Tag Archives: ethics

Me And Mr. Jones

You might have read the news this morning that Apple has banned Alex Jones and Infowars from their podcasting platform. They join Facebook, Spotify, and YouTube in tossing this material off their distribution channels. Some of you will see this as a political move, stifling free speech. I don’t want to look at it that way today. Instead, I’d like us to focus on some business issues.

If you’re not familiar with Mr. Jones, he’s a conspiracy theorist who has claimed, among other things, that the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School were staged by paid actors and that the government is poisoning children to make them gay. Do you remember a guy walking into a pizzeria with a gun to free the children being held there as part of a sex ring? An Alex Jones listener, who heard that the Clintons were running the ring on Alex Jones’ program.

Following the ban, some folks are yelling about freedom of speech and the First Amendment. Sorry folks. Some speech is not protected. I can’t make things up about a product and knowingly advertise false information. I can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater. The most relevant type of speech that’s not protected is this:

Government may prohibit the use of “fighting words,” which is speech that is used to inflame another and that will likely incite physical retaliation. Likewise, language that is meant to incite the masses toward lawless action is not protected. This can include speech that is intended to incite violence or to encourage the audience to commit illegal acts. The test for fighting words is whether an average citizen would view the language as being inherently likely to provoke a violent response.

That’s exactly why this material was banned. It violates the platforms’ terms of service. Frankly, it disappoints me that it’s taken so long and it raises a business point we all need to consider.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects platforms from liability when people publish on their platform. This prevents me from suing a platform when a third-party writes something completely false about me, and it’s a great idea. The problem is that too many platforms hide behind this, feeling as if they begin moderating the obviously false or hateful content that they might, in fact, become liable. In doing so, they open the platform up to become a megaphone for hate and disinformation. Most importantly, it damages their reputation and turns off users. Look at what has happened with Twitter. The word I hear most often when people describe it is “cesspool.” To their credit, Twitter management is acting to clean it up (finally) but a lot of damage has already been done.

Any of us in business need to do more to protect our brands and businesses than the minimum legally required amount. Being corporately responsible is proactive. Remember that there are other channels through which Mr. Jones or any other content provider can distribute their information. That doesn’t mean I have to allow him or anyone else into mine, just as you don’t need to permit anyone into your retail store who you find potentially troublesome – a suspected shoplifter, for example –  as long as it is not based on bias against a federally protected class of people. I need to be clear about that to my users (we don’t welcome hate speech or knowingly false information here in your terms of service, perhaps).  Most importantly, I need to be responsible and do the best I can to do the ethically correct thing. Not because I dislike what it is you have to say, but because it’s a hate-filled lie.

Your thoughts?

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Selling Sneaky Vs. Selling Right

I got called an idiot this morning. OK, not in those exact words, but I was reading an article on social media marketing and a pop-up asked me to download a whitepaper. The choices I was given via the two buttons were “YES, sign me up” or “No, I don’t want the latest research.” It’s a classic example of what is called “confirmshaming”. This is the act of guilting the user into opting into something. If you choose not to, the option to pass is worded in such a way as to shame you into compliance. You can see numerous examples of it here.

That’s just one of the sneaky things marketers do. The worst, of course, is tracking you without your permission. Did you ever hear of a company called InMarket? Me neither, but if you installed one of 800 apps, they’re tracking your every move without your permission. You can read a very well done piece about it in Adweek. Is it legal? No one seems to be sure. Is it ethical? Oh hell no, not in my book. 

Marketing has never really been held up as a paragon of ethical behavior but I’m not sure why many of the folks in the field decided to head for new lows. Maybe it’s because digital tools have made it all much easier, maybe it’s because there aren’t enough grown-ups in the room when these decisions are made, maybe it’s because the drive for money has overtaken common sense. Witness the ongoing effort to force “influencers” to disclose when they’ve been paid to say nice things about a product or service. Besides that requirement being the law, it’s also the right thing to do.

Some more examples? Designing a website or email to focus your attention on one thing in order to distract your attention from something else such as an opt-out button. Asking you to upload your contacts to give you some sort of social or informational benefit but using your address book to spam your friends. Not posting all of the charges and fees until the very last step in checkout or, even worse, hiding them in such as way that they’re hard to find. I think I’ve seen examples of those things just in the last few days. They’re not rare.

Why is there an aversion to the truth? Why can’t we call advertising by its name rather than some misleading name such as “sponsored content” or “special section”? Why can’t we treat consumers as we would a family member rather than a mark?

