Ethical Marketing in Age of Horizontal Socialization

Excellent, but also demanding, master’s thesis on the need for a wholly different kind of ‘ethical’ marketing, that goes much deeper than the conventional critiques.

We are excerpting it in two parts: 1) the critique; 2) the alternatives

* Master’s Thesis: Rethink ethical marketing after the critiques of Bernard Stiegler. Maxime Lathuilière. ESC Toulouse / WF Ingolstadt master in management , 2012


“Marketing, as the organization of attention capture and motivation canalization, that is to say the diverting of the social energy that is desire as analyzed by Bernard Stiegler, is at the heart of the social and economic system that is questioned by the post-2007 crises and the experience of system limits. Marketing’s shared history with the consumerist culture, the controversies on business responsibility and the downfall of counterforces that are national states and social institutions in the context of globalization, contributed to blur the limits of ethic in marketing practices. While limits thin down, marketing practices found new fields of technical improvement through the development of behavioral sciences, constitutive of a psychopower, immoderately use to tend toward ubiquity; not only aiming direct sells anymore but also working on the symbolic level for the sake of branding. Those immoderate practices lead to a form of exhaustion of marketing’s raw material: attention and desire. This systemic analysis of marketing’s impacts would lead to the sketching of an alternative system of information, valuating responsibility regarding the commons, including the psychic and collective well-being.

The Plan of the study:

I. The notion of ethical marketing

II. Analyze of marketing’s impact on individual and collective psychology with Bernard Stiegler’s work

III. Difficulties and opportunities to implement a philia- and transindividuation-friendly marketing in the emerging technological and sociological context.”

Excerpt 1: Critiques of the marketing leading to the ethical marketing approach

(section 1.2)

Maxime Lathuilière:

“The manual Principles of marketing in its chapter Marketing and society: social responsibility and marketing ethics try to raise an exhaustive list of critiques upon marketing. The manual identifies various possible concerns from the consumer’s point of view: the cost of advertising and promotion that will, at the end, be paid by the consumer; the question of the value added by marketing; the excessive mark-up allowed by marketing and brand strategies; the deceptive practices through pricing, promotion and packaging; the over-valuation of products; their possibly planned obsolescence. Possible concerns from society at large are also mentioned: the promotion of an exacerbate materialism; a low concern for common goods; a cultural pollution due to the growing ubiquity of advertising; lobbying efforts of brands eventually against the public interest. But the manual conclude that “some of this criticism [on marketing] is justified; much is not” (Kotler et al. 2005, pp.167–208). This optimist diagnostic is far from obtaining unanimity: the impact of marketing and the business it serves is a recurrent question in business sciences. Such a unidirectional optimist diagnostic for a pedagogic purpose seems counterproductive as the question is a key to understand how a smooth integration of marketing practices into society is a matter of balance between contradictory incentives:

– “the tension between the imperatives of economic survival in the competitive marketplace and ethics is a very real one for many individuals and corporations.” (Camenisch 1991, p.245)

Excerpt 2: Responsible marketing as a mirror of corporate responsibility

(section 1.3)

This question of ethics in marketing and in business at large is especially crucial since there are no obvious limits to marketing and business practices out of legal ones and that of religion, honor codes or forms of solidarity in former communal social organizations, which uses to be referential set of moral “guidelines”, are no longer dominant value systems in western societies, letting those societies potentially rely on solely law as border of what is or isn’t acceptable. But in the context of globalization and decreasing state sovereignty and regulation power regarding companies’ actions, the translation of population wishes of regulation into law is limited by the pressure of the international economic competition, which strengthens multinational explicit or implicit negotiation power pushing for deregulation, following Margaret Thatcher’s TINA paradigm – “There is no alternative” –, leading to growing accusations of irresponsible behavior from other society members:

– “Callous unconcern for the feelings of others”, “Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships”, “Reckless disregard for the safety of others”, “Deceitfulness: repeated lying and conning others for profit”; “Incapacity to experience guilt”; “Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors” – The Corporation (Bakan et al. 2003)

Among others, the documentary film The Corporation severely depicts corporations – and thus marketing as their relational organ – as entities gathering all psychopathic syndromes, due to their blind focus on profit. The summit of The Corporation demonstration regarding marketing practices is made through the example of Susan Linn works on children nagging their parents about purchase.

This study attempts to sketch best practices in order to reach a higher efficiency of marketing efforts, from a purely technical point of view:

– “In 1998, Western International Media, Century City and Lieberman Research Worldwide conducted a study on nagging. This study was not to help parents cope with nagging. It was to help corporations help children nag for their products more effectively.” (Holovat 2006, p.24)

If individuals are presumed to be moral and responsible for their acts, corporations suffer from a diluted responsibility: managers are responsible of the activity toward shareholders, shareholders are too numerous to respond for any responsibility and, through financial market, limit their implication in the corporation to one action: asking for bigger returns on investment and thus more profits. This social and legal design of limited responsibilities of intern stakeholders leads to the shunning of responsibility and is thus said to empower “monsters” (Bakan et al. 2003). In this irresponsible trend, marketing is hugely pointed; its rational approach of how to create buying motivations is depicted as deeply amoral.

While this movie demonstration is open to criticism in its form and its scientific rigor, what it highlights is in the end consensual: corporations built a power to manufacture lifestyles going beyond any control of public institutions:

– “Corporations shape lifestyles by producing and promoting healthy or unhealthy products, creating psychological desires and fears, providing health information, influencing social and physical environments, and advancing policies that favor their business goals.” (Freudenberg 2012)

Milton Friedman, the historical leader of the neoliberal revolution that occurred between 1970 and 1990, wouldn’t have denied this analyze of businesses limited responsibility, which – out of the term psychopath – is compatible with his famous intervention titled The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits:

– “What does it mean to say that “business” has responsibilities? Only people can have responsibilities. A corporation is an artificial person and in this sense may have artificial responsibilities, but “business” as a whole cannot be said to have responsibilities, even in this vague sense. […] In a free-enterprise, private-property system, a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has direct responsibility to his employers. That responsibility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while conforming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom.” (Friedman 1970)

But those basic rules of the society tend to be weakened: on the one hand, deregulation decreased formerly existent legal limits on business practices; on the other hand, as we will see later, ethical customs are undermined in the current socio-technical organology.

– “Following Milton Friedman many business persons dismiss such social responsibility as an inappropriate add-on for business people and organizations operating in the competitive marketplace. They often maintain not that business does no social good, but that business that does its business well is already performing a number of positive services to society and its members through the creation of jobs, the paying of taxes, and the generating of beneficial and/or desired products and services. Additional social responsibility is simply seen as excessive and inappropriate” (Camenisch 1991, p.245).

Friedman’s intervention is especially interesting regarding marketing ethics, knowing that marketing’s history is closely linked with economic theory (Bartels 1976, chap.12): since the Classic, Economist wanted to make Economic a natural science, relying on mathematic models (Lordon 2009). Marketing found much inspiration in economics models (Bartels 1976) despite the theoretical difficulties it represent: the economics theoretical work based on a pure and perfect market suppose a perfect information and rational economics agent, marketing is thus irrelevant in the very model he took inspiration from (Anderson 1983).”

1 Comment Ethical Marketing in Age of Horizontal Socialization

  1. AvatarPoor Richard

    There will never be an end to rationalizations for unethical conduct, and there will never be a systemic solution that precedes changes in cultural norms. IMO the ethicality of any group behavior follows from the net ethicality of all the actors/agents involved.

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