography? You’d probably think you had ended up in the wrong room.

And you’d be right.

Last week, my colleague Brian Stelter reported that on Tuesday, the day after the pilot episode of “Skins” was shown on MTV, executives at the cable channel were frantically meeting to discuss whether the salacious teenage drama starring actors as young as 15 might violate federal child pornography statutes.

Since I’m quoted in that story, I’ll just cut to my own conclusion:

“Even if you decide that this show is not out-and-out evil and that the show is legal from a technical perspective, that doesn’t really eliminate the significant social and ethical issues it raises,” said Chris MacDonald, a visiting scholar at the University of Toronto’s Clarkson Center for Business Ethics and author of the Business Ethics Blog. “Teenagers are both sexual beings and highly impressionable, and because of that, they’re vulnerable to just these kinds of messages. You have to wonder if there isn’t a better way to make a living.”

I wouldn’t bet one way or the other on how this will turn out — in particular on whether pressure from advocacy groups and advertisers will convince MTV to can the show. If it does, then this controversy turns into a nice example of how just the wrong kind of corporate culture can produce bad results. Consider: there are an awful lot of people involved in conceiving and producing, and airing a TV drama. In order for Skins to make it to air, a lot of people had to spend months and months going with the flow, basically saying to themselves and each other “Yes, it is a really good idea to show teens this way, to use teen actors this way, and to market this kind of show to teens.” Hundreds of people involved in the production must have either thought it was a good idea, or thought otherwise but decided they couldn’t speak up. If this turns out badly, MTV will have provided yet another example of how things can go badly when employees aren’t encouraged and empowered to speak up and to voice dissent.

Greenpeace, Tar Sands and “Fighting Fire With Fire”

Do higher standards apply to advertising by industry than apply to advertising by nonprofits? Is it fair to fight fire with fire? Do two wrongs make a right?

See this item, by Kevin Libin, writing for National Post: Yogourt fuels oil-sands war.

Here’s what is apparently intolerable to certain environmental groups opposed to Alberta’s oil sands industry: an advertisement that compares the consistency of tailings ponds to yogourt.

Here’s what is evidently acceptable to certain environmental groups opposed to Alberta’s oil sands industry: an advertisement warning that a young biologist working for Devon Energy named Megan Blampin will “probably die from cancer” from her work, and that her family will be paid hush money to keep silent about it….

It’s worth reading the rest of the story to get the details. Basically, the question is about the standards that apply to advertising by nonprofit or activist groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. But it’s also more specifically about whether it’s OK for such groups to get personal by including in their ads individual employees of the companies they are targeting.

A few quick points:

  • Many people think companies deserve few or no protections against attacks. Some people, for example, think companies should not even be able to sue for slander or libel. Likewise, corporations (and other organizations) do not enjoy the same regulatory protections and ethical standards that protect individual humans when they are the subjects of university-based research. Corporations may have, of necessity, certain legal rights, but not the same list (and not as extensive a list) as the list of rights enjoyed by human persons. So people are bound to react differently when activist groups attack (or at least name) individual human persons, as opposed to “merely” attacking corporations.
  • Complicating matters is the fact that the original ads (by Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, or CAPP) themselves featured those same individual employees. So the employees had presumably already volunteered to be put in the spotlight. But of course, they volunteered to be put in the spotlight in a particular way.
  • For many people, the goals of the organizations in question will matter. So the fact that Greenpeace and the Sierra Club are trying literally to save the world (rather than aiming at something more base, like filthy lucre) might be taken as earning them a little slack. In other words, some will say that the ends justify the means. On the other hand, the particular near-term goals of those organizations are not shared by everyone. And not everyone thinks that alternative goals (like making a profit, or like keeping Canadians from freezing to death in winter) are all that bad.
  • Others might say that, being organizations explicitly committed to doing good, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club ought to be entirely squeaky-clean. If they can’t be expected to keep their noses clean, who can? On the other hand, some might find that just a bit precious. Getting the job done is what matters, and it’s not clear that an organization with noble goals wins many extra points for conducting itself in a saintly manner along the way.

(I’ve blogged about the tar sands and accusations of greenwashing, here: Greenwashing the Tar Sands.)

Thanks to LW for sending me this story.

UNICEF’s Deal With Cadbury: A Trick, or a Treat?

This is now an entire genre of ethics stories, involving a charity facing criticism for aligning itself with a corporate sponsor whose values seem inconsistent with its own.

