Where Have All the Ethics Gone? Long Time Passing.

James Meek reports in the London Review of Books ( 7 June 2012) that Viktor Yanukovych, the brutish Prime Minister of Ukraine, has hired Burson-Marsteller to promote his government’s case abroad of having imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko for her efforts to switch her country’s energy supplier.  The politics behind the case, and its doubtful merits, are beyond my scope; that Burson-Marsteller accepted this assignment, however, should shame even the fiscally venal Sir Martin Sorrell, whose WPP owns the public relations firm.  It’s well known that Burson-Marsteller, together with its  WPP sister firm Hill and Knowlton, has served the political interests of more than one shady–at best–regime.  The Yanukovych episode is but one of such assignments over the years, though its happening in 2012 should leave a sick feeling in the pits of our stomachs.  It does in mine.

Public Relations.  It sounds like a community action committee formed to effect dialogue between opposing interest groups, as for example in the recent brouhaha in San Francisco when the Board of Supervisors attempted to limit the number of dogs the city’s many dog walkers could walk to six.  The walkers wanted eleven.  In marketing, PR at its best creates stories to connect a promising new thing–an idea, a product, a venture, a rising star-to those most interested in hearing about its existence.  The channels through which these stories travel become their influence ecosystems, whether promoted by bloggers, traditional media, or from one person to another on social media platforms.  The best PR professionals are masters of words to describe their topics with urgency, importance and sometimes charm.  (Our wonderful PR maven at Isis Biopolymer last year was a masterful crafter of words and stories, not to mention a daily joy and delight. It isn’t for nothing that she calls her company Big Mouth Media!)

However, it’s a slippery slope between genuine promotion based on honest attempts to make a buck to unadulterated public manipulation.  Sometimes entire industries collude to hide the truth and misguide consumers.  Tobacco companies’ egregious use of false science to trick smokers into believing their behavior was safe is one, albeit notorious, example among many.  Big Pharma loves PR.  Beauty and cosmetics companies couldn’t exist without the steady stream of dubious, often false, stories of their products alleged effectiveness.  Dow Chemical loves PR.  In the realms of politics and religion, so unfortunately combined in our country, opinion manipulation is the name of the game.

One of the most ridiculous PR practices is the ubiquitous use of celebrity spokespeople.  The USA isn’t alone in this mass exercise in duping and silliness.  I say “ridiculous” only in the sense that what sane person could possibly be motivated to buy a product solely because of its association with well-known people.  The practice isn’t ridiculous from a sales and profit perspective because it rarely fails to work.  So much for sanity in the marketplace. It’s one of the age old forms of promotion, especially when there’s no inherent product benefit.  And everyone’s in the game. Even the guy I admire most, Roger Federer, stoops to tout watches and Swiss banking.  Money always has a way of talking.  The illusion that because I wear a Rolex I might be more like Mr. Federer is a powerful motivator.  Never mind a lifetime of practice, inspired talent, good looks, and a Swiss passport.  The stars are co-opted as much as their publics.

A humorous, if rueful, incident unfolded in my Westchester County driveway some years ago directly as a result of a tragic incident involving Burson-Marsteller–the latter maybe more telling of B-M’s role in the world of power and politics than even the results of its campaigns.  A few weeks before the event in my driveway, an executive at Burson-Marsteller had been killed at home by a bomb disguised as an ordinary parcel mailed by the Unibomber.  The man’s name had recently been in the press in an article about his involvement with a technology campaign.  It so happened that at about the same time, my name was included in a New York Times advertising column about the pitch I led at DDB resulting in the agency winning the global Digital Equipment Corporation business.  (Now, that dates me!)  Consequently, my former wife decided that our family was at similar risk and was suspicious of any package arriving at our house not from a known sender.

On the day in question, a UPS truck delivered three large cylindrical boxes, big enough to hold a medium sized child. The return address was a mysterious, Arabic sounding name in Cleveland, Ohio.  My wife panicked and called the police.  The boxes were carefully opened, only to reveal they contained rolled up newspapers.  Everyone was perplexed, and worried about what this could mean.  Fears had not been squelched.

A day or two later, our very good Greek friend called from Cleveland to tell my wife he might have forgotten to let her know he was shipping three boxes, allegedly containing Turkish carpets, to avoid paying Ohio sales tax by shipping out of state.  My wife, while relieved, was justifiably furious.

The longer I’m in the industry, the more suspicious I am of what I read in the media promoting everything from brands to people.  I’ve seen too much from the inside.  Somewhere there’s a PR agency spinning a story to convince me to believe in its validity.  The only difference between PR and advertising is that advertising is up-front with its claims, whether make-believe or accurate, whereas PR operates behind the scenes.  That’s why the Ukraine government can hire Burson-Marsteller to spread its version of the truth.  No one will know.  An ad in The Wall Street Journal would look immediately self-serving.  It’s all relative. Even small firms in Silicon Valley work tirelessly to turn minor achievements into major news.