I’m not naive and I realize that this is about selling stuff. Given the high cost of getting caught, both in dollars (millions of dollars in fines!) and in reputation (check out the latest 20 Most-hated companies and why), those sales derived from the methods described above and others probably aren’t worth it in the long run. That’s my take – what’s yours?

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A Disgusted Capitalist

Let me begin by saying I’m a fan of making money. However, just as with free speech (you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater), I think there are some limits as to what a person can do in order to make that money. I was reminded of what those limits should be this week when I received what is not, unfortunately, an atypical letter in the mail.

I recently registered my business in a new place. I also purchased a car. In both cases, I received letters in the mail that seemed incredibly official but which were, in fact, full of deceptive language and claims. In the former case, I got a “Labor Law Compliance Notice,” that informed me I was required by Federal Law(!!) to hang a poster in my place of business. While that might be true for most businesses, because I have no employees, my business is not required to hang anything other than the 250 pictures of myself I keep around for inspiration. A little research by this company would have saved them the stamp. Still, this notice is extremely official looking, cites Federal Law, and looks like a bill for $84. Had I been required to hang these posters, there are numerous other vendors who will sell you the same thing for a quarter the price.

The same sort of deceptive crap followed the car purchase. Notices about activating my warranty came from a few sources, none of which had anything to do with the car manufacturer, and who were looking to sell me a superfluous warranty (the car will be under the manufacturer’s warranty for quite a while). Obviously, since these folks can see what year the car was made they know that, but they sent the letters anyway.

You’ve probably received phone calls from the “service department” or “IT support” telling you your computer is full of spam. While the aforementioned companies don’t fall into the outright scam category that the computer scammers do, they raise a serious issue for us all:

How far will we go to make a buck?

Charities that give tiny percentages of the money raised to the causes they serve, enriching the folks who run them instead. VW and other manufacturers rigging emission tests. Kellogg‘s claiming Rice Krispies boosted the immune system or Mini-Wheats made you smarter. It’s a long list, one to which I’m sure you could add just by opening your mail.

There are people behind these deceptions, people with minimal ethical principles. Did they at any point ask themselves how they’d feel if their elderly parent bought into a scam they were enabling?

I’m all for making a buck, lot of them in fact. But as with almost everything, there is a right way and a wrong way. You decide.

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Still Not Worthy

I’ve written before about an annual survey conducted by the Gallup folks. They ask people to “tell me how you would rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields – very high, high, average, low, or very low.” I’m sure it’s not shocking to you that nurses top the chart with respect to the percentage of people who respond their ethics and honesty are high or very high. It might, however, be a shock to you where businesspeople – and ad people in particular – fall on the scale.  

Just 1 in 10 US adults rates the honesty and ethical standards of advertising practitioners as high or very high.  While ad people did manage to surpass car salespeople (8% rating as having high or very high honesty and ethical standards), members of Congress (8%), telemarketers (8%) and lobbyists (7%), it’s still not very good.  In fact, it’s sad.  But is it a surprise?

Unfortunately, I don’t think so.  Not when we can read members of the ad community advocating disguising ads as content.  Not when we knowingly allow robots to access our sites so it appears that we’re serving up more ads to people than we really are.  Not when influencers talk about something they like without disclosing that they’ve been paid to mention the product.

It’s not just the ad business.  Business executives overall were well thought of by only 17% of the respondents.  That falls behind lawyers (21%) and labor union leaders (18%).  Again, not a shock, given the almost daily news reports of unsafe products (hoverboards, air bags to mention just two) that the manufacturers knew had a problem but which were sold anyway.

2016 is only a few weeks old. Maybe instead of resolving to lose weight or to quit smoking, those of us in business need to resolve to up our ethics and honesty?  Maybe we should be focusing on doing right for our customers and not for our shareholders?  What are your thoughts?

 

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Filed under Huh?, Reality checks

What’s Missing?

Big headline this morning on eMarketer.  It reads:

Good News: Publishers and Media Buyers Both Like Native Ads

I don’t know about you but I feel so much better that native advertising is here to stay.  For those of you unfamiliar with the subject, native advertising is ad content that presents itself as editorial.  Maybe you’re reading the website of a popular magazine and there is an article on what to look for when buying sunscreen.  Maybe you don’t notice that it’s written by the head of marketing from a sunscreen manufacturer.  If you know that, does it call into question any of the information you’re reading?  It does in my mind if that information recommends that you look for certain things on the label (you can bet they’re on HIS product’s label), etc.

