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June 14, 2007


Seth Godin

Thanks, Peter, for reading.

If I understand your point, you're not responsible because, like hypnotism, marketing doesn't work on people who don't want to be marketed to, doesn't work on people with free will. If that were true, you'd probably be right.

Except it's not true. Marketing (particularly short term and not particularly ethical marketing) can drive votes or consumption or actions. And if it does, then why aren't you responsible for the amplification it causes?

Peter Darling

Because it doesn't cause it.

The most marketing can do is present people with alternatives, or ideas, or points of view. They still have to act. There's a huge chasm between an idea and an action, and responsibility, at least in the sense I believe you mean it, lies only with the people who act.

If your marketing is simply lying, then that's one thing. If you tell people that jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge is fun, and they have no way to verify your claim, and no reason not to believe you, and truly are powerless to think for themselves, then yes, you are responsible for what happens to them.

But most marketing doesn't have anywhere near that kind of influence. Instead, you're telling people, say, that buying an SUV will make them rugged, independent, and individualistic. If they want to, they can stop and think about it, and weigh your claim for themselves. This happens all the time.

The question is not whether or not marketing has influence. It does. We all know it does. That's why we have jobs. The question instead, I think, is whether that influence is so powerful that we're responsible for what other people do because we "made them" do it. I don't think so. The person who sold all the firearms isn't responsible for what Cho Seung-Hui did. Sueng-Hui is the one who pulled the trigger, which is the act that really counts.

One final thought: It's also very much mistaken to assume that you know in advance what the consequences will be of an idea, or an action. Rosa Parks did not, in her wildest dreams, think she was going to help launch the civil rights movement. She was just tired, and pissed off.

Marketing is more art than science, and art's power to cause things to happen is not insignificant, but doesn't rise to the level of making the artist responsible.


Thanks for this debate, which is important. Is it really about cause and effect, though? In ethics, this is a 'consequentialist' argument. In other words, if the outcome, or consequence is bad, then you shouldn't do it. You and Seth seem to agree that marketing can influence people's actions, but not determine them. In other words, marketers do not directly cause the consequences of their actions, and may have a limited degree of connection with those consequences. For both of you, the degree of connection determines the degree of responsibility. But I think there's another way of looking at it. Imagine there are no consequences at all.
Is it ethical then to market any product whatever? In a world in which one's actions have no discernable connection to any supposed outcomes, can there be any form of meaningful action? If there is, it would have to be meaningful in its own right, since we can't rely on the consequences (actually there's another possibility, a 'deontological' value, but it's probably less relevant here). I would argue that marketing certain products can be seen as wrong in itself. As Buddhists might say, it amounts to 'unskillful means'. A 'virtue' approach to ethics suggests that there could be such a thing as a 'good marketer', who knows how to behave virtuously (skillfully?) in general and does so consistently in particular circumstances. Peter, if you discount a consequentialist approach to ethics, on the grounds that marketers can't actually force people to buy things and are therefore not responsible for the purchasing decisions of others, would you also discount a virtue approach? In other words, do you not think we can talk meaningfully about the skill called 'good marketing'? If you do, is it possible that good marketers might have criteria for excluding certain clients, or can a good marketer behave well in relation to all clients whatsoever?
For instance, I think a marketer who is engaged to market the instruments of torture on behalf of a repressive government is a bad marketer. This is because dealing with the instruments of torture is wrong in itself, and a good marketer would be able to discern this. There is of course an alternative view: that a good marketer is one who either cannot make this kind of judgement, or who chooses not to. In a sense, the torture example is at one extreme of a scale of clients. Is it ethical to market 'security equipment' to an 'undemocratic' government? Already there seems to be more room for debate. I would argue that wherever the line is drawn, a good marketer would at least be able to take part in the discussion. Or should good marketers find such nuances totally irrelevant - a mere distraction from the business of selling stuff and making money?
A final question: while you helpfully use a warning against co-dependency to claim that it is wrong to assume responsibility for other people's actions, would you be prepared to say what, if anything,marketers are responsible for? Perhaps in the end 'being responsible' is not a thing that marketers do. After all, the industry doesn't have a great track record at this (what - you mean 'Thank You For Smoking' is just a movie??) Or does it?

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