How to do the right thing – On Ethics in Advertising and Marketing

It’s 7.50 am, I’m watching the box for the weather, the ads come on. A cute looking guy (editor has deleted his name, as we might get sued) with blue eyes, thick black hair and a square jaw (I think he had a cooking show once) is walking through a farmers market. He says this is where you get the freshest products. He walks past fruit and vegie stalls and gets to the fish. He says fresh is best. Then he holds up a tin of canned Tuna and says that this brand is best cause they can the Tuna when it’s fresh. Then he says it’s gourmet quality. This is rubbish. Gourmet quality Tuna is so fresh, it’s still kicking. You don’t get gourmet out of a can and you don’t get fresh out of a can. Canning is a preserving process (I’m not against canning – it’s the most cost-effective, chemical-free way to preserve food). It’s a long way from fresh. It is the antithesis of fresh.

This kind of bullshitting is why we marketers have a poor image. What has this cooking guy done? Proven he’s no authority on freshness or for that matter on gourmet food, just a pretty face easily bought. What does this do for the public? It has misled them. Yes, the lawyers could argue it’s legally sound, as he doesn’t actually say it’s fresh Tuna, just freshly canned Tuna, but this article is about doing the right thing and splitting hairs for the sake of pulling the wool over the eyes of the public, is not doing the right thing.

I confess last month I had a nice time getting my evil twin to write an article about being a bastard in business. I felt good about it, like when you go out with the boys and get totally smashed cause you have a) just turned 30 b) have just inherited your great uncle’s fortune c) just had the divorce papers through or d) haven’t had a night off from the family in six months.

But like drinking until the wee hours, it isn’t a sustainable way of life, being a bastard. It catches up with you, and like going out on the town, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth the next morning. Call it guilt, call it regret. Yes, we have it in us, but we can’t survive if we treat others with contempt. The world is a small place and nasty stuff comes back to haunt you, call it Karma.

But it’s hard, no, impossible to do the right thing all the time. We are simply humans and we make mistakes, change our minds, react to circumstances. We do some things properly, nicely, then on the same day, perhaps because we’ve had one too many coffees, or some body has annoyed us, we turn like a snake and stab some poor bugger who’s only sin is to cross our path from the wrong direction.

For me to assume you don’t know how to do the right thing and need to be told is also quite rude. I am doing the wrong thing right here and now. But it is interesting isn’t it? On the one hand, we all think we know what is the right or wrong thing to do. We all think we do the right thing almost all of the time.

Now here’s the rub, the fact is that the companies we work for don’t and we know the customers out there, the buying public, think we don’t either. The punters are continually complaining about service, about pricing, and most importantly about attitude.

For example, the company entrusted with running Victoria’s toll highway system, Centrelink. You get billed by Centrelink before they’ve even used all your money in their account. Centrelink writes you a dirty letter saying your account is below their threshold amount of $20.00. And they threaten to fine you if you don’t top up your account. What kind of public servant negotiated a deal where a private (overseas owned) company can impose fines?

Centrelink have an attitude. And the attitude is, we have the roads, we have the legislation in place, we have the power to fine you, so you, Miss Customer, can get stuffed. This is not the way marketers are taught to behave and reflects an appalling cultural divide between their overseas management and us Australians.

Is it the right thing as seen by their overseas bosses? Is it OK because they have values like sewer rats, to enforce those values because you work for them? (This is known as the ‘Nuremberg excuse’ the guys being tried at Nuremberg after WW2, for war crimes like gassing innocent children, said they were only following orders. That ‘excuse’ got them hung.)

Is the right thing a moving feast? Is it a perceptual issue? Does this subject come down to heavyweight philosophical arguments like what is truth, what is justice or what is the right thing? Is it all just where you sit, what your benefit is, what you feel? Is the alien eating human flesh a killer or just a hungry endangered predator with a perfect right to a feed?

