Mayor Bloomberg, junk food and the ethics of marketing

16th March 2013

Screen Shot 2013-03-16 at 02.01.46In the Spanish language, the word ‘advertising’ translates as ‘propaganda’.

I find this revealing, a sort of a cultural moment-of-clarity which most other languages and nations have willfully forgotten. We in the marketing community, ever sharp-yet-coy, have advanced the idea that advertising simply informs and entertains. Indeed, ads that work well receive garlands from industry and endless consumer attention on YouTube.

I sometimes joke that marketing is fun precisely because it is powerful – that it can make black seem white. When I consider the topic more seriously I conclude that we marketers could easily become quasi-tyrants were it not for some wily governmental oversight and, just as importantly, our own ethics.

Screen Shot 2013-03-16 at 00.44.38In September 2012, New York’s Mayor Bloomberg decided that the soda companies were rather lax in their ethics. He banned the sale of soda servings in excess of 16oz. Driven by the obesity crisis, Bloomberg effectively cried foul the marketing practice of the an industry which has ‘up-sized’ from 7oz serves to 42oz serves and beyond (as illustrated in this nifty visual by Mother Jones).

Last Monday (March 11th), to the surprise of legal and marketing pundits, the New York Supreme Court – at the behest of the soda industry – ruled the action ‘arbitrary and capricious’.

So where does truth lie? Was Bloomberg attempting to illegally erase choice or has the soda industry been illegally promulgating obesity?

For many of us working in marketing, the ethics of what we do is a frequent concern. I characterise my own personal position thus: it is honourable to offer choice, and in so doing put a brand’s ‘best-foot-forward’. It is always wrong to lie.

Rather frustratingly, what constitutes a lie is debatable.

The tobacco industry lied when they hid the ill-effects of smoking, whilst knowing that their product killed.

The case of Sunny Delight is less straightforward. Proctor & Gamble launched its shelf-stable children’s drink in Ireland by placing it in supermarket chillers. The clear inference was that Sunny D. was a fresh (and hence naturally healthy) juice. Ultimately, the brand died because it gained a reputation for turning kids’ skin orange. I judge that their chiller trick was, in itself, a lie.

And so, the question in New York is a liminal one: are the soft drinks players lying to their consumers, or simply egging them on, by super-sizing sodas?

Though not in possession of all the facts, I judge that a lie has not been committed.

Just as Jacobs constantly ‘force’ me to buy 100% more Fig Rolls than I want (could BOGOF’s really be immoral?), so too have American consumers been seduced into imbibing more pop. Each offer, in its turn, appeals to human greed and opportunism; not to gullibility.

Perhaps the Spanish language is lacking after all. Advertising is the act of presenting choices in a compelling manner to responsible people. Propaganda is the act of purposefully misleading responsible people in their choices.

As we have seen, a hair’s breath of legal opinion may separate the two.

Unfortunately, often our decisions in marketing are no less obvious.


Subscribe to Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


  • Tim Hirsch says:

    Brian I think I half agree with you, but I only agree with the half that is not quite relevant to this issue. On the strict question about misleading advertising/marketing, you are right. There is nothing dishonest about selling a large bucket of Coke. It’s a large bucket. There’s Coke in it. It will make you fat. You choose. But does that make the practice ethical? I think the point here is that by making this option readily available, you are making it easier and more tempting to feed an addiction that is very costly to society. OK you could always buy six normal cups instead of the bucket. But would you? Presumably the soda companies think not, otherwise they would not sell the bucket. I would hate to be a marketing person with a conscience and have to think through this kind of dilemma.

    • Mmm. Tim, you make an interesting point and perhaps I would see it differently if I did not wish to defend the right of marketing to do things that are fair game even if I do not agree with them. So I guess it comes down to our individual take on ethics, something which I see as different from that which is simply desirable. The quandary begins when we extend your argument to large bars of chocolate, king size Mars Bars, and indeed the larder-stuffing activities of the biscuit companies with their buy-one-get-one-free activities. Where does one stop?

      It is indeed sometimes no fun juggling the ethical dilemmas of marketing – something that you may also have experienced in your days as journalist.

      Anyway, look forward to actually seeing you in Dublin next time. Let’s have a pint together. Or maybe we should rather choose a half 😉

  • Am puzzled ethically by your inclusion of an advertisement for a soda company at the end of an article on the ethics of soda companies. Together we make magic indeed!!

    BTW – that’s a fine false dichotomy you present up there 🙂

Leave a Reply