It’s hard to know anymore what to teach marketing students about the morality of the craft.  I’ve proposed a course to Stanford on the Ethics of Marketing, although I’m not at all sure yet what the content will be.  Will there even be enough content?

Late breaking news:  Stanford turned the course down, suggesting that perhaps UC would be more interested in ethics than they are.  Their exact reply is worth quoting:

Further, while the topic may be of great interest to you and a number of articles are appearing, we doubt that this is a course that will ever make the cut in future quarters.  Thank you for your interest.  Maybe another extension operation, like UC, will be a venue that takes you up on this subject.

I guess Stanford was a poor venue for the subject of ethical marketing.  Why didn’t that occur to me?

Man Therapy

You don’t often see a campaign designed for suicide prevention featured in the Advertising column in The New York Times.  But on Monday (July 9, 2012) the Times reported on a Colorado suicide prevention effort aimed at men, featuring PSA’s, YouTube videos and a website, ManTherapy.org.  The campaign uses humor to capture men’s attention and engagement with the site to open them up to the options of talking to a doctor and therapy.

I wonder about this.  I wonder if using online user experience strategies and engagement tools will attract seriously depressed guys in the first place and convincingly persuade them to seek help. If someone is contemplating suicide, will he really be deflected by a PSA or quizzes on a website?  The mock doctor portrayed on Man Therapy is gently humorous, folksy and not threatening.  I doubt that many would initially connect his easy-going style and message with suicide prevention.

I wonder, too, about the signs on the Golden Gate Bridge: “The Consequence of Jumping from This Bridge are Fatal and Tragic.”  The jumpers know that.  That’s why they’re there.  Do the signs deter many?  From watching the movie “The Bridge”—cynical and heartbreaking—it would appear that indecision, perhaps fear, cause some to hesitate, although in the end they all jumped.  [It was a mistake to have watched it.]  And the San Francisco Police Department no longer publishes the number of bridge fatalities so as not to attract even more.

The Times article states that women are three times more likely to attempt suicide, but the fatality rates for men who attempt are four times higher, or 79 percent to 21 percent.  31 percent of men jump. Among active duty servicemen in Afghanistan, as of June 1, more died of suicide than killed in action.  Would they have been helped by logging on to ManTherapy.net?

I’m reading the MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle’s latest book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.  She writes, “Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities.  And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed.  We are lonely but fearful of intimacy.”  Having risked intimacy, I once told someone I wasn’t fragile but I was very vulnerable.  The danger wasn’t technology, rather love.  When that vulnerability was pierced, like my heart, the Golden Gate Bridge, for a moment, beckoned. That moment passed and history didn’t repeat itself, although the vulnerability remained. Technology has proved no balm, however my sons and friends have.  Fellowship works.  Turkle’s book strongly suggests that younger people often seek that possible balm in virtual worlds, in social networks, in relationships defined digitally rather than personally.  In Chatroulette, a “relationship” typically lasts no longer than a few seconds.  There’s very little heartbreak when someone unfriends you on Facebook. [Wanting to limit my Facebook friends to 150, I have unfriended more than 500.  I hope they haven’t been heartbroken.]

Someone must be studying the relationship between new technology and suicide.  My own unscientific opinion is that technology may play a role of withdrawal, but it’s the same old forces of love, hate, money, affronts to self-esteem and alienation that pull the trigger.  Speaking of triggers, the Times article also states that one reason men are more successful at killing themselves is because their gun ownership is much higher than women’s—a statistic I’m sure the NRA ignores.

Are the Man Therapy PSA’s and its linked website advertising?  The Times article is in the Media section, headed “Advertising,” so the paper clearly believes it so.  For decades public service announcements have advised us not to drink, not to smoke, not to light fires in the woods.  The most horrifying five minutes of film I know is a PSA from the Victoria (Australia) Transport Accident Commission graphically showing the consequences of drunk driving, set to R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.”  The first time I saw it I couldn’t watch it to the end. Try for yourself:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z2mf8DtWWd8

The eminent Jungian psychologist James Hillman, in his Suicide and the Soul, describes what we call emotional suicides, performed under the domination of an overriding passion.  “Here would belong revenge against one’s enemies, to give others anguish; to manipulate the world, in rage at frustration; humiliation over financial ruin, shame over public exposure; suicides of guilt and conscience, of anxious terror, of the melancholy of aging, of loneliness, of abandonment, of grief, of apathy and emptiness, of drunken despair and despair over failure, especially failure in love.”