Some thoughts about Ethics

Business is often unfair

This gets really tricky when you consider the average business. To pay wages and phone bills, the average business has to make a dollar. Sounds simple enough. But to do this by definition most of us buy stuff for one price (be that people in the form of wages or widgets for that matter) and sell it for another, thus making a profit, which goes to pay those costs. The buyer wants the price lower so he’s got more money. The seller wants the price higher so she’s got more money. If the price goes one way or the other one of the two parties thinks they have not been the recipient of ‘the right thing’.

Judge on what they do

I’m a big believer in judging people not on what they say but on what they do for you. I’m also a big believer in doing the right thing by people and not having to explain why it is, which often gets me in trouble in this shallow, ‘slap me in the face if you want my attention’ era.

You don’t have to say it

Really good people rarely need to talk about what they are doing, as it’s self-evident. The ones you have to watch are the ones who tell you they are doing the right thing. Cause they probably aren’t.

Use charm, humour

I believe in being charming. I’m not sure if I ever am, I think I’m more like one of those guys you see after he’s just been to a James Bond Movie. Saying ‘Vodka Martini. Dry. Shaken, not stirred.’ in a deep voice. I think I’m being amusing but I’m probably just a hair away from completely gross. Never the less, humour goes a long way if you are dealing with others. And being polite doesn’t mean being obsequious. You get more power, rather than less, with the sensitive use of manners.

Don’t lie

I know the world thinks we were employed because we’re better bullshitters than the next guy, but the fact is the public ain’t stupid. They don’t buy from liars more than once. Why call yourself ‘All Natural’ when you’re not? Or ‘Convenient’ when you’re harder to open? Better to find a good USP or a decent convenience factor or whatever angle, than lie. Everything should have a reason to be, and if it doesn’t, stop trying to sell it.


The most despicable concept in marketing & management today is the concept of churning. The deliberate acceptance that you will piss off customers at a certain rate and who cares? This flies in the face of all other marketing practises and is an acknowledgement that short-term money matters more than long-term customer relationships. Do the right thing by us all. Sack the churners.

Sustainable Pricing

Try this. Have your pricing low enough to discourage competitors from entering, so you can maintain a bigger customer base and become the market leader. It’s a mature, big thinker way to go and is so much more dignified than the sort of circus act the petrol companies force their poor little franchisees to perform each week. Lowering prices on Monday/Tuesday then marching out there with bigger numbers on Thursday and over the week-end. The public know petrol prices don’t vary that much. We hear the price of a barrel of oil on the news every day. They look like greedy school kids trying to grab an extra lolly.

Timing matters

With everything from fashion to food to sex, it’s when you do things that makes all the difference.

Stick to agreements

There’s a type who accepts a party invitation, then gets a better offer, and wavers. As a person, you are your word. In a more serious context, if you agree to a deal in business, like say taking 20 ads at $20,000, if you renege after email sign off, you don’t deserve another chance. You may get another deal, but you won’t get the really sexy deal for the next 20 spots cause you’ve been a prick before.

Do small things first

Like with food and sex, do small things first and test the waters. Give people a little job and see if they respond well. If they can’t be trusted to do the right thing, you’re only risking a small amount. If they are a bad kisser, it’s better to know it than spend a whole night trying to get their tongue out of your throat.

Take the blame

The best advice a PR firm ever gave a client of mine was to take the blame. Once you’ve accepted your people stuffed up, there’s nowhere for the other guys to go.

Ethics and Fairness

Is like sharing a bag of lollies in the kinder yard, when every one gets an equal amount. If it wouldn’t make you happy on the receiving end, it isn’t fair. Fairness is a tricky one, though. When UN choppers drop food portions over Somalian villages, does every villager receive an equal portion? Should they? Should a starving child be given more water than a stronger adult who could probably hang out till the next food drop a week later? What if that adult has 3 or 4 kids she needs to feed in the grass hut over the hill? Does it come down to who needs it more or who wants it more? Nothing in this world is equal; fair is in the eye of the beholder, a richer man can afford to be fair, a poorer man often has to be greedy. Then again, in our society, it’s often the rich who are greedy, and is why they are rich; Toorak’s Safeways is cheaper than Footscray’s for a reason.


