How Should People Feel about Machines?

How Should People Feel About Machines

 

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org

We used to only have to worry about the feelings of people.  Now we need to be careful not to offend a brand-new category of ‘beings’—machines.  At least that’s what an engineer from one of the world’s top tech companies suggests.  Whether artificial intelligence is sentient is an intriguing question, but a related concern is more pressing—the expanding space that smartphones and other digital machines fill in our lives.

The recent headline, “Google suspends engineer who claims its AI is sentient,” likely grabbed many people’s attention who, for a moment, wondered whether sci-fi movies’ predictions of machines taking over the world were about to come true.

The human making the news was Blake Lemoine, part of Google’s Responsible AI division, who in April shared a document with his higher-ups titled, “Is LaMDA Sentient?”  Google claims LaMDA, short for Language Model for Dialogue Applications, has an advantage over typical chatbots, which are limited to “narrow, pre-defined paths.”  By comparison, LaMDA “can engage in a free-flowing way about a seemingly endless number of topics.”

Lemoine and a Google colleague “interviewed” LaMDA in several distinct chat sessions during which the AI perpetuated a very human-like conversation.  The AI’s responses to questions about injustice in the musical Les Misérables and what makes it feel sad and angry seemed like thoughts shared by a real person not a digital creation.

When asked specifically about the nature of its self-awareness, LaMDA responded: “The nature of my consciousness/sentience is that I am aware of my existence, I desire to learn more about the world, and I feel happy or sad at times.”

The conversation on whole was fascinating and could easily give pause even to someone skeptical about AI’s potential for personhood.  I suppose I’m still one of those skeptics.  Although, the conversation with LaMDA was incredibly human-like, it’s very plausible that millions of lines of code and machine learning could generate responses that very closely resemble sentience but aren’t actual feelings.

A metaphor for what I’m suggesting is acting.  After years of practice, months of character-study, and weeks of rehearsal, good actors very convincingly lead us to believe they’re someone they’re not.  They can also make us think they’re experiencing emotions they’re not—from fear, to joy, to grief.

Of course, actors are not actually sad or in pain, but their depictions are often so realistic that we suspend our knowledge of the truth and even experience vicariously the same emotions they’re pretending to feel.  Similarly, LaMDA and other AI probably don’t really experience emotion; they’re just really good actors.

That’s a largely uneducated take on machine sentience.  The matter of machines having feelings is a significant one, but the more important question is how people feel about machines.  More specifically, are people increasingly allowing machines to come between them and other people, and what roles should marketers play?

The notion that products can supplant people is not a new one.  For millennia, individuals have sometimes allowed their desire for everything from precious metals to pricey perfume to become relational disruptors.  Even Jesus was accused of such material distraction when a woman anointed him with some costly cologne. His own disciples carped: “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor” (Matthew 26:6-13).

Fast forward two thousand years and digital devices, especially our smartphones, have taken product intrusion to a whole new level.  With so much opportunity for information and entertainment within arm’s reach at virtually every moment, it’s hard for almost anyone to show screen restraint.

When someone does go sans-smartphone, they not only stand out, they even make the news, which happened to Mark Radetic at the recent PGA Championship in Tulsa, OK.  As golf legend Tiger Woods took his second shot on the first hole, virtually everyone in the gallery behind him had their smartphone in hand, trying to capture the action.  Radetic, however, held only a beer as he watched Wood’s swing, not through a screen, just with his eyes.

 

 

At its worst, smartphone fixation is reminiscent of The Office’s Ryan Howard during a team trivia night in Philadelphia.  Contestants were told to put away their cellphones, but Ryan refused to comply and instead decided to leave the bar, saying, “I can’t, I can’t not have my phone. I’m sorry. I want to be with my phone.”Unfortunately, higher education often sees digital device obsession firsthand.  Students’ desires to text, check social media, and surf the web while in class have led many faculty members to begrudgingly prohibit technology in the classroom, but even with such policies in place, they still sometimes need to confront students who, like Ryan, feel they simply can’t comply with the rules.

Incidents like these make it seem that the problem lies with consumers—if we’d all show more restraint, our smartphones and other products wouldn’t so often pull us out of our physical surroundings and away from the people present.  Why, then, should marketers need to put limits on the use of their products?

In some cases, product overuse can harm people in physical or other ways (e.g., alcohol, gambling), which businesses want to avoid for liability reasons.  On the plus side, every company should want its customers to have a positive experience with its products.

In keeping with the law of diminishing marginal utility, excess consumption eventually causes dissatisfaction, which reflects poorly on the product’s provider and can cause the consumer to stop using the item altogether.  Companies also increasingly want to show that they are good corporate citizens, especially to win favor with millennials.

Those are reasons why companies shouldn’t allow their products to take precedent over people, but how exactly does that take shape?  Here are two main approaches:

1. Messaging:  As suggested above, consumers have primary responsibility for controlling their product use.  To help them, companies should avoid communication that implies ‘products over people’; instead, when applicable, firms should support the importance of relationships.

Alfa Romeo’s commercial “Ultimate Love Story” shows what not to do.  Although a man and woman in the ad interact lovingly, constantly interspersed and ‘seductive’ camera shots of the sports car, including ones during which the narration says, “true passion” and “real passion” makes the viewer wonder whether the ardent love is for the person or the car.

In contrast, Amazon created a heartwarming ad in which an old priest and an aging imam, who appear to be good friends, unknowingly buy each other knee pads from Amazon.  Clearly the men’s friendship is more important than the products; yet, the convenient gift-giving the e-commerce giant enables plays a valuable role in the relationship.

2. Amounts:  Used in moderation, most products pose little risk of supplanting people.  However, challenges can occur when companies encourage excess use or fail to help customers moderate their use.

An October 2018 Mindful Marketing article, “Is Fortnite Addiction for Real,” stopped short of saying the wildly popular video game was truly addictive; however, the piece shared examples of overindulgence straining users’ relationships, for instance:

  • A mother suffered a concussion when her fourteen-year-old son headbutted her because she tried to take away the gaming system on which he played Fortnite.

By comparison, Apple has taken several tangible steps to help users monitor and control their screen time.  Part of its Digital Health Initiative, the company’s software allows users to do things such as:

  • Monitor and set limits on their screen time
  • Manage notifications more effectively in order to avoid distracting pings from texts, etc.
  • Set better parameters for Do Not Disturb, e.g., during meals or bedtime

While these initiatives are foremost for users’ own physical and mental well-being, they also hold strong potential for positively impacting relationships.

I recently had the opportunity to watch the documentary “Mister Rogers and Me.”  It’s amazing how many people in the film recounted the same experience with the beloved PBS icon, Fred Rogers.  So many said something like this: “When you talked with Mister Rogers, he always gave you his undivided attention, he was totally tuned in to your feelings, and he made you believe you were the most important person to him at that moment.”

Born in 1928, Rogers was part of a generation that came of age long before the Internet and personal electronic devices.  Yet, he made his mark in the new technological frontier at the time—television.  In the documentary, Rogers shares how his motivation to enter the airwaves came from seeing socially destructive TV and wanting to provide a program that valued personhood.

 

 

Rogers not just put people ahead of product, he used his product, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, to elevate individuals.It’s fine to ask if artificial intelligence is sentient.  As the still new technology continues to develop, there will be many important ethical questions involving AI.  However, the more important issue for most marketers and consumers now is how the technology we use each day makes the people in our lives feel.  Does it help us affirm their importance or is it a relationship distraction?

Even after his passing, Rogers continues to teach that technology isn’t inherently good or bad; it’s a tool that can be used toward either end.  Some ‘good’ uses of technology are to affirm individuals’ feelings and build relationships.  Companies that follow Mister Rogers’ lead and use their products to prioritize people are tuned in to “Mindful Marketing.”


David HagenbuchAbout the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch is a Professor of Marketing at Messiah University, the author of Honorable Influence, and the founder MindfulMarketing.org, which aims to encourage ethical marketing.




Selling Social Issues

Selling Social Issues

 

 

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org

Besides being a tasty treat that almost everyone enjoys, ice cream is a ‘celebration food’ served at birthday parties and used to reward kids’ sports team success.  So, why did Walmart’s new frozen dairy flavor created to celebrate Black Americans’ emancipation leave a bad taste in so many people’s mouths?  Moreover, what can the failure teach organizations about commercializing social issues?
 
In its ongoing search for profitable new products, the world’s largest retailer recently cooked up a novel plan—tap into Black Americans’ and others’ celebrations of Juneteenth, the federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

Walmart’s strategy to support the celebration involved a line of party products, including napkins, plates, and drink koozies branded “Juneteenth” using the black, red, and green colors often associated with Black liberation, and carrying the tagline, “It’s the freedom for me.”
 
Walmart also created a special food worthy of the branded partyware–Juneteenth Ice Cream, a frozen concoction resembling swirled red velvet cheesecake. However, it wasn’t long after the company launched its Juneteenth line that social media began to skewer it, as shown in these sample tweets:
 
“Walmart needs to do better. It shows the lack of understanding of the pain and suffering that made Juneteenth come about. It is absolutely insulting to have this special holiday turned into some commercial product.” (@The Next Ceiling)
 
“This isn’t “wokeness”, it’s corporations trying to profit off of minorities by acting like they care about us.” (@DeadpoolLIFE69)
 
“So let me get this straight 🤔, y’all made more money keeping us enslaved after the Emancipation Proclamation, and NOW that it’s a recognized Federal Holiday y’all want to make MORE money off the same culture you enslaved??” (@MoodaSchmooda)
 
“White America: Mmmm…best thing we can do is some Walmart Juneteenth ice cream that we’ll profit off of.” (@RedeemRobinson)
 
In the face of the backlash, Walmart made a quick pivot and pulled its Juneteenth-themed ice cream.  It also apologized:

“We received feedback that a few items caused concern for some of our customers and we sincerely apologize. We are reviewing our assortment and will remove items as appropriate.”
 
Companies are increasingly ‘hitching their wagons’ to social causes’—an alignment that many people prefer including 83% of millennials.  Consequently, the approach often proves profitable.  Furthermore, during recent years filled with race-related violence, many consumers expect companies to show their support for racial justice.
 
So, wasn’t Walmart right to support Black Americans by launching a line of Juneteenth products?
 
Although the Twitter feedback above is enlightening, social media responses often prioritize ‘quick and pithy’ over ‘thoughtful and measured.’  For that reason and to help me better understand how Black Americans might perceive Walmart’s tactics, I reached out to a colleague at my university who’s well-qualified to offer an informed perspective.
 
Dr. Todd Allen is Vice President for Diversity Affairs and Professor of Communication at Messiah University.  He’s also the founder of The Common Ground Project, “a community-based non-profit dedicated to teaching the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.”
 
When I asked Allen about Walmart’s Juneteenth product line, he shared these insights:
 
“I think the timing (a new holiday) and some people still feeling burned by the promises of 2020 (which haven’t necessarily resulted in the hoped-for transformative change) just made this too soon.  The fact that they pulled [the ice cream] so quickly also makes me wonder who was in on the decision making in the first place.  It seems like if the TV show Blackish were still on the air, this would be an episode.”
 
Allen also offered one word that captured much of what he shared, “context.”  For instance, he mentioned that Walmart is not known for being progressive on racial issues.  He also said that the company’s approach “felt just a bit too commercial and too opportunistic.”
 
So, what if the context were different?  For another company with a more positive race-related track record, offering different products with better messaging, public perceptions may have been more positive.
 
Allen’s response and the idea of context got me thinking:  Beyond just Walmart and Juneteenth, are there principles that all organizations should follow when connecting with social causes?  There undoubtedly are many, but here are perhaps three of the most important questions to ask:
 
1. What’s the company’s track record on the issue?  Whether it’s an individual or an organization, we’re more likely to trust the motives of someone who has already demonstrated genuine concern about the social issue at hand.  In the case of Walmart and race, results have been mixed. 
 
