If Marketing Can Change Behavior….

by Litmus Branding  |  23rd Dec, 2013 in Branding

….Is it okay to hold a marketer responsible of the impact of his brand communication?

The answer is “not completely”…..And sometimes not at all.

Can you get babies to start smoking a particular brand of cigar?

Can you – through your clever advertising – make someone dig chocolates, if they have no craving whatsoever for the dark fantasy?

It’s humanly not possible.

But of course, with clever advertising, you can change consumer behavior, if only on the margins, otherwise why advertise?

And, herein lies a dilemma – if the changed behavior is morally corrupting (ads for child pornographic sites), socially repressive (gay advertising or advertising for fairness products etc.), or physically harming (as in tobacco ads) would it be right to hold marketers responsible for ‘popularizing’ such reprehensible behavior?

This is where it gets a little tricky. Tricky because we, as branding/creative professionals cannot shirk our responsibility by saying that it’s the client’s discretion or use the worn-out argument, “Nobody’s a fool. Our consumers are intelligent adults, who can be trusted to make an informed choice,” because more often than not, they are not informed, or rather are only ‘selectively informed’ by marketers – take the recent HUL-Colgate spat over the Pepsodent print advertisement as a case in point that got thrown out of the window by a divisional bench of the Delhi High Court, recently.

In advertising, we often make tall claims about products, proclaiming they have an edge over alternatives – but are those claims always 100% true?

A huge responsibility

If you’re an ethical marketer, you will own up responsibility for the product you sell. But as advertising agencies, do we also have a responsibility?

It may be okay for manufacturers of cigarettes, cigars, vodka-whisky brands to use surrogate advertising for their habit-forming products, but do we, as their defense lawyers (We find that simile very useful here) have a choice in the matter?

Nickelodeon is an American cable and satellite TV network that has no qualms about airing TV commercials of companies that hawk junk-food to children, thereby spreading obesity among them. “Nickelodeon prides itself on responsible programming for children, but what about its advertising?” asks the nutrition policy director of a nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. Incidentally, Disney does not allow it.

Lifebuoy’s ‘Stamped Roti’ campaign at this year’s Kumbh Mela reached out to five million people and helped spread their message of personal hygiene. Their ‘Help a child reach the age of five’ film picked a metal at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, this year. Pro-bono advertising spells out the core proposition of a brand. This kind of responsible advertising – which comes armed with a positive goal for the maximum number of people, and especially the marginalized – creates a buzz for the brand that’s not easily forgotten. But of course, not all products and services lend themselves so easily to responsible advertising and the ethical dilemma before their advertising agencies is the most serious.

Every year 350,000 people die from tobacco-related illnesses. Smoking is directly responsible for 85% of all deaths caused by lung cancer. Not only are cigarettes one of the most lethal products around, but also one of the most addictive. According to a recent report from the Surgeon General, the nicotine contained in cigarettes could be as addictive as heroin or cocaine, and most of these products are now finding a growing market in India, especially among working women professionals.

Who glamorized smoking to them?

Undoubtedly popular media. Realizing the danger in this kind of surrogate advertising, the Indian Ministry of Health recently issued a diktat that every movie scene that shows charter lighting up must be accompanied by an anti-tobacco message. Tut-tut! Woody Alley scoffed, refused to comply with the Ministry’s orders and cancelled the release of ‘Blue Jasmine’ in India.

A month later, Anurag Kashyap filed a petition in the Bombay High Court challenging the Censor Board’s anti-smoking disclaimer that the Board insisted must be inserted in his upcoming film, Ugly. An ‘ugly’ brawl followed and the director proclaimed, “Such unreasonable conditions clearly fetter the rights of filmmakers to free speech and expression enshrined by the Constitution of India. Running a scroll not only destroys the aesthetic value of cinema but also diverts viewers from the film… (sic):”

Aesthetics of a film? And what about the aesthetics of a lung that’s half eaten by cancer?

The moral of the story is that a marketer is not just responsible for selling a product – a movie, in this case – but also the impact of that product. He is responsible for what he sells and also for how he sells it, i.e. the impact of his actions.

Eventually, it’s a very personal decision. We don’t believe in the absoluteness of anything. Even ethics are self-chosen and self-adhered to.

We are clear we would not like to endorse a tobacco product that somewhere down the line gives a hollowed cheek to a youth, but then what the heck! We are not the custodian of everybody’s system.

Do you agree with this standpoint?

We’d love to hear from you….

Litmus makes your brand accessible to your target consumer. While retaining elements of mystique, we strive to build lasting rapport and trust between brands and consumers through strategic creative thinking.