Marketing's moral myopia

Author: John Monczunski

The vegetable soup was chock full of good things to eat. Unfortunately, the good things were at the bottom of the bowl, invisible. The photographer for the print ad, however, had a novel solution: He put marbles in the bowl, forcing the veggies to the surface. No one saw a problem with the sleight of hand, and thus was born one of the classics of deceptive advertising. The Federal Trade Commission filed and won a lawsuit, and Campbell Soup Company was left with egg on its face.

Why would an advertising agency produce such a deceitful ad? Apparently, according to a recent study in the Journal of Advertising, most advertising agency executives don’t think twice about the ethical implications of their work.

When Patrick Murphy, Notre Dame professor of marketing, and Minnette Drumwright of the University of Texas interviewed more than 50 advertising executives in 29 agencies they found that most failed to see potential ethical problems in their work. This “moral myopia,” as the researchers termed it, meant the executives rarely discussed ethical issues among themselves, resulting in “moral muteness.”

Agency executives rationalized their suspension of ethical judgment by separating personal beliefs from business decisions. They also were unwilling to contradict clients, believed ethical considerations lead to bland, inferior ads, and feared raising one ethical issue would open a Pandora’s box of other ethical issues.

Murphy, who is a co-director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Ethical Business Worldwide, points out that blindness to ethics is not unique to advertising or marketing. “Indeed, the recent round of corporate scandals suggest that moral myopia and moral muteness are apparent in many industries,” he and Drumwright observe in their journal article.