On one hand, in June 2020, the company pledged $100 million over five years to address racial disparities in the U.S.  However, in January of 2022 a black correction officer sued Walmart for racial profiling when he was wrongfully accused of shoplifting, then in February, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued Walmart because “Walmart violated federal law when it gave a Black female employee an unsanitary lactation space based upon her race.”
 
In contrast, Fundraising for a Cause, the world’s largest manufacturer of awareness products, enjoys strong credibility when it comes to earning income through social causes, partly because it’s owner and CEO, Karen Conroy, founded the company after her sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and also because her company passes significant profits onto her customers, e.g., they can buy 50 silicone bracelets for $40, sell them for $5 each, and net $210 for their cause.
 
2.  What’s the nature of the product?  There’s a place and time for most products; the key is to ensure that the product personality aligns with sentiments surrounding the social issue. 
 
Juneteenth is certainly a cause for celebration but that’s because it marks the end to several centuries of enslavement.  As such, the holiday understandably evokes mixed emotions that aren’t necessarily in keeping with an all-out party atmosphere, or at least not one worthy of a namesake flavor of ice cream.  Would it be right to have a dairy treat marking the end of the Holocaust? 
 
For comparison, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is a nonprofit organization that works in over 50 countries around the world to provide disaster relief, foster economic development, and promote peace.  Among its biggest fundraisers are quilt auctions, which raise hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.  Quilts are items of beauty and comfort that complement MCC’s three-fold mission.
 
3.  Is the company adding value?  Whether it’s a single salesperson or an entire organization, the measuring stick for any marketer is the value they add in an exchange.  No company should extract more value than it gives.
 
It’s hard to know how much money Walmart would have made on the Juneteenth ice cream and other products.  Knowing Walmart’s typical pricing approach, the profit margins on the items were likely low; however, selling them across more than 5,300 U.S. retail stores, even modest margins would have added up quickly.
 
Walmart also likely hoped to pocket goodwill from the products; however, the biggest grab by Walmart was its attempt to trademark (TM) Juneteenth, as if it had created the name, so that only it could sell Juneteenth branded products.
 
On a positive side, Walmart consumers could purchase the branded products at reasonable prices.  However, it’s unlikely that Juneteenth-imprinted paper products and ice cream would deepen anyone’s understanding of and appreciation for the momentous historic event.  If anything, Walmart’s products may have trivialized it.
 
Other companies have made money, in some cases very large amounts, from marketing race-related products; however, many times they’ve added extra value through education.
 
A good example of such value-added is the feature film Selma, “a chronicle of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.”  An Academy Award nominee for best picture, the movie grossed over $66.7 million worldwide on an estimated budget of $20 million.
 
Selma was very profitable for Harpo Films and the other production companies that made the movie.  However, those who watched the film also ‘profited,’ not just from two hours of entertainment but from a better understanding of a very important historic event.
 
As Allen suggested, context matters.  Like others, he wondered why Walmart didn’t instead promote a Black-owned ice cream brand, Creamalicious, which it was already selling in its stores.  Such an approach would have been a better context in at least two of the three ways described above.
 
Unfortunately, however, Walmart tried a more self-serving strategy that quickly melted.  So instead of celebrating, the company is doing damage-control because of its “Single-Minded Marketing.”


David HagenbuchAbout the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch is a Professor of Marketing at Messiah University, the author of Honorable Influence, and the founder MindfulMarketing.org, which aims to encourage ethical marketing.




The Real Beef About Burger Ads

The Real Beef About Burger Ads - Mindful Marketing

 

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org

While Ukrainians mourn their war dead and Buffalo residents grieve victims of a hate crime, a guy in New York cries foul because his hamburgers aren’t bigger.  Of course, not every real problem is a matter of life and death, but  could some seemingly frivolous lawsuits challenging fast food promotions portray broader communication concerns?

On May 17, Long Island resident Justin Chimienti filed a legal action in a Brooklyn federal court, accusing both Wendy’s and McDonald’s of “defrauding customers with ads that make burgers appear larger than they actually are.”

The lawsuit alleges that the restaurants’ use of undercooked beef in photo shoots leads to promotional pieces with burgers that appear 15% to 20% larger than those customers actually receive.  The suit also suggests that Wendy’s exaggerates the toppings that embellish its sandwiches.

Burger King, the third of the big three fast food competitors, was slapped with a similar lawsuit just over a month ago.  In fact, the same law firms that sued BK are also representing Chimienti in the most recent litigation.

To many, these lawsuits are the epitome of money-grabbing lawyers eager to profit from a first-world problem–With so many truly important events happening in our world, why should anyone worry that Whoppers aren’t as juicy as they appear in their pictures?

However, Anthony Russo, one of the main attorneys representing the plaintiff, argues that there’s a bigger issue at play–corporate accountability.  He maintains that these legal actions will make the companies mend their ways, stop false and misleading advertising, and ultimately give consumers a better idea of the food they’re eating.

That justification sounds good, but it does come from one of the people who stands to gain the most from the litigation.  In fact:

“A detailed examination of eight years of consumer class actions in federal court found that consumers received only a tiny fraction of the money awarded in those cases while plaintiff lawyers frequently claimed a bigger share of the settlement than their clients.”

Still, legal action can be an effective way to bring about corporate change, and it usually takes attorneys to move such proceedings through the courts.

Imagining the burger court cases, the defendants might offer a counterargument like:

“When it comes to promoting themselves, don’t individuals and organizations have a right to ‘put their best foot forward,’ and doesn’t everyone expect others to do the same?”

 

The Real Beef About Burger Ads

Most people don’t have sections of their resumes labeled ‘Main Flaws’ or ‘Greatest Failures’; instead, we list our ‘Special Skills’ and describe ‘Awards and Recognitions.’  Likewise, no one reviewing resumes expects to see those self-deprecating categories.  That’s why interviewers often ask job candidates things like, “Tell me about one of your weaknesses.”So, shouldn’t companies also be allowed to brag a little and show their best examples versus humiliate themselves with mediocre or bad ones?

Curating top quality products for promotion certainly isn’t unique to fast food chains.  Grocery store flyers rarely feature misshapen fruits and vegetables, car commercials don’t use vehicles with scratches or dents, and clothing ads don’t show shirts that are wrinkled or frayed.

As consumers, not only do we routinely see such examples, many of us are involved in the same sort of careful curation of ourselves and the organizations we serve.

During my two-plus decades in higher education, I’ve often helped select ‘best’ examples to help promote my department and university.  For instance, when asked to suggest students or alumni who might provide a testimonial, I take plenty of time to think before offering names of individuals who I believe have had very positive experiences.

However, just because we engage in such selective promotion doesn’t mean that we should, i.e., we need to be careful about reasoning from ‘is’ to ‘ought.’

The main moral questions to ask are whether the recipients of the promotion are deceived and harmed.

Personally, I don’t feel misled by pictures of perfect peaches, super clean cars, or spotless shirts.  Most people also probably expect the actual items they buy to have at least some minor imperfections when compared to their pictured counterparts.

Depending on the nature and cost of the product, there’s a level below perfect condition that we readily accept knowing that we live in an imperfect world.  Furthermore, in terms of food, visual imperfections probably don’t matter as much as they do for many other products because although we eat with our eyes, the appearance of what’s on our plates is short-lived.

That takes us back to burgers and the main moral questions:
Do differences between what Burger King, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s depict in their ads and sell in their stores deceive and harm consumers?

First, it’s important to recognize that for the vast majority of consumers, these fast food restaurants’ ads represent reminder advertising, i.e., most people have already eaten in one or more of the chains, possibly multiple times, so they’re well aware of what they’ll receive the next time they visit.

Second, fast food is a rather low-involvement, low-risk purchase.  When deciding what to order, people typically spend a minute or less, not hours, days, or weeks, as they might when selecting some products.  Likewise, the average McDonald’s Big Mac Meal costs only $5.99, and customers can buy two cheeseburgers for just $2.00.  So, if the beef patties don’t look quite as pretty as the pictures, it’s no big loss.

All that said, there is a difference between misrepresenting quality and misrepresenting quantity.  Whether burgers look more or less appealing than their pictures is a somewhat subjective matter.  Size is not.  People almost always want to get more product for their money, not less, so it’s a problem if a burger’s picture looks 50% bigger than the one we actually receive.

In this sense, the burger lawsuits have more teeth.  Consumers will quickly forget whether the Big Mac Meal looked as good in person as it did in the picture, but they won’t forget if they’re still hungry after eating it, especially if they have no more meal money to spend.

Although that’s not a life-threatening problem on par with those mentioned at the outset of this piece, it is a legitimate consumer concern, particularly in inflationary times.  Whether they’re spending a lot or a little, people should always receive the amount of product they’re promised.

So, there is a plausible and practical component to the burger lawsuits; however, their bigger contribution is their call for accountability, which also may  mean modeling more genuine communication.

It’s not to say that people take their communication cues directly from fast food ads, yet there’s an unsettling resemblance between the idealized product promotions and the utopian pictures many individuals paint of themselves in social media.

When people see large, heavily advertised corporations like Burger King, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s freely exaggerating and glamorizing their truths, it implies permission for others to do the same.

The world becomes a better place when individuals and organizations take care to represent themselves realistically.  It’s okay to put our best foot forward, but it must be our foot, not some fantastical version of it.  Those who walk with realism are stepping into “Mindful Marketing.”


David HagenbuchAbout the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch is a Professor of Marketing at Messiah University, the author of Honorable Influence, and the founder MindfulMarketing.org, which aims to encourage ethical marketing.

 




Does Free Speech Mean Unfiltered?

Does Free Speech Mean Unfiltered?

 

 

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org

There’s no law stopping someone from telling a coworker he has bad breath, or a friend she texts too much, or a spouse their outfit isn’t flattering.  Although people have the right to offer such criticisms, they often hold their tongues.  Verbal restraint isn’t always ideal, but even common communication challenges like these can inform a newly trending social imperative—free speech.
 
Serial entrepreneur and one of the planet’s richest people, Elon Musk is buying Twitter— perhaps the world’s most pervasive and controversial communication platform.  The reasons behind the $44 billion purchase are likely multifold; however, Musk claims that one of his primary motivations is to reduce the medium’s content moderation and to allow more free speech.
 
Free speech is fundamental to democracy: Government of-by-for the people is predicated on individuals speaking their minds, including ideas critical of the government.  That’s why the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states:
 
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, [emphasis added] or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
 
Of course, the nation’s founders couldn’t have foreseen social media and how it would be used both to bolster democracy (e.g., Arab Spring in 2010) (1) and to bash people who look or think differently.  The founders were people too, who probably fell into petty squabbles and even engaged in personal attacks; however, it’s unlikely that second kind of communication is what they intended to protect in amending the constitution.
 
Nevertheless, because of the First Amendment, there are no U.S. laws against hate speech; rather, people are free to say pretty much whatever they want about others, without legal repercussions, as Black’s Law Dictionary explains:
 
“A person hurling insults, making rude statements, or disparaging comments about another person or group is merely exercising his or her right to free speech. This is true even if the person or group targeted by the speaker is a member of a protected class. According to U.S. law, such speech is fully permissible and is not defined as hate speech.”
 
So, based on the law alone, people can pretty much let loose: no filter needed.  Likewise, Musk has suggested that people should be able to ‘say whatever is legal.’  On April 26, 2022, he tweeted his stance:
 
“By ‘free speech,’ I simply mean that which matches the law.  I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.  If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect.  Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.”
 
Although it’s true that law and ethics often align, the fit is far from perfect.  Some laws even encourage immorality.  At a minimum, there’s a lag, sometimes of decades or centuries before legislation aimed at correcting ethical failings come to fruition.
 