This piece over at copyblogger can show you more examples.  My guess is that you had no idea that some of what you’ll see is advertising.  That’s the issue I have with the headline.  Publishers are represented.  So are advertisers through their media buyers.  What’s missing?

You are.  We are.  Consumers are.  They may like it but do you?  I don’t.  And this does not make me feel any better about it:

In a June 2014 study by Mixpo, nearly three-quarters of US publishers said having a native advertising offering was important. And they were taking action. The majority of respondents offered a native advertising solution, and an additional one-fifth planned to do so within the next few years at most.

I don’t want to have to wonder if anything I’m reading is editorial or advertising.  I don’t want to be researching my research to ascertain if it’s unbiased or quietly (some might say sneakily) advocating a brand.  I don’t like native ads unless they are clearly labeled as “advertising” and I’m sad that what I think (or what you think) doesn’t seem to be part of the equation that’s formulated about its future.

What’s your take?

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What Price Ethics?

So here is an interesting question for you.  I was reading the results of a study conducted by the good folks from Trade Extensions that concerned how consumers view ethics and sustainability and how they affect purchasing decisions.  When you ask people how important it is that companies behave ethically and with an eye towards sustainability, four out of five consumers regard it as important.  That would suggest that doing the right thing (whatever that may be) is a critical factor in purchasing, right?

Not so much:

When asked to rank the three most important attributes when shopping, the most important factor is price – 40% of consumers ranked this number one.  The second most important factor is value for money – 30% ranked this number one. And the third most important factor is quality –  16% ranked this number one.  Choosing an ethical company or brand when shopping is the most important factor and ranked number one for 2% of UK and US consumers.

Hmm.  So is that a license for a company to do whatever they want as long as prices are low?  Given some of the voices speaking out against Walmart, for example, over things such as foreign product sourcing, treatment of product suppliers, environmental practices, etc., apparently not.  Like most things in business, it’s not quite that black and white.  The research shows a desire from consumers to buy ethically but ultimately price, value and quality are the deciding factors.

Other studies have shown similar results.  One from Accenture found that sales and competitive pricing (61%) are by far the most critical factors in getting consumers to make a purchase. Superior products (36%) and customer experience (35%) are also key, according to respondents, followed closely by customer loyalty programs (31%) and relevant promotions (26%). Ad campaigns and celebrity endorsements trailed by a significant margin, presumably as they’re more influential in driving awareness than completed purchases.

So back to ethical behavior.  Can any company afford to ignore it?  I suspect it’s very possible to do good while doing well and to enhance the quality of consumer’s lives in an honorable way.  Maybe it’s not much of a selling point because so few companies have that focus?  What is your take?

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Canada Gets It Right

I’m not a lawyer and I don’t even try to play one on TV.

English: Supreme Court of Canada building, Ott...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That said, the screed today is one citizen’s view of something that happened with our neighbors to the North and why I think it should serve as an example for us.  As has been happening here, the Canadian government is trying to expand the scope of warrantless, voluntary disclosure of personal information via digital.  There are bills before the legislature which would permit many of the same activities that have been occurring here for years to go on in Canada.   These include the warrantless disclosure of data to law enforcement as well as immunity from any criminal or civil liability  for companies that do so.  The Canadians are also considering allowing organizations to disclose personal information without consent (and without a court order) to any organization that is investigating a contractual breech or possible violation of any law.  Read that carefully – ANY organization – including non-governmental.

The other day things changed:

The Supreme Court of Canada issued its long-awaited R. v. Spencer decision, which examined the legality of voluntary warrantless disclosure of basic subscriber information to law enforcement. In a unanimous decision, the court issued a strong endorsement of Internet privacy, emphasizing the privacy importance of subscriber information, the right to anonymity, and the need for police to obtain a warrant for subscriber information except in exigent circumstances or under a reasonable law.

Revolutionary?  One might think, except we’ve had a similar law on our books for a hundreds of years.  It’s called the Fourth Amendment and it protects each of us from unreasonable searches and seizures.  It also states the government must have warrants which are specific as to what the search is about.  No fishing trips permitted.  I’ll wait while the lawyers tell me I’m missing nuance and maybe I am.  That said, I’m outraged and sickened by what has been occurring with much regularity over the last 13 years and the fact that companies are complicit in allowing fishing trips by government.  It’s just as bad in my book that businesses grab data from users without explicit permission nor do they disclose what data is taken, how it is to be used, and when it is sold to third parties.

Today isn’t meant to do anything except call your attention to the issue.  If you’ve not been paying attention to it you should.  No one can enter your home without permission or a warrant.  Why would you allow them into your digital home without either?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?, Thinking Aloud