Blogging from the wrong side of the Dunning-Kruger Effect
October 21, 2010 6:50 AM   Subscribe

I want to talk about ethics in marketing from an in-the-field standpoint; I think it's an important conversation that nobody's having. But I'm overthinking myself right out of ever doing it.

Apologies for length. Overthinking, remember?

I've taken a couple of runs at starting a blog about marketing ethics over the past year. I work in marketing -- my position straddles both the creative and account sides of the job -- and my gut tells me that this is something that needs to be talked about, and that people in my field want to talk about. And nobody's really doing it... yet.

There are a few books on marketing ethics out there, and scholarly articles, but they're written by academics and very ivory-towerish, bird's-eye-view things. There's very little out there about the day-in day-out implications of what we do, both on a micro scale (looking at individual ads) and a more macro scale (responsibility to present women accurately vs. present what's currently perceived as aspirational vs. whether or not what we think is aspirational is actually aspirational, etc.). I know I'm not the only person thinking about this stuff. I have these conversations. I just want to put them out there.

So why am I not doing this?
  • Stagefright. While I have a decade-long history in marketing, and I'm now a mid-level executive at a national firm, I never studied marketing per se -- fell into this from radio work, and worked my way up. I've also never studied ethics or philosophy, so I feel like I'm pulling stuff out of my ass on both fronts. My inner voice is a constant refrain of who-the-fuck-are-you to be talking about this stuff?, and it freaks me out.

  • Comfort. My game plan is to start the blog up and keep it private, then present it to my employers and say "this is what I want to do." We're in an interesting place right now where they know I'm pretty indispensible, but that I've ceilinged out, so they're looking for ways to keep me active and interested. This is one, so I'm pretty sure they'll sign on. But there's still a chance they won't, in which case I'll have some difficult decisions to make. Anonymous blogging is out: I've tried it, and it's really not my style.

  • Direction. I'm really keen on this in theory, but I'm having a hard time making myself act on it, partly because I don't have a clear path to goal. Do I just blat my opinions on stuff out there and hope they’re coherent and valuable? Should I try to solicit "senior" marketing types to talk about the ethical component of their work? Is starting polls on forums and then reporting on results a good approach? I'm... adrift.

  • The long and the short of it is I want to do this but I have psyched myself right out. How do I snap out of this? How do I convince myself that even if I'm not the perfect person to start this ball rolling, it’s still a ball that needs to be rolled?
    posted by TheFlak to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
    Just start.

    Your plan is good, but I'd go public (not necessarily to your employers, stick to your plan) so that you can show audience response and also support it by tweeting links to useful articles etc. Also consider keeping a delicious links on articles that catch your eye. They become fodder for posts as you dissect the article from your perspective and demonstrate the careful ethical approach or lack thereof etc in the news items.

    Trackback to any of Seth Godin's posts if they catch your eye and are worth responding to with your thoughts (I don't know if he's still allowing that or not)

    And finally, remember the tagline of that very famous sports shoe brand.
    posted by The Lady is a designer at 7:40 AM on October 21, 2010

    Best answer: I'm not sure that you're the victim of an empty psych-out.

    You want to blog about the ethics of what your employer does, and you want to do it out in the open under your own name. You actually want to do it in your employer's name. This is definitely sensitive territory. You're caught between possibly casting a negative light on something you or your company does, or neutering the blog itself to avoid same. I think this could be delicate in any field, but marketing in particular has never been a particular bastion of moral fiber, so any rigorous treatment of the subject could easily get messy.

    All of this could be resolved in the way you approach the project. If you're open and honest but tactful and forthright about your own conflicts, it could be done. But I don't think you can move forward in earnest without addressing the dangers and having a plan for how to navigate them.
    posted by scarabic at 7:53 AM on October 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

    Don't worry about not knowing philosophy. I studied philosophy at U.C. Davis, and most of my teachers cited the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is available online for free. (Actually, my main complaint about philosophy is that beyond being useful for learning to structure thoughts, the philosophy I've been exposed to is mostly not practical.)

    Figure out your direction as you go. It will evolve, anyway, so it isn't worthwhile to get stuck on your starting point. Perhaps it's the possibility of difficult decisions you'd have to make in the future that's snagging you? The results of difficult decisions tend to be rewarding, whichever way they go.

    There is not nearly enough conversation happening about ethics in marketing happening, if you ask me. I've looked for it before. There is a need for this. The perfect person to get the ball rolling on this is the person who is willing to do it. This means that you would be the right person even if you knew nothing about marketing or philosophy. Si se puede!
    posted by aniola at 9:08 AM on October 21, 2010

    This will sound pithy and cliche, but here it is: The best way to start writing is to write.

    Now, you don't have to set up a blog right away, or make a big public splash. All you need to do is break out your favorite writing implements (MS Word, emacs, pen and paper, etc.) and put your thoughts down. Once you do that, things may just start flowing out like a geyser.

    Once you start having some content, then it'll be easier (at least mentally) to work on the rest of the details, like where/when/how you're going to post and share this stuff.
    posted by Citrus at 9:58 AM on October 21, 2010

    On the creative side of how to write the articles, I wouldn't psych yourself out about supposed lack of credentials. You're not writing about something incredibly technical that you know nothing about; you're writing about moral/ethical issues, which we all have opinions on, you can presumably quote and even interview experts as needed, and it's not like you need to crunch numbers in polling data and create a masters-thesis-looking statistical chart for every topic (that's what makes the academic crap look academic).

