Marketing has an impact on people’s lives. The benefit of that impact is up to us. Yet, there are very few expectations on marketers as an industry to be responsible for that impact. Considering all of the power and privilege, insight and access granted to us, it’s time we held ourselves to a higher standard.
Unfortunately, business and ethics don’t always mix. From Enron to Cambridge Analytica, examples of businesses doing a disservice to the public are easy to find. At the same time, our access to personal data, growing understanding of human behavior, and more powerful tools of manipulation are giving businesses greater influence than ever before. We marketers stand at the threshold between most businesses and their customers. We know our customers best and we have the responsibility to represent their interests within an organization. We are also tasked with selling our products and services to them. Given the position we hold, it’s time the marketing industry held itself, and its organizations, to a higher standard. It’s time we had our own oath.
Marketers cut into people’s lives in a way surgeons never could.
You’ve likely heard of the Hippocratic Oath. It is a promise healthcare providers make to use their knowledge and expertise to serve the sick in the best way possible. Healthcare providers are among the most regulated professionals for good reason. Their practice can heal or harm. They have access to the most vulnerable, intimate parts of people’s lives. Many people tell their physicians things they don’t tell their spouses or parents. This power and privilege requires great responsibility.
Yet, I argue that marketers have more access to more people, more often than any physician. We understand illness and the treatments for them. We know how often physicians prescribe one drug over another. We know what kind of impact our therapies will have on the patient. We also know what products people buy, what shows they watch and which websites they visit. As an industry, marketers likely know more about the people of the world than any other industry today. Adding in big data and the power of artificial intelligence, these insights put us further inside someone’s life whether they know it or not, whether they want it or not.
The social sciences are adding to that power as well. Behavioral economics helps us understand how and why people make decisions and many see this as an opportunity to influence those decisions. Insights from psychology show us what makes certain apps and devices so addictive – and how to make them more addictive. Academic literature also demonstrates that the brands people consume become part of their identity the same way a loved one does. Consider how a person who loves a brand feels when that brand betrays them or demonstrates unsavory values.
Marketing to a higher standard
The world is responding. They are expecting more from organizations when it comes to privacy and the use of data. The EU’s recent GDPR regulations are a good step and your inbox has likely been flooded with updated privacy policies as a result. Some consumers are responding on their own with campaigns to delete apps or no longer patron certain business. Unfortunately, some consumers aren’t in a position to do that and this strategy isn’t sustainable for either consumers or organizations in the long term.
I began Threadline with these principles but never formalized it until today. We believe brands can play a meaningful role in the lives of consumers. But we have to manage those brands with integrity, with genuine concern for society, and with a sense of responsibility to both the organizations we serve and the consumers that support them. I know many other business leaders and marketers feel the same but for there to be real change, these principles can no longer exist in the desk drawer of our consciences. They must be out in the open for all to acknowledge and expect. So, we offer this oath, adapted from the Hippocratic Oath, for the marketing industry to consider.
The Marketer’s Oath
I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:
I will apply, for the benefit of my organization, all marketing techniques that are relevant, avoiding those twin traps of overpromising and underdelivering.
I will remember that marketing is about people, as well as business, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding those people may outweigh the organization’s profit or the consumer’s loyalty.
I will not be ashamed to say “Our offering won’t serve you well,” nor will I fail to offer alternatives when the benefits of another serve some consumers better than my own.
I will respect the privacy of my consumers, for their lives are not shared with me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care regarding the investment of money, time and resources. If it is given to me to improve a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to ruin one; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own imperfections.
I will remember that I do not sell a product or service but help a human being, whose needs may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the society I serve.
I will prevent wasteful spending whenever I can, for meaningful investments are preferable to thoughtless purchases.
I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those marketers and academics in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings of different socioeconomic status, gender, race, creed, identity and background.
If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy a life of personal passions and professional accomplishments, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of serving those who seek my help.
I’m committed to it and will expect the same of Threadline’s staff. We will also hold our clients to it or respectfully decline the work. Business is personal and it’s time we recognized the gravity of what that means.
If you take this oath, let us know. And if you want to build a brand that does as much good for the people who use it as it does for the business, shoot us a note. Together, we could change the world.