Category Archives: Ethics

Caveat Emptor on Job Interviews

bewareI enjoy keeping in touch with former students, so was pleased to hear from one a few weeks ago. She’s a recent graduate, was a top student with plenty of internships and experience, and will have no trouble finding a job. But she’s looking for work in a specific town, which narrows her options a bit.

She related the following story to me.

A supposedly national company with offices across the U.S. and overseas was hiring marketers and promised a “fast track” to management. She arrived for an interview at a small office with what appeared to be rented furniture and no technology – the receptionist was working on a cell phone. The person she met with had worked there less than a year and had no personal effects or other things on his desk.

The conversation went well, and she was called back for a second interview the next day. She was told she’d be job shadowing, but it was still unclear what the job actually was.

She arrived the following day, as did several other second-round interviewees. They all piled into a car for an “exploratory trip” about an hour and a half away.

“Yes, Mr. Fiene, I gradated Summa Cum Laude yet got into a car with these strangers…..but I know self defense and keep a knife in my purse,” she joked with me later.

The group arrived at the destination, and were asked to cold call on businesses to sell discounted baseball tickets. Not only was it intrusive, she said, but partially dishonest because she was told to tell prospective customers she represented a professional baseball team – which of course was not the case. She wasn’t really sure who she was representing.

So all day long these captive recruits went door to door trying to sell tickets. In talking with others who were on the goose chase with her, she discovered some had been doing this for weeks, yet still don’t know who they worked for or how they were paid. She asked if the company reimbursed for gas or paid for mileage, and was told “there are other potential benefits that offset the cost of gas.”

Fortunately at the end of the day she made it safely back to where she started.  Exhausted and feeling duped, she quickly left and didn’t return again.

Here’s what she said she learned:

First, Instincts are important. “Trust yourself when you search for jobs. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.” Her advice is to check the history of the company, look for reviews, and search for information on salary, benefits and more.

Second, “Don’t sell yourself short.” Most college graduates receive a wonderful education – make sure you don’t squander it.  Apply for jobs where you actually have a chance of using the skills that you learned.

Finally, she says, ask questions. Although she got duped for a day, apparently some of her fellow job shadowees had been beating the streets with those baseball tickets for weeks and still didn’t understand what they were doing, or why.

I’m proud of this young lady.   She learned lessons that day that will last a lifetime. I’ve had a few similar experiences while job hunting that I’ll write about next time.

One lesson I’ll add though – don’t give your work away for free even in job interview situations. See my post from July 11, 2011 to read more about that.


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Smokin’ Santa — and Other Old Ads

mime-attachmentI’m a marketing guy, a history buff and love studying cultural trends.  So it’s no surprise I enjoy ads and promotions from yesteryear.  If advertising is a reflection of who we are as a society, then old ads are a window into the past in terms of who we were and what we valued in the past.  Take a look at these promotions from a long-gone era.

On August 30, 2012 I also wrote about Dodge’s attempt to market to women in the 1950s, click here to read it.



















And no commentary on this topic would be complete without a look at a Flintstones TV commercial for Winston cigarettes, click below to play it.  (Few students today have even heard of the Flintstones; that show was back in the stone age of television.)


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Marketing and Free Speech

A couple weeks ago, a federal judge temporarily blocked the implementation of new rules that were set to go into effect for cigarette packaging next fall.  For several years, the FDA had been planning to require that tobacco companies incorporate very graphic anti-smoking messages on packages – and to do it far more prominently than current health warnings, which are text only.  The new labeling would require both words and large images, and would also extend to advertising.

A couple of the proposals are pictured here.

The tobacco companies, of course, have been crying foul all along.

Now on one hand, mandating certain requirements of product packaging and advertising is nothing new.  Look no further than pharmaceutical marketing, where a sizable portion of ads (both print and broadcast) is devoted to a description of undesirable side effects.  Do you really think Pfizer or Merck wants to inform customers that they could experience bizarre ailments – or even die – from using their product?  No, but that’s just the way it is.

I’m well versed in financial services marketing, where disclaimers, legal notices and other fine print can eat up half the space of an ad.

When Campbell’s packages soup, they probably don’t like showing how much sodium the product contains, but food labeling laws require just that!

So in some respects, the tobacco companies are just blowing smoke (pardon the pun) when they say these new labeling regulations will keep people from buying their product (which is the point, by the way).

But the tobacco companies sued on the grounds these restrictions are a violation of their First Amendment rights to free speech.  They say the new labeling goes beyond just communicating purely factual information (as the current warnings do), and will impede sales of the product itself.  “The government can’t require a company that sells a lawful product to urge the public not to buy it,” say one of their lawyers.

It will be interesting too see how it plays out; some pundits are saying this will wind its way to the Supreme Court.