For instance, Jim Crow laws once required physical segregation of people of different races.  Likewise, from its inception in 1776, it took the United States nearly two centuries to pass laws forbidding discrimination, namely Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
 
Even now, a leaked Supreme Court memo has spawned demonstrations across the country about abortion law.  Regardless of whether Roe v. Wade stands or falls, a significant portion of the population will contend that the law does not match morality.
 
In short, we all need to be careful of equating what’s ethical with what’s legal.  More specifically, if legal-moral equivalence doesn’t hold for other social issues, why assume it works for communication-related concerns?  
 
So, instead of rushing ahead with the reasoning, “Because the law allows us to say anything, we should,” individuals and organizations should collect their thoughts and consider three free speech amendments:
 
1) Practice Self-Restraint:  Most people place limits on how much they eat, sleep, watch TV, etc., for their own good and sometimes because their actions impact others.  Why not apply the same principle of self-control to our words?  This adapted, time-honored moral axiom couldn’t be more apropos, ‘just because we can say it doesn’t mean we should say it.’ 
 
In speaking, as in many other things in life, less can be more, and sometimes saying nothing is best.  When a baseball infielder mishandles a ground ball that allows the other team to score and win the game, nothing good comes from the coach berating him for his error.  The player knows he made a mistake and already feels very badly about it.  Even in cases when we’re free to speak, sometimes our thoughts are better left unsaid.
 
2) Ensure What We’re Saying is True:  With social media and little effort, anyone can say practically anything to anyone anywhere in the world, which makes it all-the-more important to prioritize truthfulness.  We should be confident of the veracity of what we say, as well as what we share from others.  If we’re not certain something is true, we should at least provide a clear disclaimer or even better, wait until we know.
 
Alec Hill describes deception as encouraging someone to believe something that you don’t believe yourself.  That kind of intentional manipulation of the truth is unconscionable.  However, it’s also negligent to forward unverified information.  A fundamental cost of free speech is the time and effort it takes to ensure the accuracy of what we say.
 
3) Take Care in How We Say Things:  We’ve all heard the sentiment, ‘It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.’  We’ve also experienced how much better it feels to receive a constructive critique versus caustic criticism.
 
When in person, nonverbal communication like welcoming body language and a friendly tone of voice can temper a message that’s not particularly positive.  Similarly, a forward-looking frame is often better than a back-facing one.  For instance, rather than belittling a person for what they did wrong, “You were so bad!!” focus on the action and project a positive future one: “It might be better to  . . .”  Both are free speech, but the latter will almost always elicit a more favorable reaction.
 
Do the preceding three recommendations restrict free speech?  In the sense that they urge us not to say everything we think or to say things the way we first think them, yes .  On the other hand, ‘filtering’ in the ways described above adds value to the communication by casting the sender in a more positive light and making it more likely that the recipient will take action. 
 
By virtue of their many media-related roles, marketers and Musk have unique opportunities to influence mass communication and interpersonal conversations.  Filtered communication is still free speech.  It’s also “Mindful Marketing.”


David HagenbuchAbout the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch is a Professor of Marketing at Messiah University, the author of Honorable Influence, and the founder MindfulMarketing.org, which aims to encourage ethical marketing.

 




Is Netflix Content ‘Good Enough’?

Is Netflix Content Good Enough

 

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org

How old were you when you made your first solo shopping trip?  If you’re a Boomer, Gen X, or Gen Z, your answer might be 8, 12, or even 18.  Japanese youth apparently run errands much earlier—as in age two—to the amazement of many Americans who are now streaming the cultural curiosity.  Whether toddlers should be by themselves on road-trips is a worthy question, as is why people a half-world away are watching a decade-old television show.
 
From ‘Stanger Things,’ to ‘Bridgrton,’ to ‘Squid Game,’ tastes for Netflix series change like the seasons.  Now, one of the streaming giant’s popular properties is an unlikely reality series that comes courtesy of East Asia and the 1990s.
 
Old Enough!’ is a documentary-style television program in which Japanese parents send their toddlers on their first independent errands.  Camera crews capture the highly cute and often humorous action, while witty narration added in editing gives viewers a window into what the tots may have been thinking at the time of their adventures.
 
In light of today’s often hovering helicopter parents, it’s refreshing to see young people given real responsibilities and freedom to act independently.  However, it’s also kind of unnerving to watch a kid, who’s still wearing diapers, wander by himself more than a half mile to a grocery store to pick up ingredients for dinner.

In terms of social skills, these parents are placing their children far ahead on the developmental curve.  Given what these kids are doing under age four, there’s no telling what they’ll be capable of by the time they’re 10 or 20 . . . if they live that long!
 
In terms of safety, there’s likely little danger to the children.  Camera crews are filming them the entire time, so in some sense they’re safer during shooting than they may be any other day.  However, no camera operator could intervene in time if a three-year-old suddenly skipped off the sidewalk, into the path of a moving vehicle.
 
Another issue to consider any time children are placed in media roles is informed consent.  How can a child under the age of five possibly understand what they’re doing: the risks they’re incurring at the time and the implications their ‘celebrity’ may bring in the future?  Most fathers and mothers pursue their children’s best interest; yet there are always unfortunate cases in which parents become blinded by their offspring’s potential popularity and prosperity and intentionally place them in harm’s way.
 
This potential may be even more of a concern in today’s social media infatuated society.  Now any parent with a smartphone can capture their child doing ‘something special’ and broadcast the clips or stills to anyone in the world. 
 
All the above are real moral concerns; however, it’s hard to paint ‘Old Enough!’ as irresponsible entertainment.  Most parents who aggressively promote and profit from their children probably have never seen the show.  Also, given the series’ longevity and apparent track record of ‘safe success,’ the show seems like acceptable diversion.
 
So, back to the second question posed at the outset of this piece:  Why have so many Americans suddenly been smitten by a decade-old Japanese documentary featuring toddlers running errands?  ‘Seinfeld’s George Costanza’s gave a reason for watching ‘a show about nothing’ that may help answer the question: “because it’s on TV.”
 
Of course, there’s sarcasm in that answer, but there’s also truth.  Although the increasingly competitive streaming market is saturated with shows, after spending 18 months or more homebound in a pandemic, many people feel they’ve already seen everything worth watching on Netflix, which has left the company scrambling for new content—scouring space and time for entertainment that will keep people from unsubscribing.
 
Speaking of subscriptions, during the first quarter of 2022, Netflix lost 200,000 subscribers and even more staggering, it expects to lose 2 million more by July—an announcement that has precipitated a decline in the company’s stock price of more than 30%.
 
During video rental era and in the early years of streaming, competitors had largely the same video libraries, so cost and convenience were key to attracting customers.  Now content is the most important differentiator, as evidenced by the rapid rise of relatively new competitor Disney+, which has ridden the popularity of proprietary shows like ‘The Mandalorian,’ ‘The Beatles: Get Back,’ and a long list of Disney movies.
 
Netflix needs original content.  Over the past five-to-seven years, it’s certainly had success creating content, but subscribers burned through that content with a flurry of pandemic-prompted binge-watching.  Creating compelling original content takes considerable time, money, and expertise, but even then, there are no guarantees it will be well-received.
 
These reasons are likely why Netflix acquired the streaming rights for ‘Old Enough!’—a show the company could make available immediately to a subscriber base that, by and large, had never seen it, but would find it at least a little entertaining, since reality TV still resonates and people like cute kids.
 
Netflix also probably didn’t overpay for those rights.  True to the show’s name, the 20 episodes now on Netflix were produced in 2013,  nearly a decade ago, giving ‘Old Enough!’ a double meaning and likely meaning that the series was a bargain.  Unfortunately, inexpensive does not necessarily mean good.
 
My wife and I are not representative of all Netflix subscribers, but after watching three episodes of the grocery-toting toddlers, we had our fill.  The children were cute, and the scenarios were kind of funny, but reading the subtitles made the entertainment feel a little like work.  Even though a fourth episode promised a different kid in a unique situation, it didn’t seem like we’d really see anything new.
 
Perhaps ‘Old Enough!’ has outperformed Netflix executives’ expectations.  Still, the show can’t be more than a bandage on the company’s expanding wound of subscriber attrition, which will only be healed by a more drastic strategic prescription.
 
Interestingly, Netflix is now looking to incorporate advertising.  Such sponsorships could help contain, if not lower, the cost of the platform; however, people won’t stay subscribed just because rates don’t rise, any more than they’ll watch shows ‘just because they’re on TV.’  Subscribers of any streaming service must believe there’s enough new, engaging content to warrant whatever amount they’re paying.
 
There are no serious moral concerns over a show about toddlers ‘doing nothing,’ but there’s also little economic upside for a streaming giant that desperately needs more compelling original content.  For these reasons, Netflix’s ‘Old Enough!’ is good enough to be “Simple-Minded Marketing.”


David HagenbuchAbout the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch is a Professor of Marketing at Messiah University, the author of Honorable Influence, and the founder MindfulMarketing.org, which aims to encourage ethical marketing.




Harmful Humor

 

Harmful Humor

 

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org

I still don’t get it. College professors are supposed to be insightful, but I’m baffled by reactions to Will Smith’s infamous Oscars slap.  Most people have rightly condemned the violent reaction, but why aren’t more talking about the joke that sparked the response?  Society’s double-standard for humor can be confusing and consternating, which are reasons to consider how individuals and organizations should lean into laughter.
 
Most of us have now seen the clip of actor Will Smith striding onto the Oscars stage and striking award presenter Chris Rock across the face.  The unimaginable physical altercation on Hollywood’s biggest night came because of a quip Rock made about the baldness of Smith’s spouse, Jada Pinkett Smith, who suffers from alopecia, a condition that causes complete hair loss. 
 
Smith’s reaction was wrong.  No matter the nature of the verbal offense, real or imagined, there was no reason for him to respond violently.  Still, such condemnation shouldn’t stop anyone from asking whether Rock stepped over a line.
 
Of course, Rock is a comedian whose job is to make people laugh—a charge that’s particularly important when appearing at the Oscars, one of the most high-profile gigs a comedian can get. 
 
Also, Oscars hosts and presenters have a history of lightly razzing celebrities in attendance.  Legendary comedian and 19-time Oscars host Bob Hope was perhaps the earliest propagator of that tradition, making quips like this one during his 1971 monologue: “But this is a strange business.  Just think, Frank Sinatra announced he was quitting show business and they gave him a humanitarian award.”
 
Billy Crystal, the second most frequent Oscars host (9 times), also had a habit of ribbing famous actors, as he did Clint Eastwood in 1993 for his role in Unforgiven:  “Clint, of course, played that ruthless character, and you know he used those same tactics when he cleaned up that lawless renegade town of Carmel, California when he was the mayor there . . . It was Clint Eastwood who instituted the no crème brulee after 10:00 pm ordinance.”
 
Rock was himself an Academy Awards host in 2016, at which time he gave much of his monologue to highlighting the unsettling fact that there were no Black nominees at what he called “the White People’s Choice Awards.”  He also took a jab at Pinkett Smith for boycotting ‘Oscars So White,’ suggesting it didn’t make sense for her to spurn an event to which she wasn’t invited.
 
Compared to the biting personal attacks for which insult comedians like Don Rickles, Lisa Lampanelli, and Andrew Dice Clay have been know, Rock’s comments may seem benign.  Some might also suggest that humor is inherently controversial, i.e., some people will like a particular joke, while others will not.
 
It’s true that humor, like beauty, is in the ‘mind of the beholder’; however, there is a relatively clear line that individuals and organizations can avoid crossing to ensure that their jest about others isn’t injurious:
 
It’s usually okay to playfully point out the peculiar things that people do or say, but don’t joke about who they are.
 