I suspect the men who may look into ManTherapy.com might well be suffering from one of these emotional states.  Frankly, who at times hasn’t?  I don’t believe any man would, however, wish to believe he had been manipulated by advertising.  Maybe that’s the beauty of the campaign—it’s in stealth mode.

Maybe one thing the campaign could accomplish—being an even greater good—would be to change ManTherapy to man therapy.  For the most part it’s true that depressed men don’t like to talk about their depression.  And yet, the fellowship of guys is a powerful force.  Even talking to just one friend can open up the possibility of brighter times.  Over the past year the most effective therapy I’ve experienced has been the support and friendship I have with other men.  Sure, there have been women friends, too, who have been there and offered their own friendship and perspective, different from my close group of men, and therefore welcome and valuable.  Only another woman could read an email and declare it “fifty paragraphs of crap!”

I was once asked by an allegedly “important” psychiatrist if I had read Camus’s The Stranger.  The question was odd and was asked with more than a bit of showmanship.  He was making a point about psychological barriers and behavior patterns.  Friendship has been the antidote, not the medical profession.

If the ManTherapy campaign helps only one man, it will be worth it.

The Way of the World

I once knew a woman who gave up a man who loved her deeply to pursue what she called her “personal legend.”  Having taken The Alchemist to heart, the lady believed there was a yet-to-be-realized achievement in her future and the quest for this achievement was incompatible with love, at least love with the man in question.  I don’t know why, but this came to mind today while watching the finals of the 2012 European Championships.  Spain won, spectacularly, 4-0 against Italy.

Earlier in the day I told a friend I was heading down to North Beach to watch the game in one of the many Italian cafes, sure of finding a crazy scene of avid fans. (I did.)  My friend said, “I never could get into soccer, there aren’t enough goals to make it exciting.”  This is a problem only in the United States, where sports fans are never more thrilled than when their team wins by factors of ten.  Imagine a Super Bowl score of 6-0.  You can’t.  Or an NBA Final Four finish of 12-2.  But in soccer, a shut out of 1-0 is a terrifically exciting game.  It’s all about the play: the passing, the footwork, the speed and agility of the players, the goal keeper’s saves, the headers, the near misses, and yes, spectacular goals.  It’s not called the Beautiful Game for nothing.

Americans always want more: more goals; more cars; more TV’s; more everything.  If it isn’t growing, it’s dying.  The stock market is predicated on this principle of growth.  Everyday life is predicated on acquisition and personal “growth.”  Some people are even willing to walk away from the only unconditional love they will ever know to seek the chimera of a personal legend.  As with all pursuits of growth, it’s a fool’s mission, founded on the fear of emptiness.  We are a society that fears emptiness, so to compensate, rewards growth at all costs.

Marketing is the toolbox of growth.  Advertising is its hammer.  Everything we do is designed to persuade more, sell more, influence more.  Now we also connect more, share more.  We create social ecosystems that spread like viruses. We achieve status by the number of “friends” we have, Robin Dunbar’s How Many Friends Does a Person Need notwithstanding.  Is there a limit to this?

Our greatest philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “What is the remedy? Is it not the chief disgrace in the world, not to be a unit; –not to be reckoned one character; –not to yield that peculiar fruit which each man was created to bear, but to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand…Not so, brothers and friends—please God, ours shall not be so.”

I’m afraid we are reckoned in the gross.  And everything we reckon is in the gross.  There’s no singular achievement in a social network.  Charles Pierce in Idiot America writes that the value of the crank, once a valuable—and local—counterpoint to the status quo, has been set free by television and the internet to spread fraudulence and stupidity at light-speed to an ever more uninformed and gullible audience. The growth of bad ideas has become exponential.

I wonder if there’s an answer since there’s no turning back.  Americans are never going to learn to love professional soccer.  Or be content to maintain a stable business.  Or find happiness in the here and now and not in an elusive legend.  The Alchemist is, after all, a work of fiction.

When the pursuit is growth for growth’s sake, what is left behind?  Sometimes it’s failure, which is proper however unfortunate.  Sometimes as a business or an industry grows it fails to adapt, to look at “today” squarely.  Digital Equipment Corporation grew to the point its hubris blindsided it to the future—and it failed.  As a teenager in Pittsburgh, I witnessed the last days of the steel industry, when survival was no longer an option, much less growth. These are simplistic analogies, I know, but with these, people are left behind, too, as they are when lost in love. Most never recover.

I wonder tonight what the Italian National Team must be feeling. 4-0 is a stunning victory in championship soccer.  It was an historic win for Spain. I know, too, how that man feels having lost to another kind of victory. Detroit feels that way.  Undoubtedly Greece feels that way.  The problem with all these examples is that romance always fails.  It’s the way of the world and we make it so.