A Market for Morality

Things are going to get interesting in the world of marketing. And the first indication of that was seen this past Sunday during the Super Bowl. As Bob Garfield noted, there were a lot of subtle and not so subtle undercurrents of messaging in the ads that ran in between the distracting sub-story that played out on the field. Things got downright political with a number of 167 thousand-dollar-a-second ad swipes at the current president and his policies.

I and many others here at Mediapost have been criticized over the past several months for getting political when we should have been talking about media and marketing. But as this weekend showed, we’re naïve to think those two worlds don’t overlap almost completely. And that’s about to become even more true in the future.

Advertising has to talk about what people are talking about. It has always been tied to the zeitgeist of society. And in a politically polarized nation, that means advertising’s “going to go there”. That’s normal. What’s not so normal is this weird topsy-turvy trend of for-profit companies suddenly becoming the moral gatekeepers of America. That’s supposed to be the domain of government and – if you believe in such things – religion. That’s in a normal world. But in the world of 2017 and the minds of 53.9% of America (the percentage of the electorate who didn’t vote for Trump) there is a vast, sucking moral vacuum on at least one of those fronts. It seems that Corporate America is ready to step up and fill the gap.

Suddenly, there is a market for morality. Of course, we have always had “feel-good” advertising and codes of corporate responsibility but this is different – both in volume and tone. It is more overtly political and it plays on perceived juxtaposition of the mores of the nation and the official stance of the government. Markets are built to be nimble and adaptive. Governments are seldom either of these things. Corporate America is sensing a market opportunity by taking the high road and the Super Bowl marked the beginning of what may become a stampede to higher moral ground.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Around the turn of the last century, we saw the rise of welfare capitalism. In a rapidly expanding industrial market where there was a scarcity of human resources and little legislative regulation of working conditions, corporations became paternalistic. The reasoning was that no one could better provide stability for workers than the corporation that employed them. What is different about the current situation, however, is that this moral evangelism is primarily aimed at the market, not internal operations. We’ll come back to this in a bit.

This creates an interesting dynamic. In a free market economy citizens have the right to vote with their wallets. After a deeply divisive election the debate can continue in a market suddenly divided along political lines. This is compounded by the interconnected and interactive nature of marketing today. We have realized that our market is a complex system and plays by it’s own rules, none of which are predictable. Social network effects, outriding anomalies and viral black swans are now the norm. As I said in an earlier column, branding is becoming a game of hatching “belief worms” – messages designed to bypass rationality and burrow deep into our subconscious values. Our current political climate is a rich breeding ground for said “worms.”

You might say, “What’s wrong with Corporate America taking a moral stand? “

Well..two things.

There is no corporation I’m aware of that has as its first priority the safeguarding of morality. As economist Milt Friedman said, corporations are there to make a profit. Period. And they will always follow the path most likely to lead to that profit. For example, Silicon Valley has been very vocal in its condemnation of the Muslim travel ban not because it’s not right but because it jeopardizes the ability to travel for its employees from Muslim countries. And a century ago, welfare capitalism spread because it helped employers hang on to their employees and gave them a way to keep out unions. Even if morality and profitability happen to share the same bandwagon for a time the minute profitability veers in a new direction, corporations will follow. This is not the motivational environment you want to stake the future on.

Secondly, there is no democratic mandate behind the stated morality of a corporation. There are a lot of CEO’s that have robust ideological beliefs, but it is fair to say the moral proclivities of a corporation are necessarily tied to a very select special interest group: the employees, the customers and the shareholders of that corporation. Companies, by their very nature, should not be expected to speak for “we, the people.” Much as we would like morality to be universally defined, it is still very much a personal matter.

Take just one of these moral stakeholders – the customers. According to Blend, a millennial messaging app, their users loved the Coke, Budweiser and Airbnb ads that all had overt or thinly veiled moral messages. But there was a backlash from Trump supporters asking for boycotts of all these advertisers along with others that got political. The social storms stirred up on both sides were telling. Reaction was quick and emotionally charged. In a world where branding and beliefs are locked together at the hip, we can probably expect that morality and marketing will be similarly conjoined. That means that morality, just like marketing, will be segmented and targeted to very specific groups.

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