Would an Idiot Do That? A Practical Guide for Ethical Marketing Decisions

Would an Idiot Do That? A Practical Guide for Ethical Marketing Decisions

In August 2016, my son headed off for his first year in college. Compared to today, it was a halcyon time to leave the nest. I envisioned him frequenting bacchanalian block parties before Summer faded into Fall and his classes reduced the time available for such pursuits. Along the way, I reasoned, he’d learn moderation the same way I did.

Still, I didn’t want my son to repeat my youthful mistakes. But forty years hence, any specific insights I might have imparted had fizzed from memory. Besides, in my son’s mind, my two-score head start on the college experience might as well be 200 – or more. Any wisdom I was to share had to be contemporary. Ergo, avoid verbosity, and compress all guidance into a single text message. So I turned to online search, where I was immediately rewarded with a fitting quote attributed to Dwight Schrute, a character in The Office:

“Before I do anything, I ask myself: ‘Would an idiot do that?’ And, if the answer is yes, I do not do that thing.”

Wise counsel for any young person about to be confronted by relentless temptation and moral ambiguity.

Also, valuable advice for business developers, from interns to C-Something’s.

Business development professionals routinely encounter situations where they must choose among different strategies and tactics, and the ethics of each are often murky. No epiphany that the distinction between ethical and unethical isn’t consistently crystal clear. Accordingly, business developers must weigh the ethics of each choice, and decide whether they comport with their personal values. Those who want to demonstrate their decision-making chops tend to dismiss the challenge. “The answer is simple!”, they say. With ethics, however, that’s rarely the case.

A few examples:

  • Is it appropriate to offer something of value to a prospective customer in exchange for an order? Does calling it a ‘gift’ make it ethical?
  • When does a marketing claim cross the line from exaggeration to misrepresentation?
  • Is it OK to withhold information about your company, product, or service from a customer if you feel that information could jeopardize your sale?
  • Should you attempt to sell your product to a prospective customer despite knowing a more suitable one could be sourced from a competitor?
  • Is it ethical to expedite a purchase by creating false urgency?
  • If you have unsubstantiated information about the performance shortcomings or dissatisfaction with competitor’s product, is it ethical to share it with a prospective customer?
  • What are a vendor’s ethical obligations when they possess a clear information advantage over a customer?
  • When a prospect offers you access to a competitor’s pricing and proposal, is it ethical to accept such information?

When I consider similarly vexing questions, I always hear Dwight’s voice. Dwight’s advice doesn’t presume “right” and “wrong” choices. It doesn’t pander to religious or moral dogma. And it doesn’t demand conformity to impossible standards like “above all, never lie!” (I violate that admonition every time I tell a customer that I can’t lower my price. In those instances, the truthful expression is that I won’t.)

Still, injecting ethics into decision making adds complexity, and for some, only asking would-an-idiot-do-this?  is an insufficient bar. After all, Apple and Samsung made some astonishingly idiotic decisions, from which they rebounded.

When mulling the ethics of a marketing decision, ask these additional questions:

  1. Would I be embarrassed if another customer learned about my choice or actions?
  2. Would other business developers consider my decision ethically borderline or unethical?
  3. If I were confronted about this decision during a future job interview, would it disqualify me from consideration? Would I be able to convincingly justify my actions?
  4. Would I feel regret or remorse if I described my decision or activity to a family member?
  5. Would I be upset if someone else shared my actions on social media or in the news?
  6. Would I feel wronged if the same thing were done to me?
  7. If everyone engaged in this practice or activity, would society be worse off?

These days, I think about ethical risk every time I drive by a McDonalds outlet, purchase a product from Amazon, see an advertisement from Wells Fargo, read an article about Liberty University, or send a message on Facebook. No company is immune to the risks – a confusion I experience when I talk with senior executives who sometimes tell me, “that type of thing would never happen here.” The same attitude prevailed at BP before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

If there are ongoing ethical concerns at your company that cause you to answer “yes” to any of these questions, you may want to escalate the matter. Some do’s and don’ts:

Do: Use introspection to know your personal values. Write them down – and be confident to advocate for them when they are confronted.

Don’t: Rationalize inaction by believing that you’re too [senior/junior/new/entrenched] to raise concerns.

Do: Record what you have observed, document your objections, and the reasons you object. This helps clarify the issues and provides needed material should you decide to escalate them.

Don’t: Pigeonhole possible alternatives others suggest as morally “right” and “wrong”. This polarizes conversations, makes people defensive, and distracts them from ultimately achieving the best outcome.

Do: strive to understand the point of view of others who might not share your concern.

Don’t: attribute malintent or deviousness to others before fully learning the reasons for their action or recommendation.

Do: seek the support of others who might be similarly uncomfortable with a decision, policy, or practice.

Don’t: assume you’re the only one who objects.

By far, the most cost-effective, powerful mitigation for ethical risks is a values-driven workforce, empowered to speak up for themselves when they are confronted, and knowing that their employer makes it safe to do so. Advocating for one’s values is a skill that must be practiced regularly and often. It requires listening to your gut and recognizing when something feels wrong.

Asking “would an idiot do that?” is as good place as any to start.

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