During a long bike ride yesterday, I got to thinking about the late Pat Jackson. I invoke Pat’s name a lot on this site, since he is the “prophet” most responsible for my world-view in public relations. If you don’t know of Pat’s contributions, read about them here.
Pat understood that to gain the respect of top management, public relations must move behavior. CEOs care about action, not awareness. PR’s mission, said Pat, was to change the human outcomes. Behavior is the ultimate measure of our success — and in the end, it’s the only one that matters.
Sounds pretty sinister, huh? Don’t worry. Pat was as ethical as the day is long. He knew that we can facilitate change only when we foster trust. He understood, decades before the first blogger touted it, that marketing is all about relationships. Pat believed in “transparency” back when we called it “honesty.”
Pat also believed — as did his friend Ed Bernays — that social science theory could be used responsibly to alter human behavior. But he never endorsed the hyperbole or exaggeration typical of marketing campaigns. As Pat liked to say, “People want to be served, not sold.”
While the “right” to persuade is assumed in this democratic system of ours, you don’t win over customers with nonsense words like “state-of-the-art” or “revolutionary.” And you don’t earn trust by masking the intent of your message or the identity of the messenger, both common tactics in the digital world.
But how often do we urge our clients to test campaigns against a moral gauge? That’s my lesson today, should you choose to hang around for all 1100+ words of it.
I learned this lesson from two sociologists who wrote about it back in the 1970s. Donald Warwick and Herbert Kelman didn’t label it, so I’ve dubbed this ethics tool the “Moral Continuum for the Ethics of Persuasion.” Academic enough for you?
The Continuum is nothing more than a scale to helps us judge the transparency and authenticity of our PR and marketing strategies. You simply ask yourself: Where does my creative idea, marketing strategy, advertising copy, etc., fit along the continuum between the proverbial “good” and “evil”? (Oh, yeah. I added the good and evil part, too, as these are hardly terms befitting serious academic research.) The model — as I envision it — looks like this:
Let me explain the categories. The rest is up to you.
Coercion. Your strategy is coercive when the target group is forced to adopt a behavior under threat of greater harm. It effectively eliminates choice. I recall one such program in the early days of fiber-optic cable. Time-Warner announced a plan to place cable boxes atop every subscriber’s television at a cost of about $4 a month — $12 in my case, since we have 3 TVs. Prior to this, the black boxes were required only to access premium channels and pay-per-view, neither of which I cared about.
T-W’s strategy — dubbed by insiders as the “forced option” — made the boxes mandatory. As a result, every customer would have access to HBO, Showtime, et. al., and certainly more customers would use pay-per-view — especially the high-priced porn. Refuse the box and your cable service was reduced to local channels only, the same as you’d get from a rooftop antenna.
TW’s “forced option” was coercive, since it left the customer with no viable options — at least not in a modern world where information is vital to existence. BTW, satellite dishes at the time cost a small fortune and were 6-feet in diameter. To complete the story, several municipalities complained to the FCC, which eventually ruled against TW, forcing the company to offer a reasonable selection sans the box.
Coercion is possible, sometimes even easy, when the company holds a monopoly as cable did before the mini-dish. But it’s also possible to use coercion to achieve utilitarian good. Seat-belt laws are an example of how coercion achieves positive ends while limiting free choice. But when you consider strategies that limit choice of your stakeholders, consider the moral ramifications, and resist the temptation to coerce.
Environmental manipulation changes some aspect of the target group’s surroundings with a goal of inhibiting free choice. PR campaigns to limit smoking in public areas eliminated tobacco use in most workplaces and public venues. It’s a case in which positive outcomes emerged from manipulation of the environment. But not all approaches serve the greater good.
Companies can “sneak up” on us using environmental manipulation. For example, I bought an electric sander that I believed to be the perfect tool — at least until I had to buy replacement paper, available only from the manufacturer of the sander and at an exorbitant price. Doh! Let the buyer beware, indeed!
When I worked in the beverage business, manufacturers found ways to manipulate allocation of supermarket shelf space in favor of their own products, thus altering the environment to limit consumer choices. Profitable? You bet. Ethical? Hmmm. But it’s done all the time.
Psychic manipulation involves attempts to alter perceptions of the target group to create the belief that choices are limited when, in fact, they are not. Psychic manipulation is the stock in trade of advertisers and marketers. Choosy mothers choose Jif, right? And if your hubby has “ring around the collar,” shame on you, little woman!
The rational consumer understands when advertisers are messing with the psyche. That’s the theory, at least. But if we are rational, how to you explain consumer preference for brand-name over-the-counter pain relievers? Same stuff, higher price. Or the absolute vanity that drives a person to pay $500 for a handbag or $150 for a pair of sneakers? If this is free choice, you can have it.
Puffery is, in fact, the core of most great marketing campaigns. If you fall for it, well, maybe there IS a sucker born every minute. While it’s entirely legal, puffery is the primary reason I never prospered in the marcom world. I guess I’m just not good at psychic manipulation.
Facilitation. Ahhh. You know, some of the best words in the English language start with F, “facilitation” and “foster” being my two favorites. Facilitation — if it’s a form of persuasion at all — is designed to foster free choice that will satisfy the desires of the target group. The policy of Progressive Insurance to give new customers a range of quotes, including those of competitors, is the embodiment of facilitation (though I honestly don’t trust it — and I’m not sure why).
Employers who offer a range of benefit plans (mine included) often present employees with side-by-side comparisons to facilitate our choices of co-pays and deductibles. It helps. My favorite outfitter, Campmor, let’s me compare features of competing products. Campmor earns my business by focusing on me, not on their vendors and suppliers or the hype contained in their brochures.
Think about it. Facilitation was the promise of Web 2.0. It was the promise of the Cluetrain Manifesto (“Marketing is a conversation.”) But if all products can be brought to market without persuasive messages, then we don’t need marketing communications at all, do we? Hmm. A world without marketers? Let me savor that one for awhile.
Back to Pat Jackson. In a free market, absolute coercion and absolute facilitation seldom occur. The marketplace keeps coercion in check; marketers keep facilitation in check, as they’d rather we not have the whole story.
Since we’re all in the business of shaping human behaviors, it behooves us to subject our campaigns to ethical inspection. If we don’t, the marketplace — bloggers in particular — almost certainly will. The more we can drive our organizations toward a more symmetrical model of public relations, the less we’ll have to worry about manipulation in our messages.
See you in about 10 days. I’m goin’ fishin’ — another of my favorite “F” words!