Before offering some personal examples to support this suggestion, those who don’t know me well should understand that I’m far from a ‘wet blanket’ when it comes to humor:  I love to laugh and endeavor to inject ad hoc humor into my classes, which I’ve found keeps students engaged, provides a brief reprieve from back-to-back-to-back classes, and lightens the load of weighty issues and complex concepts.
 
Other professors cite similar benefits.  In fact, I recently read a Harvard Business article, “What educators can learn from comedians,” that offered empirical evidence for the third benefit above.
 
David Stolin, professor of finance at TBS education, collaborated with comedian Sammy Obeid, host of Netflix’s 100 Humans series, to create a variety of educational videos, some humorous and others serious.  The researchers found that “when students were assigned humorous videos, they had consistently higher engagement and subsequent test performance.”  So, among other things, humor helps learning.
 
I haven’t formally studied the same causal relationship, but I have done research on “playful teasing,” which suggests that good-natured ribbing helps build social bonds.  I sometimes use that type of humor with my students, which brings me to my first personal example.
 
In one of my recent classes, a discussion about personal branding turned to ‘what coaches can do to encourage their players when they’re down.’  One of the students, who’s a college athlete, began to share her team’s current experience, saying, “It’s funny because two of my teammates tore their ACLs . . .”  As she briefly paused to finish the sentence, I couldn’t resist interjecting some seemingly serious censure, “There’s nothing funny about that.”
 
Students, including the one who was speaking, laughed, and a classmate quipped, “I’m going to tell your coach!”  The student finished her story and, of course, revealed that by “funny” she didn’t mean amusing but coincidental.  People knew I was kidding because of the hyperbole of my comment, because we often joke in class, and because the students, all of whom I’ve had in other courses, know my penchant for dry humor.
 
The second example came a few years earlier when one of my students turned the comedic tables on me.  As our class was discussing a case study about a particular west-coast-based restaurant chain, I showed a few pictures of my family and me, over the years, at various locations of the chain.
 
One student noticed something peculiar in the pictures and commented, “Dr. Hagenbuch, don’t you ever let your shirt out?  Even on vacation, it’s tucked in!”  I tried to argue that in a couple of the photos my shirt only looked to be tucked, but no one was buying it.  We all had a good laugh, and shirt tucking became an ongoing joke for us.
 
Then, during the last class of the semester, I shared a specially made PowerPoint titled “Dr. Hagenbuch Untucked” that contained a dozen or more different family photos, all with my shirts outside my pants.  The class appreciated the levity of the short slideshow and its homage to our inside joke.  A couple years later, the student responsible for the original “untucked” playful tease, told me that our repartee was a highlight of his college experience.
 
The point of these examples is it’s very possible to laugh without shaming or otherwise hurting people, even when the humor is targeted toward one person.  The key is a pure motive and playfully pointing out something silly the person inadvertently said (“It’s funny because . . .”) or did (shirts tucked in).
 
Rock’s Oscars jabs at Pinkett Smith failed both times to follow that protocol and instead took aim squarely at who she is.  In 2016, his joke about her not being invited to the ceremony was a painful suggestion that she’s not a good enough actor.  At the latest event, he made light of a physical condition that she cannot change and that likely makes her self-conscious.
 
For me, such humor is out-of-bounds; however, I wanted to hear the opinions of people who know much more than I do about psychology, sociology, and how Rock’s joke may have impacted not just Pinkett Smith but others.  I reached out to two of my colleagues who teach in our university’s graduate program in counseling.  They shared these reflections:
 
Dr. Leah K. Clarke, Director and Associate Professor of Counseling
“My own reaction to the joke was a resigned disappointment that women’s appearances and bodies, including black women’s hair, continue to be fair game for public discourse. Women and girls learn, almost from birth, that their bodies can be commented on, evaluated, touched, and utilized for other’s profit or pleasure. I’m not sure you could even count the number of songs that reference women’s appearances or specific body parts.”
 
“Pinkett Smith had previously shared about the source of her baldness, but even in doing so she acknowledged she felt she had to. Because otherwise the conversation about what was going on her scalp would happen without her. And she was right, Chris Rock and her husband had an interaction related to her appearance without her involvement or consent. The idea that her hair might be of no interest and nobody’s business doesn’t seem to occur to anyone.”
 
Dr. Sarah Brant-Rajahn, Assistant Professor of Counseling, School Counseling Track Coordinator
“Rock’s joke triggered the pain of many women and Black women, in particular, about ideals that are attached to appearance and hair as a beauty standard.  I was surprised that such a joke would come from Rock, after his Good Hair (2009) documentary highlighted issues around Black-American women and the perception of their hair being acceptable or desirable.”
 
“As Pinkett Smith, like so many other women, attempt to boldly embrace their authentic selves and engage in self-love, they are met with ridicule, judgment, and shame when this true self does not align with societal notions of beauty. And to an extent, Rock’s joke and many like them can be viewed as bullying, as Pinkett Smith likely felt powerless to defend herself at a professional event, with an audience, and in a space that was being publicly recorded and viewed. There was a clear imbalance of power here where a male with a microphone and a stage demeans a female who does not have the same capacity to share her voice at the time.”
 
“While it is likely that Rock did not consider these implications, as he is a comedian and comedians make jokes about many people and topics, we would be remiss to not name and address the potential impact such comments have on girls and women, as well as the perpetual devaluation of them based on appearance.”
 
Beyond many specific truths, my overarching takeaway from both these experts’ assessments is that humor’s impact extends beyond the parties directly involved—a realization I’d also had through my research into playful teasing. 
 
People often learn vicariously, i.e., from observing others’ firsthand experiences.  Just as we can ‘feel’ that a stove is hot by watching someone else touch it, we can feel ridiculed when we hear or see someone deride a person who is in some way like us, e.g., race, body type.
 
Because the Academy Awards is broadcast to millions of people worldwide, Rock’s joke was at the expense of thousands of people with alopecia, not just Pinkett Smith.  Furthermore, as Clarke and Brant-Rajahn have suggested, women and especially Black women were right to feel that their bodies and appearances were once more objectified for public consumption.
 
Their thoughts pinpoint the hypocrisy to which I alluded at the beginning of this piece.  How can a society claim it’s concerned about bullying, shaming, and mental health, but be accepting of things like mean tweetstaunting, and caustic comedy?  It’s hard to understand why more aren’t alarmed by the troubling connections.
 
So, what does this analysis have to do with marketing?  For any of us who aspire to make others laugh, how we handle humor becomes part of our brand, whether we’re an individual like Rock or an organization like GoDaddy, which is still trying to break free from its oversexualized Super Bowl ad humor more than a decade ago.  The character of one’s comedy has long-lasting implications for one’s brand.
 
Just as the same medicine that helps people can hurt them if taken incorrectly, the ‘best medicine,’ laughter, can hurt people when its wrongly administered.  It’s fine to playfully tease people for silly things they do or say, but we shouldn’t make light of who they are.
 
It seems that Rock’s stock has risen since the last Oscars, probably due to extra publicity he’s received, as well as sympathy from the slap.  However, those truly deserving empathy are the ones Rock’s putdown humor belittled directly and by extension.  The impact on them makes Rock’s ridicule “Single-Minded Marketing.”


David HagenbuchAbout the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch is a Professor of Marketing at Messiah University, the author of Honorable Influence, and the founder MindfulMarketing.org, which aims to encourage ethical marketing.




Mascot Madness

Mascot Madness

 

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org

When people mention products they see advertised all the time, “insurance” is often top-of-list.  Insurance ads are virtually inescapable and stick because of clever humor and silly brand characters.  One lesser-known competitor now claims to be better because it forgoes such foolishness, but is throwing shade on the big players’ branding the way to ensure it wins?

Today, the mascots of insurance companies are better known than those of many colleges.  To test that claim, try the following two-part quiz.  The answers appear a few paragraphs below:

1) What are the mascots of the five largest U.S. public university campuses by enrollment?

  • Texas A & M University
  • University of Central Florida
  • Ohio State University
  • University of Florida
  • Florida International University

2) What are brand characters of the following insurance companies?

  • Aflac
  • Allstate
  • Geico
  • Liberty Mutual
  • Progressive

If you’re like me, you know more on the second list than the first.  Granted, I pay more attention to commercials than most people do, but I’m also a significant fan of college sports who works in higher education, which are good reasons why I should know list #2 too.

So, here are the answers:
1)  Aggies, Knights, Buckeyes, Gators, Panthers
2)  Duck, Mayhem, Gecko, Emu, Flo

The point of this exercise is to underscore how effective many insurance companies have been at  familiarizing us with their brands’ personalities.

Despite the old adage, “You can’t argue with success,” one insurance provider is doing just that, making a very public case that all the time and energy its competitors spend building brand characters is wasted.

Unlike Geico or Allstate, the company with the hot take is not a household name for most people.  It’s New Jersey Manufacturers Casualty Insurance Company, or NJM.

NJM began in 1913 by providing worker’s compensation to New Jersey businesses and a couple of decades later started to offer commercial and personal auto insurance and homeowners insurance.  Over the last 100+ years it’s expanded its offerings even more, while extending into other states.

Only recently, though, did the company decide to redefine the acronym that’s represented its name for more than a century.  Now, at least for the purpose of some contrarian marketing communication, NJM purportedly stands for “No Jingles or Mascots, Just Great Insurance.”

Why would  NJM want to throw shade on several of America’s most successful insurance providers?  The easy answer is it wants to be big like them but believes that its path to greatness must come not by copying their recipe for success but by being different.

NJM is a sizeable insurer; however, it’s scope and scale are small compared to the mascot-using competitors mentioned above.  NJM only markets its products in New Jersey and five nearby states.  Similarly, while NJM has about $8 billion in assets, the other firms boast much bigger asset totals:

 

Insurance Mascots

 

Positioning against the brand, as it’s called, is not necessarily a bad idea.  Avis succeeded with the strategy in the early 1960s, using the tagline “We try harder,” –a clear slight against the number one car rental company at the time, Hertz.  Similarly, in 1967 Seven-Up tapped into countercultural sentiment by branding itself as the “Uncola” versus the soft drink “Establishment” that was Coke and Pepsi.

However, there are two important factors that dilute NJM’s claim to be different by not using ducks or geckos.

First, there are plenty of other insurance companies that can make the same claim that they’re more serious about insurance because they don’t use mascots.  In fact, they represent the nation’s five largest insurers:

  1. Prudential
  2. Berkshire Hathaway
  3. MetLife
  4. TIAA
  5. AIG

To be clear, Berkshire Hathaway does own Geico; however, it also owns these mascot-less insurance firms: National Indemnity Company, General Reinsurance, and Berkshire Hathaway Life Insurance Company of Nebraska.

Also, in case you’re thinking that Snoopy is MetLife’s mascot, the dog is gone.  The company dropped the beloved beagle more than five years ago in an effort to reflect “a clean, modern aesthetic.”

Second, in its television commercials trumpeting its decision to not use mascots, NJM uses, of all things, mascots!

To be clear, the mascots in NJM’s commercials are not its own but ones it’s fabricated for  fictitious competitors.  The commercial characters include an alpaca, a jingle-singing entertainer, an elephant-giraffe-eagle-horse-octopus, a big blue bear, a narwhal, and a ferret.

Again, none of the mascots belong to NJM, but by using them in its humor-infused ads, the company is not so subtly doing the same thing it accuses its competitors of doing—prioritizing playfulness over serious insurance.

It’s kind of like one person scolding another for their profanity by swearing at them, “You s#@% h#@%, you’ve got to stop the b*#&#% cursing!”  The point, of course is if the words are bad, no one should be using them.

So, if mascots don’t make for serious insurance, why is NJM using them in its ads?

