Op-Ed By: Cheryl Eaton

It’s always the same. First day of marketing class I look out at my students and take in a sea of crossed arms, defiant eyes, and a vibe of “go ahead… try me.” I can see their retorts and arguments stacked in their brains, ready to fly.

It makes sense. The students are all graduate level, smart, and studying conscious business. They show up with a knee-jerk disdain for marketing. I get it. But I’m ready for them with the central question we grapple with throughout the term: Marketing: Good or Evil?

Shields come down, and we inevitably have a rich, deep learning experience together.

They are surprised by this question and surprised to learn I almost gave up my career in marketing not too long ago because of this same skepticism. Okay… it was more like disgust. Marketing and marketers have helped create most of our world ills by creating desire where there is no need, convincing us that a luxury lifestyle is the norm, and championing designed obsolescence.

Just on the verge of quitting it all to become a hermit writer, I was shaken to my senses by a teacher and mentor who said: Are you nuts?! (I’m paraphrasing.)

Marketing skills are the most important skills needed by the revolutionaries trying to make the world a better place.

I believed him. As a former Ford executive and a leader in the sustainability movement, he knew what he was talking about. And I’ve been trying to spread this sensibility ever since. That’s why I’m here at Guru – surrounded by amazing teammates, working for amazing clients, all aligned on using our marketing superpowers for good by promoting products and services actively working toward making the world a better place.

There are so many ways the good / evil sides of marketing can and should be addressed. At the most basic level, the first challenge for marketers of all positions and levels is to care. To believe that they should care.

Why is this so hard?

Well, first there is the issue of awareness. I chose to believe in the goodness of people, and that people acting in an unhelpful or unhealthy way can simply be lack of awareness of the impact of their actions. When my son guzzles a giant can of Red Bull for example, he’s not aware that he’s downing four servings and about a trillion calories. We can chip away at awareness and little learnings can generate big shifts.

A greater issue is our practice of separating our personal ethics from our business ethics. In the U.S., our convention is to hang our personal sensibilities and ethical guideposts at the door of our offices. No worries – it’s “just business” after all.  So, the central issue in my mind is this:

How do we awaken the ethical sensibilities of marketers? 

No, my students and I never figured this out. But we certainly worked on it. I imagine it will take a shift in business education, with a mind to issues of sustainability, regenerative business, treatment of people and teams inside an organization, remaining a learning organization, embracing shared leadership, and understanding systems dynamic. Hey, no biggy.

Some of you are jumping out of your skin (maybe cross armed, maybe with a defiant vibe) to tussle on the notion of ethics. Whose ethics? Whose definition of good? Who’s going to win the battle for right and wrong? Frankly, I’d welcome that. At least we would be caring. At least we’d be talking about it. Centuries old arguments about who the right / wrong decider is does not excuse us for striping these concerns from our business realms – especially given the power and influence that Almighty Capitalism has had on our world.

Luckily, leaders in conscious business have provided guidance. Vermont – where I’m writing from and Guru’s East Coast hub has proudly planted its flag – is home to many OGs of ethical business, and those still pushing on the cutting-edge. Thankfully we have Businesses for Social Responsibility throughout the country, B Corp Certification, and sustainable investments are proving their worth.

What’s your take on this? As a revolutionary using marketing as a force for good, how do you bring an ethical overlay to your decisions? How do you build awareness of all the issues to juggle as you try to do the right thing? How do you make sure you keep caring? Most of all, how do you think we can awaken the ethical compasses of other business people? We’d love to hear. Respectful discussions are always welcome in our comments below.

Some of you might be thinking: Don’t worry! Haven’t you heard the news? Purpose-driven companies and purpose-driven promotions are here! It’s the next wave! To which I would say – yes, it is here, but is it here to stay? Is it a real solution or a feel-good moment? We have more to say on this topic – and much more to come in our Marketing: Good or Evil? Series.

Next up: The Trap of the Purpose Trend

Leave a Reply