This is a tough one for me, because while I’m not a smoker, I see the point – it’s a legal product.  And I’m a huge “free speech” advocate.   Sometimes it’s hard to balance free speech and marketing.  It would be easier for me to justify banning the product entirely than to essentially kill the ability to promote it.

And at what point do we start requiring similar packaging changes for other unhealthy products?  Should a wrapper for a fast food hamburger be required to show a picture of a clogged artery?  Should a candy bar have a picture of a fat person?  Should a bottle of vodka come with a picture of a deadly car accident?  Would this be effective, and perhaps the bigger point is would it also be a violation of free speech?

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Another Great Discussion on Ethics

One of the my favorite assignments each semester is when I ask students to write about ethical issues in marketing.  It’s always a very open-ended topic, and comes after we’ve spent several weeks discussing how companies in general, and marketing communications professionals in particular, balance the need for sales with the need to be ethical.  As students discover, the answers are not always easy.

We don’t dwell on things that are clearly illegal, but rather things that are legal but may push the envelope of doing what’s best for customers and society.

I can always count on plenty of papers about tobacco advertising (“how can it be ethical to promote a product that kills you?”) and fast food marketing to children  (“they’re promoting something that makes kids unhealthy.”)     And while there are often no black and white answers, their proposed solutions are not often realistic.  (“McDonald’s should quit selling fries with their meals and sell apples instead.”  Yeah, right.)   I always remind them that one of McDonald’s biggest flops ever was the McLean Deluxe, a healthy burger that customers didn’t buy.

But always, there are thought provoking questions.  One student passionately argued that since cigarette packages must carry warnings (which in 2012 will become more graphic, by the way),  fast food wrappers should convey similar health messages.  Another wondered why tobacco advertising is banned on TV but beer ads are not.  (“Just as second-hand smoke kills innocent people, so do drunk drivers.”)  I showed them old TV shows and commercials that promoted smoking — take a look at this Flintstones spot and marvel at how times have changed:   Watch Here

One time, Campbell’s Soup got into hot water for using promotional photos showing a bowl of soup that had been enhanced to make it look better.  So if that’s the case, one student asked, shouldn’t magazines get into trouble for showing pictures of celebrities and models that have been retouched?   Beats me — but what an interesting thought!   (Without researching it, my hunch is it’s because soup is a purchasable product, whereas a person is not.)

Several Asian students wrote about lax trademark enforcement in their native countries (see photo).  It reminds me of a great discussion I had with a student from Afghanistan at Ole Miss last summer.  His family’s business was being ruined by other companies that hijacked his company’s good brand name — confusing customers as to which products were which.  He said with the government in such disarray there, trademark issues are of no priority.

One student felt that companies who use testimonials in their advertising should be obligated to use a few negative comments too.  (“Is just presenting positive comments from customers misleading — because you’re only telling one side of the story?)  Interesting thought perhaps, but I see no ethical issues here.  It would be like obliging job seekers to give a few negative references to prospective employers.  Or revealing some of your bad behaviors on a first date, just so you’re not misleading the other person as to your true character.  Marketing is, after all, about putting your best foot forward.

Ethics in marketing:  Aways a fascinating topic (and one many people find contradictory, too).

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Advertising and Free Speech

I saw where last week, the Obama administration proposed some new rules for food companies that advertise to children.  In a nutshell, advertised products would be limited to less than 210 mg of sodium and 13 grams of sugar per serving, and couldn’t contain more than 1 gram (or 15 percent) of calories from fat.  This would also affect the placement of ads on television programming where children ages 2 to 11 make up 30 percent of the audience, or those ages 12 to 17 who comprise 20 percent of the viewers.

At this point the rules are “voluntary” but are backed by the FTC, the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and the USDA.  Public comment runs through June 13, and the guidelines would go into effect sometime after that.

Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about this.  Of course childhood obesity is a big problem (pardon the pun) and every idea that helps kids eat better is at least worth considering.  My school-age daughters tell me all the time how much hot lunch programs have changed in the past few years and that lessons on healthful eating are now woven all throughout the curriculum.  Whether you agree with all this or not, it’s a well intended effort.

The quandary for me, though, is seeing restrictions placed on the advertisement of legal products.  I’ve always been a champion of free speech – even when it’s offensive – and see limitations on advertising as falling somewhat into that vein.  We’re not talking about warning labels or fine-print legal disclosures here, but apparently an outright (although voluntary) ban.

I know there are already restrictions on many other types of advertising – it’s why you haven’t seen television commercials for cigarettes since the 1970s, why there is no more Joe Camel, and why nobody on all those beer commercials actually takes a sip.  All kinds of rules govern political ads, financial ads, and more.  And yes, there are already other limits on ads targeted specifically to children.