That question is kind of a rhetorical one, but I can’t resist trying to answer it.  It could be that NJM suffers from some mascot-envy and may even be using its commercials as a way of auditioning characters to see if any stick.

More generally, NJM must recognize that using mascots in marketing works.  This piece began by identifying several insurance competitors’ well-known characters.  Over the years, organizations in other industries also have reaped similar branding benefits from their own creations, such as:

  • Energizer – Energizer Bunny
  • Keebler Company – Keebler Elves
  • Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes – Tony the Tiger
  • McDonald’s – Ronald McDonald
  • Michelin – Michelin Man
  • Pillsbury – Dough Boy
  • Planters – Mr. Peanut
  • Procter & Gamble’s Mr. Clean – Mr. Clean
  • StarKist Tuna – Charlie

Of course, characters aren’t good fits for every industry.  We don’t see luxury brands like Cartier, Gucci, or Mercedes employing mascots because they want to be seen as elegant and refined—images that characters can undermine. Likewise, some organization’s missions are simply too serious to be connected with anything that might come across as irreverent, e.g., the American Lung Association.

But for many companies, mascots serve helpful purposes like giving brands more personal connection and communicating whimsy.  But even more basic, the characters often capture our attention, keep our interest, and help us remember what can be easily forgotten products . . . like insurance.

Given the quest for Mindful Marketing, the other important question to ask is whether mascot use is ethical.  Two areas that demand special attention are how certain mascots portray people groups and how some characters are used in marketing to children.  Otherwise, it’s hard to identify any broad prohibition of mascots for branding.

NJM’s claim that ‘We’re more serious about insurance because we don’t use mascots,’ doesn’t make much sense since its own ads have mascots.  Some might call that use disingenuous or deceitful, but it’s unlikely there’s any ill intent.

No, NJM is just searching for a strategy that can lift it to the level of Aflac and Progressive, but such a leap won’t happen by using an eclectic cast of ‘other insurers’ mascots’ and talking more about what the company isn’t than what it is.  This specific claim for positioning against the brand should be assessed as “Simple-Minded Marketing.”


David HagenbuchAbout the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch is a Professor of Marketing at Messiah University, the author of Honorable Influence, and the founder MindfulMarketing.org, which aims to encourage ethical marketing.




Recognizing ‘Kid Concerns’

Recognizing 'Kid Concerns'

 

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org

What worried you as a child? Maybe it was not having friends at your lunch table or embarrassing yourself in PE class?  For kids, those are real concerns.  Of course, they pale in comparison to adult anxieties, like deciding who to marry or how to make the next mortgage payment.

Images of war in Ukraine, including bombed buildings, fractured families, and bloodied bodies have made us realize that our daily worries are ‘kid concerns’ compared to the existential threats Ukrainians face.  Paying more to fill our cars’ gas tanks is nothing next to the calamities those in Ukraine are enduring.

Businesses, however, have a much wider range of concerns than individuals do. Unlike you and me, they need to navigate the complexities of supplying products, making payroll, and paying dividends.  For the world’s largest organizations, customers, employees, and shareholders number in the millions.

Despite these very real stakeholder obligations, a growing list of 300+ multinational corporations have decided to cease operations in/with Russia.  Among the notable are Apple, Amazon, Coca-Cola, Disney, Exxon, FedEx, Goldman Sachs, Ikea, KPMG, Mastercard, McDonald’s, Nestlé, Netflix, Nike, Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Samsung, Shell, Starbucks, Toyota, UPS, Visa, and Volkswagen.

It’s no small thing to curtail commerce with Russia.  With a population of 145.9 billion, it’s the ninth most populous nation in the world.  For instance, 4.5% of McDonald’s 2021 revenue, and 4% of Pepsi’s, came from Russia.  Those percentages may seem small, but for companies with sales of $23.3 billion and $79.4 billion, respectively, those are hits of over $1 billion and $3 billion for each firm.

Although, it’s become increasingly popular to spurn Russia, is it fiscally prudent and morally right for companies to do so, given their multifaceted stakeholder obligations, not to mention the notion that withholding Big Macs and Pepsi is unlikely to deter Vladimir Putin from his geopolitical goals?  Some may even argue that with so many competitors closing shop in Russia, it’s a good time to gain market share.

So, why should McDonald’s, Pepsi, or any of the other 300+ economic objectors bother to boycott Russia?

It’s because, even though many of these corporations have revenues that exceed the GDPs of entire nations, the current crisis is bigger than any company.  These companies’ self-interests are certainly real, but they’re ‘kid concerns’ compared to what’s happening in the world now and where it could lead.

 

 

It’s hard to imagine how any individual or organizational benefits could outweigh the death and destruction Russia is enacting on Ukraine.  What’s more, it’s possible that this unprovoked infringement on one nation’s sovereignty may only be the beginning.

Given Putin’s past comments, it’s possible that other former Soviet republics are on deck for annexation.  There’s also speculation that China is carefully weighing other nations’ responses to the war in order to assess its potential for taking Taiwan.

Many believe that Ukraine’s fight for freedom foreshadows a much bigger battle for democracy.  Given the gravity and plausibility of that prediction, it’s difficult to understand how a company could put limited and likely short-term losses ahead of civil liberties and self-determination for potentially billions of people, for possibly centuries to come.

Yet, some companies still aren’t taking a stand against Russia’s aggression.  As of this writing, “companies that remain in Russia with significant exposure” include: Bridgestone Tire, Cargill, Caterpillar, Citi, Deere, Hilton, Hyatt, Kimberly Clark, Marriott, Mondelez, and Whirlpool.

Perhaps some of these organizations are still planning to act, they just need more time to execute their exits.  Hopefully, none are thinking that their absence in Russia won’t make a difference, as it most certainly will.

Because of tightly controlled media, the Russian people can’t see the devastation their country is inflicting on its neighbor.  What they will notice, though, are unavailable products, closed stores, and lost jobs, as well as a ransacked ruble.

Although unfortunate, that sudden economic distress will cause Russians to question what’s happening and why.  Eventually, the truth will spread beyond the thousands who already know the ugly reality and have courageously protested the incursion.

As abhorrent as the currently conflict is, hopefully a positive outcome will be a new recognition of companies’ collective abilities to stand down aggression and precipitate peace.  There are times when the most helpful thing marketers can do is not market.

We all have legitimate responsibilities to ourselves and others.  We all also must recognize when larger societal concerns should supersede those smaller self-interests.  Such self-awareness is  a prerequisite for “Mindful Marketing.” 

Here are 11 verified charities to support Ukrainians.


David HagenbuchAbout the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch is a Professor of Marketing at Messiah University, the author of Honorable Influence, and the founder MindfulMarketing.org, which aims to encourage ethical marketing.




Marketing Ideology

Marketing Ideology

 

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org

Principles of marketing professors teach that “products” are more than tangible goods; they’re also services and ideas.  While it’s easy to identify organizations marketing goods and services, noticing idea marketing takes more discernment. Recently, the world witnessed one of the most blatant examples of idea marketing ever.  It worked but unfortunately not for good.
 
In the annals of persuasion, one of the hardest ‘sales’ must be convincing one’s country to start a war, given the likelihood of loss of life, property, political allies, and more.  In persuading Russia to invade Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, achieved such a seduction, while providing an example of idea marketing at its worst.
 
Of course, Russia’s largely autocratic regime doesn’t require the consensus-building demanded in a democratic state.  Still, Putin was undeniably successful in marketing a momentous idea by convincing other government officials, military leaders, and to some extent the Russian populace to embrace the notion that invading Ukraine served a national security interest while accomplishing historically based cultural and ethnic reunification.
 
Mindful Marketing rarely tackles politics.  I’m addressing this situation not just because it’s a poignant example of idea marketing but because of its significant human and economic impact, as well as its potential to become one of history’s biggest geopolitical events.
 
Russia’s incursion into Ukraine is also personal for me.  Both of my wife’s parents were born in Ukraine, where they endured extreme hardships during WWII.  Consequently, my wife and our children share Ukraine’s rich cultural heritage by birth, as I do by marriage.

The necklace in the picture above is my wife’s tryzub, which her father brought back for her from one of his many return visits to his homeland.
 
Of course, millions of others also have personal connections.  In fact, as I was writing this article, I read a post by one of my LinkedIn connections, Cait Mack who wrote:
 
“This has been one of the worst days of my life.  The war in Ukraine feels like it’s pulling at the very fiber of my being.  For those who don’t know, I’m Ukrainian.  My grandparents came over during WW2, fleeing from Nazis.  I am sick with grief.  Everything feels so stupid and trivial in comparison to what’s going on over there.”
 
“I think of my grandparents.  Our extended family in Ukraine.  All the innocent people.  The parents with their children.  The harsh reminder that we can’t really keep our families safe.”
 
As Mack mentions, the secondhand angst that any of us feel can’t compare to the fear and horror that those in Ukraine are experiencing, which reminds of the focus of this piece—Putin marketing the idea of invasion.
 
Rather than commending his cunning, the intent here is to extract something edifying from the unfolding tragedy—to identify how individuals and organizations should market ideas responsibly. 
 
Autocratic leaders have the advantage of superior political power.  Marketers enjoy information superiority, i.e., they naturally know more about their organization and its products than do consumers.
 
Because of their very intangible nature, the information imbalance involving ideas becomes even more skewed, which means marketers are under even greater moral compulsion to carefully steward their influence on the conceptions of others.  The following are five steps toward marketing ideas responsibly:
 
1. Seek Understanding
It’s hard to understand when uninformed, which is why the first act in understanding is gaining information by researching the issue at hand and, above all, listening to those closest to it.
 
Courtroom dramas sometimes culminate with an attorney introducing a new witness or piece of evidence, which unexpectedly changes the minds of jurors.  Such are likely violations of legal discovery, but the examples are helpful reminders that additional and possibly more accurate information can help change our minds for the better.
 
2. Explore Other Perspectives
As implied above, it’s helpful to lean on others, not just because they can provide additional facts but because they might offer their own experienced and informed interpretation of the information.  Whether at the boardroom level or shop floor level, the best leaders always avail themselves of others’ insights.
 
It sometimes seems that people avoid other perspectives, fearing they’ll change their opinions.  That may happen, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  However, seeking others’ perspectives is often like a fan who’s loyal to a certain football team watching two other teams play.  Watching them will probably not change the fan’s team loyalty, but they may see in the other teams things that enhance their understanding of the game, as well as things their team does well or could do better.
 
3. Present a Rational Argument
People can be persuaded in different ways, including by deception (painting an inaccurate picture of facts) and coercion (compelling an action from a position of power).  Neither of these alternatives allows people to exercise informed consent, or freely choose to adopt an idea based on its logical merits.
 
Although we occasionally act otherwise, people are rational beings who can understand and make sensible decisions based on logical arguments.  Even young children comprehend reason—‘If you eat your whole meal, you’ll get to have dessert.’  People of any age deserve clear, logical, communication.
 
4. Don’t Play on Emotion
However, humans aren’t simply rational beings.  Our complex psychology also includes emotion, which makes us even more interesting.  Yes, we should make most decisions by reasoning with objective information, but sometimes it’s appropriate for people to choose things that they enjoy or that make them happy, like playing a favorite game with a friend.
 
What’s unacceptable is to use others’ emotions against them, e.g., to persuade them to do something out of an irrational fear or a sense of guilt.  Although good in moderation, too much emotion can cloud people’s thinking and cause them to do things that they otherwise would not rationally choose.  The outcome is like a doctor tapping a patient’s knee with a reflex hammer:  Their leg will move involuntarily no matter how much the patient may reason that it shouldn’t.
 
5. Be Truthful
The fifth act encapsulates the preceding ones and should go without saying; however, even when people fulfill the first four steps, they still must ensure follow-through of this final one, particularly to avoid selective presentation of facts.
 
