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Towards Ethical Marketing

“Propaganda is a truly terrible weapon in the hands of an expert.”  (Adolf Hitler)

This past weekend, I paid a visit to the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood, Ohio, where I spent hours in the visiting exhibit, State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda. Created by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the display examines the Nazis’ keen understanding of mass communications and how they manipulated it in their quest to acquire power.

As someone who works with words and images all day long, who uses these tools to persuade, who thinks through how a print piece, website, or logo will inspire those who experience it toward a desired belief or action, I was pretty fascinated by what I saw. On the one hand, I was incredibly impressed by the thought behind and the efficacy of the Nazis’ program. On the other hand, I was horrified by much of what they were trying to promote – and achieved.

All of this got me thinking about the ethics of communication and marketing.

It’s easy to dismiss this very extreme example from history and say that propaganda is – by definition – different than marketing. The information is usually biased or misleading, creates false impressions, and often is used to dehumanize or create hatred. Surely no one would go to such lengths just to sell something.

Perhaps not. But where the Nazis were guilty of ruthless calculation and specifically murderous intent in much of what they put out there, I wonder if today we aren’t guilty of the opposite: using language and images so sloppily, so abstractly, so casually that we fall prey to a whole different host of issues?

How many times have you seen a logo or brand icon that you feel like you’ve seen somewhere else? Chances are you have. Unfortunately, too many companies find logos they like somewhere else and repackage them for themselves.

Ever read web or print copy that seems to skirt direct language about what a company is promising in its product or service? Is this accidental, just bad writing, or an intentional attempt to avoid commitments that can’t be met?

How about when a symbol’s or icon’s meaning is totally disregarded and placed in a new context to mean something else? Witness the inverted cross (a symbol of the Christian apostle Peter’s humility) which is now used by Satanists to mock Christ’s crucifixion. In advancing our cause, what responsibility do we have for respecting and adhering to shared cultural meaning?

Or how often – as a potential client or customer – do you encounter industry jargon that impedes your understanding of what you’re trying to purchase? Why couldn’t those marketing materials have been written with a layperson in mind? Was this an attempt to demonstrate expertise, does it demonstrate a lack of concern for clear communication, or is it intentionally trying to keep you in the dark?

There are likely several blog posts on how we as marketers responsibly steward the privilege of communicating on behalf of businesses and companies, and countless examples that could be discussed. Regardless, we need to strive to avoid both the Nazis’ sins of commission and our more modern sins of omission.