    I think your problem/reluctance is as scarabic indicated - there are some potential reasons your employers might not want to go along. Even if they're basically honest people who see themselves as ethical, they could worry about exposure to criticism, liability, etc. For (a ridiculous) example, let's say you talk about how fat people are portrayed in advertising. Meanwhile, in an account you don't even work on, one of your co-workers has a fat person in a commercial, doing just the kind of stuff you carp about. "TheFlak? Line 1. Your boss just got a call from your client, who just got a call from..."

    Andddd maybe this is a clue as to why there's not more discussion of this in marketing....
    posted by randomkeystrike at 10:05 AM on October 21, 2010

    Best answer: I know exactly what you mean. This is a good topic and discussion would be welcomed. So about your roadblocks:

    Stage fright: Try the mindset that you're not positioning yourself as The One With The Answers, but rather an experienced marketer with a keen interest and a wealth of observations, insights and opinions. You want to share, and start some discussions. Be sure to invite feedback and be prepared to accept some people telling you, forcefully, that you don't know what the heck you're talking about. That's not scary, because you never claimed to have all the answers, just observations, insights and opinions. It's a learning experience, right?

    Comfort: seems like a good plan. I see plenty of examples of people doing this with their employer's blessing. As long as you keep it professional and with general observations, rather than "let me tell you the stupid thing I saw at my office today," you should be ok. Can't speak for your employer, but I should think they'd be proud to have their people talking about this sort of thing - how could you go wrong fostering the image that "our people care about being ethical?"

    Direction: Yes to all of your ideas.
    posted by evilmomlady at 10:16 AM on October 21, 2010

    For God's sake do it. Marketing NEEDS it. As a creative I have to work a lot with marketing depts. Whenever I've been presented another PowerPoint of a marketing plan 95% of the time my thoughts after the last slide is: "And that's why marketing is part of the problem". All those bizarre mechanisms, methods and x-step plans only have 1 goal: to produce something.

    Hardly ever a thought on the quality of the something. Or if it makes sense to put the something on the market. Nobody really wants the something, but marketing needs something new. Because if you have variable X and variable Z (and never a why) and you allocate a budget and manpower: the something will magically appear and everybody is satisfied. Whenever somebody objects, they fold into a risk management model and the problem is solved.

    This is about the 95%. The other 5% are top notch people with fantastic projects. Also because they basically don't follow the rules and sometimes take risks that are breathtaking. These are the people that care about doing something useful and they are completely dedicated on quality, even if it cost them their jobs. You can recognize them because they love to listen.

    Marketing needs this conversation. Because marketing to me is risk avoiding middle management that clings to their trivial methods to conquer the world without taking a stand and without caring about anything but their bonus.

    Do it and let us know where you do it, because I want to read that blog.
    posted by ouke at 10:23 AM on October 21, 2010

    Best answer: It's appropriate that you mentioned the Dunning-Kruger Effect. There are really two Dunning-Kruger effects: novices are overconfident about their knowledge and abilities, experienced people underestimate their ability. You're definitely in the second category. You're well qualified to do this, and more qualified than most people, but you know enough to know you don't know know everything. (And you know this already.)

    You've been working in marketing for ten years and you've thought about ethical issues a lot. It may feel like any blog posts you would write are just your opinions. But they're informed opinions, and other people might find them insightful. (I'm a non-marketing person interested in how advertising affects me. I'd be interested in what you have to say, just based on the fact that you have experience in the industry and you've thought about it.)

    I've also never studied ethics or philosophy.

    How many people working in marketing have degrees in philosophy, and how many philosophers have experience in marketing or understand it? Any?

    You can respond to feminist critiques of gender stereotypes in marketing, and advertising to women. You can respond to academic discussions of ethics and marketing. What have they missed because they don't understand thew day-to-day practice of marketing and advertising? What have they gotten right? What have they gotten sort of right, but you can explain better because you have some understanding of the industry? You can analyse other companies' marketing campaigns. What are the ethical obligations or marketers to their clients and to consumers? Does honesty or ethics pay off in the long run? When does it or doesn't it? You could ask your readers to send you examples of dishonest or manipulative marketing, and examples of good marketing. ... I don't think you're going to run out of material any time soon.

    Doing this could help your company's image - 'We're a good, ethical company. You know that guy that writes that ethics and marketing blog? He works for us!'

    In short, you should do it. You should run it by the company you work for (and if they disapprove that's a problem). And when you do, you should post it to Projects.

    You'll get over your stage fright when you've been doing it for a bit.
    posted by nangar at 10:55 AM on October 21, 2010

    I came here to say Seth Godin.

    He does work very much like this. I suspect you could guest post or ghost write for him in some way if he liked your angle. This could lead down an entirely different path/career where you are not ceiling'd out and constantly contributing in a way that you felt was valuable.

    Alternatively, read his work and his colleague's work and see if that is the type of thing that you would like to produce on your own (or better understand if your MO is something totally different).

    Alternatively, you could find through this reading that the conversation you want to have is already taking place, and join in.
    posted by milqman at 2:11 PM on October 21, 2010

    Response by poster: Thank you for the kind thoughts and helpful comments so far. I really need to get this done. In passing, I do appreciate Godin but haven't caught up with him lately; integrity is definitely a large component of what he writes about and champions, but maybe he's turned towards broader ethical issues.

    I guess the only way forward is to try, screw up, un-screw up, and keep going. I will definitely keep you posted.
    posted by TheFlak at 6:37 AM on October 22, 2010

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