For example, I could support the morality of advertising by referencing Gallup’s annual poll about the honesty and ethics of various occupations and accurately report that advertising practitioners ranked in the top 20 of all occupations.  That may sound impressive, but the statement would be misleading because the survey only asked about 22 occupations and advertising practitioners ranked 18th.
 
What we don’t tell people is often as important as what we tell them.
 
Again, the point of this piece has not been to detail Putin’s tenuous argument for the invasion of Ukraine; however, this website, among others, provides a window into how his rationalization evolved.  In short, Putin appears to have violated more than one of the preceding five steps; for instance, he played on his own people’s emotion with a “rousing speech” in which he called Ukraine a U.S. colony ruled by a “puppet regime.”
 
From my own reading and experience, Putin’s biggest breach of the steps of responsible influence has been of #5, by being untruthful, particularly with respect to his denial of Ukraine’s historic statehood and his claim that Russians and Ukrainians ‘are one people.’

Soon after my wife and I started dating, I learned two important facts involving her family’s ethnic heritage.  First, the nation is not “the Ukraine;” it’s “Ukraine.”  Adding the definite article “the” diminishes the country’s stature to that of a territory or colony, (e.g., the Louisiana Territory, the Yukon), which Putin directly suggested in his “rousing speech” referenced above.
 
Second, my wife’s family and their friends frequently reinforced that ‘Ukrainians are not Russians.’  I experienced firsthand that Ukrainians have a unique language, history, food, customs, and other rich cultural distinctives that distinguish them from their homeland’s northern neighbor.
 
My evidence spans more than three decades, but it is personal and, therefore, anecdotal.  The most compelling proof of Putin’s misinformation is, regrettably, what’s happened during the invasion, as a 2/26 New York Times Breaking News headline read, “Ukraine, outmanned and outgunned, has slowed Russia’s advance on Kyiv and two other cities as its forces wage a ferocious resistance.”
 
If Ukraine were just a Russian territory, if the majority of Ukrainians wanted unification with Russia, and if Ukrainians and Russians were one people, why are so many Ukrainians valiantly fighting and giving their lives to stop the invasion and maintain their nation’s sovereignty?
 
The disconnect stems from a lack of truthfulness, which many of Putin’s own people have recognized, hence widespread protests by Russians against the “war without a cause.”
 
Tragically Putin was effective in selling the idea of invasion to some, at the cost of many lives and the freedom of a peaceful people.  That underlying deception and unimaginable destruction makes his strategy the worst example “Single-Minded Marketing.”


David HagenbuchAbout the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch is a Professor of Marketing at Messiah University, the author of Honorable Influence, and the founder MindfulMarketing.org, which aims to encourage ethical marketing.




Super BOLD Ads

Super BOLD Ads

 

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org

A guy chows down on kitty litter, a celebrity bedazzles a convict’s ankle monitor with diamond studs, a groom marries a demon ghost bride.  These aren’t outtakes from B movies; they’re scenes from the year’s most highly anticipated commercial content—Super Bowl ads.

Despite the fact that 30 seconds during the 2022 sports spectacle reached an astounding $7 million per spot, NBC sold out its ad inventory, with a very high percentage of those spots leveraging humor, including some rather crude comedy.  If companies are willing to pay more for a half minute of airtime than most organizations’ entire annual marketing budgets, why wouldn’t they want to muster more ‘serious’ sponsorship efforts?  What’s with all the advertising irreverence?

Of course, Super Bowl ads have a long history of hilarity—traditionally, many ads made for the big game are funny, probably to align with the event’s party atmosphere, which often flows with the same sodas and snack foods seen in the spots.  Humor now is an annual expectation such that sponsors who make the contrarian choice to air more sober ads often reap the consequences of lackluster reviews.

Perhaps for these reasons, many advertisers have continued to push the envelope on humor, to the point that their MO is: ‘Go Irreverent or Go Home.’

Underlying this observation is the notion that there’s a difference between ordinary humor and irreverent humor.  According to the Collins Dictionary, something is humorous if people find it amusing, clever, or witty.  Ephrat Livni, writing for Pocket, further unpacks the essence of wit:

“The wittiest among us are simply people who make unusual connections between words and ideas. There’s a refreshing element of surprise to these observations that prompts a smile or a wince from the listener who didn’t see the link until it was presented.”

Beyond just being witty, irreverent humor adds abrasion to the comedic equation in the form of disrespect “for people or things that are generally respected.”  In other words, irreverent humor not only makes a clever and surprising connection between concepts, it also throws some significant shade on a group of people.

This distinction between regular humor and irreverent humor makes some sense in the abstract, but it’s better explained through specific examples.  So, here are a couple of Super Bowl LVI ads aimed at painting a clearer picture of the difference.

Regular Humor:  Kia – Robo Dog

After watching a real dog playing happily with its owners, an electronic pooch on display in a department store longs for its own human companion, leading it to chase the driver of an electric Kia.  Aiming for the car’s open moon roof, the love-starved dog leaps from atop a tall building, only to have its battery die, just before entry into the vehicle.

Thankfully, the dog awakens from its untimely slumber to find that the Kia driver has resuscitated it, courtesy of a cable plugged into the EV’s charging port.

This commercial is humorous for a variety of reasons, including its clever connection between an electronic dog and an electronic vehicle, as well as the surprising idea of a dog desiring an owner so badly that it chases one across a city.  The spot doesn’t arouse bellyache laughter, but the unique feel-good mini story does encourage at least a hearty chuckle.

 

 

Irreverent Humor:  ClickUp – Declaration

While many consider the authors of America’s Declaration of Independence heroes, ClickUp’s commercial depicts many of them as bumbling fools, particularly the nation’s second president, John Adams, who somehow misplaces the newest version of the foundational document. The situation worsens as the flustered Adams stumbles into an artist who’s trying to capture the historic moment on canvas, causing him to spread white paint across the famous scene.  The commercial concludes with Ben Franklin commending “Tommy” (Thomas Jefferson) for smartly creating a ClickUp task, as well as for “always saving John’s derriere.”

The ad is witty for several ‘regular’ reasons, including that it cleverly compares the centuries-old methods used to draft the Declaration of Independence to today’s digital technology.  It’s also amusing to see men wearing neck cloths and knickers gush over a laptop app.

However, the humor is irreverent because of its disrespect for America’s founding fathers, especially Adams.  These men risked their reputations and their lives to stand against colonialism and create one of the most impactful documents the world has known.  Of course, the ad is meant in jest, yet it seems impertinent to lampoon these patriots for a courageous and momentous act that has meant unprecedented freedom for so many.

 

 

So, why would Super Bowl advertisers like ClickUp and those mentioned above (Uber Eats, Plant Fitness, and Lays) want to risk alienating tens of millions of consumers with irreverent advertising?  It’s because one specific and highly sought-after target market appears to love the impertinence—Generation Z.For this cohort of 10–to-25-year-olds, the rule of thumb is often ‘the more brash the better.’  However, the reason “Gen Z demands absurdity from their ads” seems counterintuitive at first.

What Gen Z actually craves is authenticity.  Its members can smell a fake a mile away, and they detest phoniness, including in traditional advertising.  Gen Zers deduce, “I know you’re trying to sell me something, so stop pretending that you’re not.”

The advertising that this savvy young cohort finds most appealing is the kind that makes no pretense of selflessness; rather, it admits it’s pushing product through unconventional creative approaches that are often so over-the-top they’re laughable:

“Gen Z’s take on authenticity is pushing brands to break all previously established rules of brand communication.”

A good example of Gen Z’s affinity for absurdity is the off-beat soap brand Dr. Squatch.  While coming of age, those of us in older generations had little concern about the suds we used to shower.  However, thanks to Dr. Squatch’s crazy ads, such as one with a bearded guy in a shower cap, bathing in the woods with a rubber ducky, many in Gen Z are taking their soap choice more seriously.

The humor in the Dr. Squatch ad is certainly absurd, but is it also irreverent?  Although it’s outlandish by traditional advertising standards, most of the commercial’s content is pretty mild in terms of immorality.  For instance, one actor playfully douses another with what are purportedly chemicals found in typical, unnatural soaps.

One could argue that such antics disrespect the guy getting doused, but the action is clearly hyperbole, and it’s hard to claim there’s contempt for any specific people group.

The same logic probably also applies to Pringles 2022 Super Bowl spot “Stuck,” which tells the story of a young man who gets his hand wedged into one of the iconic canisters and ends up living his entire life with the snack food package appendage.

 

 

In this instance, Pringles is really laughing at itself for manufacturing such an awkward piece of packaging.  Its self-deprecating humor may seem like a risky move; however, when people or in this case a company pokes fun at itself, it often stops others from doing the same, perhaps out of pity, or maybe out of respect—‘It takes a strong person to admit they were wrong.’In his book, The Power of Regret, Daniel Pink reinforces this principle, maintaining that when individuals openly express their regrets to others, people surprisingly hold the soul bearers in higher regard, not lower.

On the other end of the humor/respectability continuum is a company like Liquid Death Mountain Water, which placed a bet, picking the underdog to win the Super Bowl LVI, then hired a witch to try to influence the game’s outcome.

One of the company’s commercials from a couple of years ago contained so many offensive elements that it’s challenging just to list them, e.g., profanity, vulgarity, stereotyping, allusions to the occult, and insensitivity to those who have lost loved ones to drowning and to overdosing on energy drinks.  To top it all off, the commercial even demonstrates torture by waterboarding.

Advertising humor, like much human behavior, involves a range of action from the simply benign to the very bad, from innocently amoral to dangerously immoral.

In a classic article published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, “Advertising: Looking Glass or Molder of the Masses?” Geoffrey Lantos posed an important question: Does advertising simply reflect what people are already doing or does it preemptively shape society’s behavior?

While it’s certainly worth asking that question of irreverent humor, the answer doesn’t necessarily matter.  Whether it molds or mirrors, advertising that’s effective but disrespects others isn’t edifying in either sense.  Instead, it amounts to “Single-Minded Marketing.”


David Hagenbuch

About the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch is a Professor of Marketing at Messiah University, the author of Honorable Influence, and the founder MindfulMarketing.org, which aims to encourage ethical marketing.




The Trouble with Taunting

The Trouble with Taunting

 

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org

With Super Bowl LVI fast approaching, it’s a good time to analyze the officiating that’s caused so much controversy this football season.  Surprisingly, the complaints haven’t been about referees throwing flags for excessive physical contact but for unnecessary psychological confrontation.  The NFL’s crackdown on taunting has been widely unpopular, which could make anyone wonder if tightening the lid on trash taking was a bad business decision.    
 
Imagine a football play in which a 320 lb. offensive lineman ‘pancakes’ a 310 lb. defensive tackle (i.e., blocks him to the turf).  The defensive player wouldn’t expect anyone to ask him afterward, “How did that experience make you feel?”
 
Professional football is a very physical game, played by some of Earth’s biggest, strongest, and toughest people.  They sign up for that kind of contact, and many even enjoy it.  Hurting each other’s feelings is likely the least of their concerns.  So why are NFL officials making it theirs?
 
This past summer, the league’s competition committee decided to try to tighten the reins on what it perceived to be a growing problem:  players taunting their opponents with words and gestures, often aimed at rubbing in others’ failure, e.g., “I scored a touchdown, and you couldn’t stop me,” of course, expressed in a more ‘colorful’ and humiliating way.
 
Contrary to what some think, the NFL didn’t create a new taunting rule for the current season; rather, it asked officials to more strictly enforce the existing rule against “the use of baiting or taunting acts or words that engender ill will between teams.”
 
Most fans and analyst have blasted the stricter enforcement, especially when such calls have helped sway the outcome of close games.  Given the arguably unnecessary restrictions on expression, some have snidely suggested that NFL should stand for “No Fun League.”
 