Good manners makes the world like you. Good manners begin with acknowledging others and their needs, like opening the door for the courier with his arms full, letting the other car out of the side street when you’re stuck in traffic. Making others coffee. Most of us know what is acceptable by osmosis. For the stupid ones reading this, while behaviour that is acceptable moves with the times, the best test is to carefully watch the reaction of those around you to other’s behaviour, then copy what works.


Even if you don’t like them, most people deserve respect (that’s listening to them, doing what they want sometimes) or they shouldn’t be working with you. If you feel you can’t work with them it’s most likely your fault, your perceptions.


This is not a moving feast. Tell things in the most frank and basic way you can. Do things as directly as you can. But don’t take this to extremes. If your wife asks if her bum looks big in this dress, it’s a very grey area. If you’re honest, you could be on the couch for a few nights. If you’re not honest, she may someday see those photos of the party she was at, and hate you forever.


Allow others the opportunity to succeed on their own terms. Motivation often comes from the belief that what you are doing is actually contributing to the project/world.

What’s The Thing?

In the office. Wipe the pee off the floor in the loos if you find a yellow puddle on the tiles. Don’t ignore the dishes, they won’t clean themselves. Download your porn at home and don’t call private mobiles from work unless you have no choice. Don’t steal stationary. Tomorrow you’ll need that stapler too. Resist temptation in the work place; don’t dip your pen in the office ink. (A submission from someone in my office, I wonder who he/she was thinking about?) And please don’t bad mouth your boss. There’s no-one less deserving than a person who works for someone they don’t respect. If you really don’t like your boss, move.

Right – it’s about me.

Doing the right thing is all about how others see you, and more importantly it’s about you being proud of yourself, instead of feeling guilty. It’s not about always winning. It’s about team work. All companies are just teams for making a living.

Be the one they love

Be the marketing manager the rest of the company cares about. Be the one the public loves the company for. Who makes the place seem bullet-proof. Who uses charm, humour, steely-eyed strength, great ideas and good, solid logic to make the place a success and your customers loyal, your suppliers happy. Be the girl, who when she leaves, they wonder what they are going to do and consider closing the show. Be the hero. It’s not an impossible task and it will make you feel great about spending those years studying and working like a dog to get where you are now. And you’ll sleep better, too.

Business Relationships – The Right Things

  • Always call people back. That sales will be a client one day.
  • Don’t take on conflicting clients. And lying about two sister companies not discussing issues is just so paper thin. Isn’t it George Patts/Campaign Palace?
  • Turn up to meetings on time – their time is as valuable as yours.
  • Listen. “Kerry Packer never read; he just surrounded himself and listened to those who did (James Packer, at his Dad’s funeral).
  • Treat everyone as an equal – this is an Australian rule worth defending. It reflects the fact that in our free society people often move rank, up or down. So we avoid assuming either servitude or superiority.
  • Talk about behaviour not personality. Don’t assume you know a person, just refer to what you’ve witnessed.
  • Offer constructive criticism in private, a public execution is demeaning.
  • Keep things humorous. There’s no excuse for boring people.
  • Don’t air your dirty laundry in the office.
  • Don’t be precious of your ideas – there’s nothing original it’s just you haven’t heard it before.

World Relationships – The Right Things

  • Tax deductible childcare (ask any parent who works)
  • Separation of Church from State (listen you fanatical jerks)
  • Assist diversification of media ownership (if you want a free society)
  • Support flexible work hours (if retailers are to survive)
  • Reduce third world debt (they’d win more medals at Games if they could afford food)
  • Respect other’s cultures (Coke & Maccas are not needed by all)
  • Save the wild fish – eat aquaculture only
  • Stop irrigation of rice and cotton – let the Rivers run
  • Unshackle the legal system from money (give the poor a chance)
  • Repeal one law for each created (we can’t keep up with them now)
  • Stop logging old growth forests (use only sustainable timber)
  • Re-use, re-cycle, reduce (creating landfill is just hiding poisons)
  • Respect copyright (if you didn’t think of it, it’s not yours)
  • Support the TPA (small businesses need fair rules)

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