Still, I get a little uncomfortable when companies are discouraged from promoting perfectly legal products.  I think I’d actually feel better if the bad-for-you foods were just banned period, rather than trying to deem what type of promotion is acceptable and what is not.  Who decides, for example, that a product with 12 grams of sugar per serving is OK to advertise, but one with 16 is not?  Why are ads singled out, but not other forms of promotion?  What about restrictions on product packaging – should Cocoa Puffs come in a plain white box so as not to entice children?  Should candy bars be hidden behind the counter?

I wish I had a better justification for my stance other than it just doesn’t feel right – and that it limits free speech.  But I don’t.  All I know is that limiting the right of companies to communicate can be a pretty slippery slope.

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Ethical Solutions Don’t Come Easy

Remember that Willie Nelson song “Always On My Mind? Well, sometimes it feels like ethics is always on the mind of marketers – which of course is a good thing!

When I look at the traffic on this blog, the posts on ethics always get the most hits, by a long shot.  And while I can never identify who, specifically, lands on these pages, I can see what search engine terms lead people here.  Phrases like “marketing ethics” and “examples of legal but unethical” and “ethical but illegal” are big drivers of traffic.

Whenever I post something new about ethics, site visits go up.

And I’m also intrigued that when I assign open-ended papers to my Drake students – that is, they have to write something about marketing but I don’t tell them what – more than half of the papers are always about ethics.  Some of that, of course, is because we talk about marketing ethics in class although only one period is devoted exclusively to it.  But I’ve got 42 students this semester, there are 8 free-thought assignments due, that equals more than 300 potential marketing topics and yet once again, ethics reigns as the most popular topic.  I don’t think it’s because students are sucking up; I genuinely think there’s a high level of interest in the subject.

It’s always fun to see what’s on students’ minds.  The NCAA basketball tournament just concluded, and a several papers were about the fact that there are so many beer commercials on a broadcast that’s aimed at such a sizable collegiate audience.  Others wonder why, given the problem of childhood obesity, fast food marketers and cereal makers continue to churn out such fattening fare.  A few always write about overtly sexual themes in advertising, diet pills, apparel makers that only show skinny models, tobacco marketing and the like.

A quandary, though, is in the solutions that are proposed – the answer is often that the offending company should just quit doing it.  McDonald’s should sell only health food.  Breweries should stop advertising during sporting events.  Tobacco companies should quit selling cigarettes. “Yes, it will impact profits,” the reasoning goes, “but it’s the right thing to do.”

Too, there’s often a call for more regulation.  The government should review all advertising before it runs.  Cell phone makers shouldn’t be allowed to lock phones.  Food companies shouldn’t be allowed to promote baby formula over breast feeding.  Negative advertising should be banned.

I have a great group of students this semester, some of the brightest I’ve had.  It makes my teaching job enjoyable.  And these ethical dilemmas always spark good discussions.  The real learning seems to be the realization that answers are never very  easy, and that what’s in the best interests of one segment of society isn’t always in the best interests of another.

If only it were so.

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Pass the Salt, Please

So I saw where the Institute for Medicine – the health division of the National Academy of Sciences – wants to regulate the sodium content of processed food.  Good news for Americans who can’t help themselves eat better I guess.  And it’s an admirable goal, although I’m not sure more regulation is the right answer.

In any case, though, it reminds me of something I heard recently about Campbell’s – the mmm mmm good soup folks.  They’ve been slowly reducing the salt in their soups for some time, but they don’t promote it much.  That’s because when they do, sales decline.  Apparently people don’t care as much for the taste if they know the salt is missing.  But if the recipe gradually changes, not many people notice.  And it keeps sales steady.

So does this mean that sometimes, it’s better if your customers aren’t informed?  It’s not a case of not being truthful.  Obviously, Campbell’s isn’t hiding anything — customers can read the nutritional label and get the facts if they want.  The company is just choosing what to promote.

Consider this:  We wouldn’t want an airline pilot screaming “this is the worst storm I’ve ever seen” on the intercom as he/she flies through severe turbulence, even if it IS their worst storm.  Nor would most of us want a doctor telling us we have the worst case of whatever, even if it is.  That’s because hyping the absolute truth may not always be in our best interest.

A few of my marketing students have said there might be some ethical issues involved with the Campbell’s situation, although I don’t see it.  Choosing what to promote is a far cry from being purposely deceitful or dishonest.  If that’s not the case, I reminded them, then perhaps anyone who colors their hair — in hopes of promoting a better look — is a liar unless they put a note on their forehead saying “hair is dyed.”  Or someone who crops or retouches their picture before posting it on Facebook without a note to that effect is really committing fraud.

Sometimes in marketing there are no easy answers.  But this one seems pretty simple to me.

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