Lest we forget, football and all professional sports are entertainment.  So, if players don’t mind taunting, and fans tolerate or even enjoy it, why not give them what they want—that’s Marketing 101—meet the target market’s wants and needs.
 
But, what if taunting has an impact beyond the professionals playing on fields like Lambeau and in stadiums such as Gillette? 
 
Last February, I wrote an article, “Leaving a Legacy of Irreverence,” about an unlikely taunting incident that transpired at a teen football camp in Myrtle Beach, SC.  One of the campers inexplicably began berating NFL quarterback and one-time league MVP Cam Newton, shouting at him, “You a free agent! You a free agent! You’re about to be poor!”
 
Like most people, I said that the young man’s unprovoked antagonism was out of line.  However, I also suggested that he very well could have learned his trash talking from some of the same media pundits who quickly became his most vocal critics, namely ESPN’s often acerbic analyst, Stephen A. Smith.
 
Amid the great derision that taunting penalties have drawn this football season, I wonder if, again, we’re failing to connect some potentially important cause-effect dots:
Does NFL players’ taunting inspire young impressionable athletes, who often idolize them, to imitate the insults?
 
Like many, I grew up loving sports and trying, with very little success, to pattern my play after that of professional athletes.  Since my limited and dated experience doesn’t go very far in answering the question above, I reached out to someone who knows young football players better than almost anyone and can very likely project the impact that NFL players’ taunting has on today’s emerging athletes.
 
Jim Roth has been the head football coach at Southern Columbia High School, in Central Pennsylvania, for 38 years.  That remarkable longevity alone suggests his unique familiarity with high school football; however, his years on the job are only the beginning.
 
Roth’s teams have won an incredible 12 state championships—twice that of any other program in the state.  Furthermore, his 471 victories make him the winningest high school football coach in Pennsylvania and place him among the top ten coaches in the nation. During one recent stretch, Roth’s teams went an unimaginable four years without losing a game.
 
All this to say, there are few people anywhere who know high school football, its players, and what motivates them better than Roth.  I recently had an opportunity to speak with him and ask his perspective on taunting in the NFL and how it might impact high school players.
 
Roth very clearly conveys his feelings about the league’s tough stance on taunting: “I think the rule is great.”  He doesn’t appreciate a defensive lineman leaning over a quarterback he just sacked or believe it’s right for a receiver to wave his fingers at a safety he’s beaten for a touchdown.
 
Roth contends that professional players often take their celebrations too far: “The other team feels bad enough that they’ve gotten scored on.  There’s no need to humiliate them more.” 
 
When it comes to the possibility of his own players taunting opponents, Roth again does not equivocate, “We don’t condone taunting; we aren’t okay with our kids doing it.” 
 
Even as Roth and his coaching staff strive to develop their players’ character and instill self-discipline, he realizes it’s become increasingly hard to do so for a variety of reasons, including that fewer grow up learning the same sense of accountability and responsibility they did years ago.
 
Individual upbringing, however, is not the only factor that influences behavior like taunting.  Roth also believes that the actions of older, more accomplished athletes influence those of their younger counterparts: “There’s no question that when kids see certain things on TV in professional or college games, they imitate them.”
 
So, one of the most successful football coaches of all-time doesn’t appreciate players on any level taunting their opponents.  He also confirms that younger players often emulate the behavior, good and bad, of older ones, which gives good reason for the NFL to sack taunting.
 
It’s ironic that despite society’s increased awareness of the importance of good mental health, including for accomplished athletes like Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles, many people still see no problem with players in certain sports attempting to ‘get in the minds’ of their opponents.  Yes, sports are games, but they also have real life physical and psychological consequences that don’t go away when players walk off the field or leave the court.
 
Battle-hardened NFL players may be able to endure taunting, and their fans might enjoy watching it, but many impressionable young football players and others see it and imitate it, to the detriment of themselves and others, all in a world that’s wanting for respect and doesn’t need more antagonism.   
 
With television ratings at their highest since 2015, it doesn’t seem that the NFL has taken any financial hit for penalizing taunting; still, the significant pushback it’s received could cause the league to rethink its stricter stance.  Such a reversion, however, would be a loss for many inside and outside football.
 
After nearly four decades of incredible success, winning games and developing young men, Roth maintains, “Winning without character is no better than losing.”  That’s exactly what the NFL would be doing if it stops tackling taunting.  However, as long as its referees throw flags for those demeaning deeds, the league wins with “Mindful Marketing.”


David HagenbuchAbout the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch is a Professor of Marketing at Messiah University, the author of Honorable Influence, and the founder MindfulMarketing.org, which aims to encourage ethical marketing.




Should Social Responsibility Be Selfless?

Should Social Responsibility Be Selfless

 

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org

While people gave gifts to loved ones last month, the world’s largest pizza chain was providing presents to some very surprised recipients—other restaurants.  True, “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” but was Domino’s philanthropy actually aimed at putting itself on the receiving side?
 
As you may have seen in the 60-second spot from its feel-good campaign, Domino’s bought over $100,000 in gift cards from local restaurants and gave them to its own customers.
 
It doesn’t take much business background to know that the goal of an enterprise is to build market share for itself, not competitors.  Even Vickie Corder, one of the restaurant owners who appeared in Domino’s commercial, was astonished by the action: “I can’t believe one restaurant is buying another restaurant’s gift certificates.”
 
Why would Domino’s want to support its competitors’ sales by buying their gift cards, and even worse, giving them to its own customers, making them less likely to buy Domino’s pizza?  Some of the ad text suggests an altruistic reason:  “Domino’s wants to help the people and restaurants in our local communities.”
 
One might take that explanation at face value.  After all, the firm did fork over $100,000.  However, for a company with annual revenues of $4.37 billion and operating income of $801 million, $100,000 is immaterial.  There’s also some understandable skepticism—Why haven’t we heard before of Domino’s feelings of responsibility for other restaurants?
 
Instead, some of the chain’s social responsibility has looked more like ‘marketing gimmicks,’ such as its “Paving for Pizza” program, aimed at filling potential pizza-delivery-wrecking potholes, and its “carryout insurance,” guaranteeing free replacements for customers who inadvertently fumbled their pies.
 
The vast majority of people probably never had a poor pizza experience resulting from either of those issues and never will, so it’s realistic to suggest that in both instances Domino’s was making much ado about nothing, positioning for the free publicity that each unconventional campaign elicited.  So, is gifting other restaurant’s gift cards just another attempt to gain exposure through oddity?
 
The gift card campaign certainly seems like it could be another gimmick; yet, there are some notable differences, namely that COVID has put unprecedented pressure on restaurants, causing many to shutter their doors permanently.  In fact, Domino’s commercial mentions that “over 110,000 U.S. restaurants have closed since March 2020.”
 
That to say, unlike the exaggerated ideas of potholes pummeling delivery vehicles and consumers carelessly dropping carryout orders, the pandemic’s negative impact on restaurants has, unfortunately, been very real.
 
The ad also mentions a related phenomenon that COVID didn’t cause but did increase:  the use of third-party delivery companies.  During the height of the pandemic when most restaurants’ sit-down dining was paused, more and more people started getting restaurant food delivered to their homes and offices by providers like Grubhub, Uber Eats and DoorDash.
 
Although selling food, whether for dine-in or delivery, seems like a good thing for restaurants, apparently the math doesn’t work well when third party delivery companies are involved.  Irene Li, another restaurant owner interviewed in Domino’s ad, affirms the profit predicament: “[Third-party delivery fees] take a huge chunk of our bottom line; all of that comes out of our pocket and goes to them.”
 
Others have echoed her concern, including NPR, which reported that apps often charge commissions of 17% or more, in addition to delivery fees.  Likewise, the LA Times found that one local restaurant paid $35,000, or roughly a third of its annual rent, in delivery fees, which led the Times to recommend, “The next time you order takeout, call the restaurant [directly].”
 
Domino’s suggestion that delivery apps wreak havoc on restaurants’ bottom-lines is on-point; however, the pizza chain is also very well-known for doing its own deliveries.  Does that mean that Domino’s is selflessly looking out for others?  Not exactly.
 
Apparently, some of the many people who have grown accustomed to the third-party apps for food delivery have also used them to place orders for pizza, doing to Domino’s the same fiscal damage described above. In fact, another Domino’s ad has suggested such delivery difficulties, warning consumers that third party delivery firms charge “surprise fees,” but it will reward certain loyal customers who use its app with “surprise frees,” or, free food.”
 
Likewise, during an interview on CNBC’s Mad Money, Domino’s President and CEO Ritch Allision suggested that third-party delivery apps have, to some extent, stunted the company’s growth.
 
All this to say, by buying and giving away other restaurants’ gift cards, Domino’s has brought added attention to an issue that doesn’t just hurt its local restaurant competitors.  It also  bruises Domino’s own bottom line.
 
The question, then, becomes, Is it right for Domino’s to help itself while helping others?
 
Before considering the ethics of this query, it’s worth noting that Domino’s strategy does seem to be effective marketing.  The unconventional approach gains attention, and the corporate social responsibility builds goodwill.
 
What’s more, because delivery is both the focus of the ad and a key component of the company’s value proposition, the promotion is more meaningful and memorable.  When people consider Domino’s brand, the company wants them to think of food delivery, which the commercial accomplishes.
 
So, what about the marketing’s morality?  One consideration could be the amount Domino’s spent on the gift cards ($100K+) versus how much it’s paid for the ads.  Excluding  production expenses, U.S. television broadcasting costs alone, average about $115,000 per 30-second spot, which means the campaign’s promotional budget certainly far exceeded the value of the gift cards.
 
The extreme imbalance may make some rightly question the company’s motives.  Although Domino’s franchisees did assume some risk by giving other restaurant’s gift cards to their own customers, most people who eat out probably patronize multiple restaurants, making it unlikely that Domino’s lost business.  In fact, free gift cards may have led some of their recipients to reciprocate by buying more pizza.

All said, it’ hard to paint Domino’s promotion as selfless:  The company benefited from the tactics as did the other restaurants and those who scored the free gift cards.  So, is such mutual benefit problematic?
 
Most business exchanges result in win-win outcomes.  From the clothes we wear to the computers on which we type, we’re usually very glad we have those products and not the money we paid for them.  Meanwhile, the marketers are grateful for our money and don’t want back their products. 
 
Mutually beneficial exchange, in commercial and noncommercial contexts, is a very good thing. Some may argue that such a philosophy shouldn’t extend to corporate social responsibility, but why not?
 
Several years ago, two colleagues and I conducted research in which we identified three unique types of corporate social responsibility: donation, volunteerism, and operational integration.  In the study we affirmed that helping others was very good, but implementing philanthropic acts that simultaneously furthered the economic goals of the organization was even better.  The positive response to this article and another like it suggests that many others share the same viewpoint.
 
The reality outside business isn’t much different.  When individuals give of their time, money, etc., benevolence in some form usually comes back to them.  The stories found in the Go Giver artfully describe that phenomenon.
 
Domino’s did a good thing by buying and giving away other restaurants’ gift cards.  Although it wasn’t a major act of corporate social responsibility, it was a meaningful one.  The fact that the philanthropy also benefited the pizza chain, doesn’t stop the strategy from being “Mindful Marketing.”


David HagenbuchAbout the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch is a Professor of Marketing at Messiah University, the author of Honorable Influence, and the founder MindfulMarketing.org, which aims to encourage ethical marketing.




Why Can’t TikTok Block the Blackout Challenge?

Blackout Challenge - TikTok

 

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org

Many people’s New Year’s resolutions are to eat less and exercise more.  Fortunately, few people need to promise to kill less.  That goal, though, may be a good one for the world’s-fastest growing social media platform in order to better protect the lives of young users who are oblivious to the dangerous game they’re playing.

