A couple of weeks ago I found myself leading an exercise on marketing ethics for an introductory marketing class in the Marshall School of Business. Structured more as a provocation than a lecture, we covered basic concepts of persuasion and manipulation before proceeding to engage in a discussion about whether particular marketing practices were considered ethical (and how such a determination was ultimately made). During the course of our discussion many of these students expressed an opinion that it was, generally speaking, the responsibility of the consumer to know that he or she was 1) being marketed to and 2) potentially being tricked. I recorded this sentiment on a whiteboard in the room but didn’t comment much on it at the time. However, toward the end of the session I presented the class with a thought experiment that was designed to force the students to struggle with the concepts that they had just encountered and to push their thinking a bit about ethics.
Case (A): Smith, a saleswoman, invites clients to her office and secretly dissolves a pill in their drinks. The pill subconsciously inclines clients to purchase 30% more product than they would have had they not taken it but otherwise has no effect.
Case (B): Smith, a saleswoman, hires a marketing firm to design her office. The combination of colors, scents, etc., inclines clients to purchase 30% more product than they would in the old office but otherwise has no effect.
Question: Are these two scenarios equally ethical and, if not, which one is more ethical?
After running this session multiple times a clear pattern began to emerge in students’ responses: the initial reaction was typically that Case B was more ethical than Case A and, when pushed, students typically reported that their decision resulted from the notion that individuals in Case B had a measure of choice (i.e., they could leave the room) while individuals in Case A did not.
Although I didn’t think about it as such at the time, the notion of choice situates itself nicely alongside the empowerment of the self that Sarah Banet-Weiser writes about in Authentic. The takeaway that I had from working with students in this exercise was a profound realization about how choice was construed for them and how, generally, marketing was considered unethical only when it impinged upon an individual’s ability to make a choice.
Linking this back to the earlier statement that the burden of responsibility largely rested upon the consumer, I tried to incorporate examples from popular culture to suggest to the students that, for me, the most insidious effects of marketing are exemplified by its ability to limit or remove choices that you didn’t even know you had.
Because I am old, I invoked a scene from The Matrix Reloaded but drove the point home with a discussion of The Cabin in the Woods, a movie that, among other things, prominently evidenced philosophical questions of agency and free will.
Without spoiling anything, there is an interesting line in the movie where a character essentially argues that the free will of potential victims is preserved because outside forces can lead individuals to an open door but cannot ultimately force them to walk through it. Reflecting the idea that an individual is ultimately responsible for his or her fate, The Cabin in the Woods was particularly helpful for urging students to consider that they tended to focus on choice as an individual transaction instead of taking a step back to look at how behavior was permitted/controlled within a larger system of actions.
After the exercise concluded I found myself talking to the professor of the course about how I was slightly nervous for the future of business if these students held onto their mentality that consumers always acted rationally and were largely responsible for their own fates (to the exclusion of marketers taking responsibility for their campaigns). Now, as I muse on the prominence of the individual and the self in this cohort, I am reminded of an essay written by Kathryn Schulz about the prominence of self-help culture in America and the development of the concept of the self. As I reread the Schulz piece, I found myself revisiting Authentic’s chapters on consumer citizens and religion as I thought through the examples in terms of self-help rhetoric.
 For the record, I initially considered both of these cases to be equivalent in nature and suggested to students that part of their abhorrence to Case A had to do with perceived influence crossing the body/skin boundary and becoming physically incorporated into the self. Invariably students raised the notion of the pill causing some sort of change in brain chemistry and the thought experiment is designed to suggest that marketing’s true power does not lie in the realm of the directly observable.