Here’s the story, by Carly Weeks, for the Globe and Mail: UNICEF sold out by making deal with Cadbury, medical journal says

One of the world’s most influential medical journals is accusing UNICEF Canada of selling out its values by allowing candy giant Cadbury to use its logo to sell Halloween candy.
In an editorial published online Saturday, the Lancet slammed UNICEF Canada for accepting $500,000 from Cadbury Adams Canada Inc. over a three-year period for construction of schools in Africa in exchange for allowing the company to plaster the iconic – and valuable – UNICEF logo on millions of product packages a year….

Just a few thoughts:

1) It seems to me that the worry expressed in the editorial is really that UNICEF is promoting candy, and candy is unhealthy. I’m no marketing expert, but I strongly suspect that if UNICEF’s tacit endorsement does anything at all, it won’t be to boost anyone’s consumption of candy. Rather, it will be to increase sales of Cabury’s candy relative to other brands.

2) Candy isn’t evil. Eating too much candy, too often, is bad for you. But candy is fun. While obesity trends are not irrelevant, here, I’m not sure we need to demonize candy to such an extent that all association with it is considered toxic.

3) It’s worth thinking carefully about the mutual benefits that come from the UNICEF/Cadbury deal. As the G&M story points out,

“the relationship is…lucrative for corporate sponsors because many consumers look favourably on companies that are aligned with good causes, which can help drive sales.”

But why do consumers look favourably on companies that align themselves with good causes? To spell it out plainly, consumers do so because they think that it is a good thing for companies to contribute socially. So it’s not like there’s any trickery here. If consumers think Cadbury is doing something good, Cadbury will be rewarded.

4) Finally, is it worth it for UNICEF? I’m generally hesitant to hand out advice beyond my expertise. I’m not an experienced fund-raiser. So, far be it from me to tell the experts at UNICEF that the decision to align with a candy company is short-sighted. But it does seem plain to me that a charity only has one real asset: it’s brand, and the trust people place in it. In comparison, a carmaker can lose public trust and then regain it by proving that they really do make a great product. Charities make no product; all the public can judge is behaviour.

Happy hallowe’en, everyone!

Chevron Agrees

Chevron has just announced a new ad campaign to highlight the various ways in which the company and its critics actually agree on a number of ethically-important points. Things like:

  • “Oil companies should put their profits to good use.”
  • “It’s time oil companies get behind the development of renewable energy.”
  • “Oil companies should support the communities they’re a part of.”
  • etc.

Here’s the press release announcing the new campaign: Chevron Launches New Global Advertising Campaign: ‘We Agree’. There’s also a YouTube channel where you can see the TV ads.

Many people will detect a whiff of greenwashing, here. And you don’t have to be much of a cynic to be somewhat skeptical. Back in 2001, another oil company, British Petroleum, claimed to be turning over a new leaf when it branded itself as just BP, which it suggested stood for “Beyond Petroleum.” We all know how that turned out.

The We Agree website of course features all kinds of nifty-sounding illustrations of Chevron’s commitment to being socially responsible. It’s mostly the usual kinds of stuff. But what’s interesting here, philosophically, is the attempt to point to the underlying agreement on values. And (this campaign aside) I do think it’s important for people on different sides of any given debate to understand just how much they probably do agree on, at the level of basic values. Now, if we could just agree on how those shared values ought to be implemented, we would really be getting somewhere.

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(Note: as I blogged last night, this Chevron campaign got spoofed by pranksters who issued their own version of the Chevron press-release, pointing to a very-convincing-but-fake campaign website. I was temporarily fooled, myself. You can find out about the spoof via the NYT‘s Media Decoder blog: Pranksters Lampoon Chevron Ad Campaign.)

Spoof Chevron Ad Campaign: Too Dumb to be True

I should have known.

Earlier this evening, I briefly posted a blog entry about a too-dumb-to-be-true ad campaign, supposedly by Chevron. The spoof ad campaign made Chevron look very dumb. And say what you will about the oil giant: it ain’t dumb.

I won’t say who is (apparently) behind the spoof, because a) that’s exactly the kind of publicity this stunt was intended to generate, and b) from what I can tell (from this and previous stunds) this gang is only good at media manipulation, and does nothing to promote smart solutions.

Tomorrow, I’ll post about the real Chevron ad campaign. (And yes, the image above is real, from the Chevron “We Agree” website.)

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