Mayor Bloomberg, junk food and the ethics of marketing
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.
In 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.