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?

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