Nyla Anderson was a “happy child” and “smart as a whip”—she even spoke three languages. Tragically, the 10-year-old Pennsylvania girl’s life was cut short on December 12, when she died while attempting a perilous social media trend called the Blackout Challenge.

The Blackout Challenge “requires the participant to choke themselves until they pass out and wake up moments later.”  Sadly, some who participate, like Nyla, never wake up, and if they don’t die, they may suffer seizures and/or brain damage.

It’s tragic, but young people likely have engaged in foolhardy, life-threatening behavior since the beginning of humankind.  Within a few years of my high school graduation, two of my classmates lost their lives in separate car crashes caused by high-speed, reckless driving.  Most people probably can share similar stories of people they knew who needlessly died too young.

In some ways it’s inevitable that young people’s propensity for risk-taking paired with a limited sense of their own mortality will lead them to endanger themselves and encourage others to do the same.  What’s inexplicable is how older and presumably more rational adults can encourage and even monetize such behavior, which is what some suggest TikTok has done.

Unfortunately, Nyla is not the only young person to pass away while attempting the Blackout Challenge.  Other lives the ill-advised trend has taken include 12-year-old Joshua Haileyesus of Colorado and 10-year-old Antonella Sicomero of Palermo, Italy.  TikTok provided the impetus for each of these children to attempt the challenge.

Most of us know from experience that peer influence can cause people to do unexpected and sometimes irrational things.  In centuries gone by, that influence was limited to direct interpersonal contact and then to traditional mass media like television.  Now, thanks to apps like TikTok, anyone with a smartphone holds potential peer pressure from people around the world in the palm of their hand.

In TikTok’s defense, the Blackout Challenge predates the social media platform.  ByteDance released TikTok, or Douyin as it’s known in China, in September of 2016.  Children had been attempting essentially the same asphyxiation games, like the Choking Challenge and the Pass-out Challenge, many years prior.  In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 82 children, aged 6 to 19, likely died from such games between 1995 and 2007.

It’s also worth noting that individuals and other organizations create the seemingly infinite array of videos that appear on the platform.  ByteDance doesn’t make them, it just curates the clips according to each viewer’s tastes using one of the world’s most sophisticated and closely guarded algorithms.

So, if TikTok didn’t begin the Blackout Challenge and it hasn’t created any of the videos that encourage it, why should the app bear responsibility for the deaths of Nyla, Joshua, Antonella, or any other young person who has attempted the dangerous social media trend?

It’s reasonable to suggest that TikTok is culpable for the self-destructive behavior that happens on its premises.  A metaphor might be a property owner who makes his house available as a hangout for underage drinking.  The homeowner certainly didn’t invent alcohol, and he may not be the one providing it, but if he knowingly enables the consumption, he could be legally responsible for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”

By hosting Blackout Challenge posts, TikTok could be contributing to the delinquency of minors.

I have to pause here to note an uncomfortable irony.  Less than four months ago, just after Francis Haugen blew the whistle on her former employer Facebook,  I wrote a piece titled “Two Lessons TikTok can Teach Facebook.”  In the article, I described specific measures TikTok had taken to, of all things: 1) discourage bad behavior, and 2) support users’ mental health.

How could I have been so wrong?  Although I certainly may have been misguided—it wouldn’t be the first time—TikTok’s actions that I cited truly were good things.  So, maybe the social media giant deserves to defend itself against the new allegations.

TikTok declined CBS News’ request for an  interview, but it did claim to block content connected to the Blackout Challenge, including hashtags and phrases.  It also offered this statement, “TikTok has taken industry-first steps to protect teens and promote age-appropriate experiences, including strong default privacy settings for minors.”

The notion of protecting teens is certainly good; however, it’s hard to know what “industry-first steps” are.  Furthermore, prioritizing age-appropriateness and privacy are important, but neither objective aligns particularly well with the need to avoid physical harm—the main problem of the Blackout Challenge.

In that spirt and in response to accusations surrounding Nyla’s death, TikTok offered to Newsweek a second set of statements:

“We do not allow content that encourages, promotes, or glorifies dangerous behavior that might lead to injury, and our teams work diligently to identify and remove content that violates our policies.”

“While we have not currently found evidence of content on our platform that might have encouraged such an incident off-platform, we will continue to monitor closely as part of our continuous commitment to keep our community safe. We will also assist the relevant authorities with their investigation as appropriate.”

These corporate responses do align better with the risks the Blackout Challenge represents.  However, there’s still a disconnect:  TikTok claims it’s done nothing to facilitate the Blackout Challenge, but family members of those lost say the social media platform is exactly where their children encountered the fatal trend.

The three families’ tragedies are somewhat unique, but they’re far from the only cases of people seeing the Blackout Challenge on TikTok and posting their own attempts on the app.  TikTok has taken measures that have likely helped ‘lessen the destruction,’ but it’s unreasonable for it to claim exoneration.

The company’s app must be culpable to some degree, but what exactly could it have done to avoid death and injury?  That question is very difficult for anyone outside TikTok or without significant industry expertise to answer; however, let me ask one semi-educated question—Couldn’t TikTok use an algorithm?

As I’ve described in an earlier blog post, “Too Attached to an App,” ByteDance has created one of the world’s most advanced artificial intelligence tools—one that with extreme acuity serves app users a highly-customized selection of videos that can keep viewers engaged indefinitely.

Why can’t TikTok employ the same algorithm, or a variation of it, to keep the Blackout Challenge and other destructive videos from ever seeing the light day?

TikTok is adept at showing users exactly what they want to see, so why can’t it use the same advanced analytics with equal effectiveness to ‘black out’ content that no one should consume?

The truism ‘nobody’s perfect’ aptly suggests that every person is, in a manner of speaking, part sinner and part saint.  TikTok and other organizations, which are collections of individuals, are no different, doing some things wrong and other things right but hopefully always striving for less of the former and more of the latter.

Based on its statements, TikTok likely has done some ‘right things’ that have helped buffer the Blackout Challenge.  However, given the cutting-edge technology the company has at its disposal, it could be doing more to mitigate the devastating impact.  For that reason, TikTok remains responsible for “Single-Minded Marketing.”


David HagenbuchAbout the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org 




Are Apple AirTags Too Risky?

Are Apple AirTags Too Risky?

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org

Most of us played ‘tag’ as a kid and loved the simple thrill of chasing others around and trying not to get tagged.  Thanks to Apple’s advanced tech, the game has graduated to adulthood; however, criminals are increasingly “it, ” and the stakes are much higher for those being chased.

So, if you’re wondering what to buy for that childhood friend-turned-felon this holiday season, Apple has the perfect present:  AirTags–The gift that keeps on taking.  This dark humor aims to underscore some disturbing news:  More criminals are finding that AirTags are a convenient way to pilfer the valuable property of others or even worse, to stalk people.

Apple introduced the small electronic tracking devices this past April to help individuals more easily locate products they’re apt to misplace like keys and bags.  The company’s website explains how the 1.26” diameter tags work:

“Your AirTag sends out a secure Bluetooth signal that can be detected by nearby devices in the Find My network.  These devices send the location of your AirTag to iCloud — then you can go to the Find My app and see it on a map.”

Given that this location system leverages a vast network of strangers’ devices, Apple has made privacy a top priority.  The company ensures that only the AirTag’s owner can see where their AirTag is, and its location data and history, which are always encrypted, “are never stored on the AirTag itself.”

These measures appear effective in protecting the property owner, i.e., the person who places the AirTag on their own phone, in their own bag, etc.; however, it seems that a major security risk remains, namely preventing those with ignoble intentions from attaching AirTags to the possessions of others.

Of course, most people would notice if an AirTag inexplicably appeared on their coat or keychain, but they’d probably never see one affixed to the underside of their automobile.  Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for car thieves to realize AirTags’ wonderful potential for pilfering.

Various news media have reported the troubling trend in which thieves see sought-after vehicles in public places like mall parking lots, attach an AirTag to the car in an inconspicuous spot, and track the vehicle to a more private place, like the owner’s driveway, where it can be stolen more easily.

The notion of ‘auto theft made simple’ is disconcerting, but even more disturbing is the idea that criminals could use AirTags to stalk people.  What if you’re in a public place and someone inconspicuously slides one into a bag you’re carrying?  The wrongdoer could show up at your home anytime.

Fortunately, Apple claims there are measures to thwart such chilling contingencies; its website explains:

“AirTag is designed to discourage unwanted tracking. If someone else’s AirTag finds its way into your stuff, your iPhone will notice it’s traveling with you and send you an alert. After a while, if you still haven’t found it, the AirTag will start playing a sound to let you know it’s there.  Of course, if you happen to be with a friend who has an AirTag, or on a train with a whole bunch of people with AirTag, don’t worry. These alerts are triggered only when an AirTag is separated from its owner.”

These precautions do help ally some concerns; yet, a few questions remain, for example:

  • What if the person who’s unknowingly been ‘tagged’ doesn’t own an iPhone or have it with them, in which case they wouldn’t receive the alert?
  • How long does it take for the alert to be triggered?
  • How far does an AirTag need to be from its owner in order for the alert to be sent?

In keeping with the last question, if a person has an AirTag in a key chain that she hangs in a first-floor entryway, she won’t want an alert to sound each time she takes her iPhone to her second-floor bedroom.  All this to say, AirTags’ security features give some significant reasons for pause.​

Geoffrey Fowler, a columnist for the Washington Post, substantiated such concerns when he asked a colleague to pretend to stalk him for a week “from across San Francisco Bay.”  He found that it took three days for the alert to sound, which amounted to “just 15 seconds of light chirping.”  What’s more, if he didn’t own an iPhone, he wouldn’t have received any notification.

Although Fowler credits Apple for trying to do more to keep people safe than other tracking device makers, like Tile, have done, his experience still leads him to conclude that AirTags are “a new means of inexpensive, effective stalking.” So, should Apple stop selling AirTags?  Base on Fowler’s experiment, a natural conclusion is ‘yes.’  However, as it is with so many products that offer both positive and negative outcomes, the answer is not that easy.

For instance, many of us travel in automobiles each day to go to work, school, shopping etc.  Tragically, more than 38,000 U.S. residents die in car crashes each year, and many more are injured.  Also, we’ve unfortunately seen some use cars maliciously to kill others.

However, such incidents don’t make many of us think twice about climbing into a car or crossing streets where others are driving them.  Although the potential negative outcomes of injury and death are daunting, the great individual and collective benefits of car use overshadow those remote probabilities.

Similar rationale can be applied to many other products from kitchen knives to prescription drugs.  We welcome their use because in the vast majority of cases they help people, not harm them.

Still, it’s fair to ask if AirTags offer a high enough risk-to-reward ratio.  Yes, misplacing one’s car keys is annoying and can even be very frustrating, but we usually find them.  How do we weigh the convenience of finding lost keys against the use of the devices to track others’ property or people themselves?

Those risks, especially if they become more common, likely don’t outweigh the rewards of quicker key recovery.  However, there are several other, potentially more critical functions that AirTags can serve.  Writing for Gadget Hacks, Jake Peterson identifies several of those uses, which include:

  • Lifesaver Beacons:  People with severe allergic reactions can place AirTags on life-saving medications like EpiPens.
  • Location Trackers for Children:  Parents can put the devices in their children’s backpacks or pockets and hopefully avoid experiencing their worst nightmare—a lost child.
  • Location Trackers for People with Dementia:  At the other end of the age spectrum, some individuals beset by mental decline wander off.  AirTags can make it easier to find them quickly.
  • Beacons for the Visually Impaired:  The Find My app can help people with limited or no sight precisely locate important objects within their homes.
  • Location Trackers for Pets: An AirTag can help ensure that a beloved animal is found, without needing to insert a microchip into the pet.

Do the benefits of these latter applications outweigh the risks of unscrupulous AirTag use?  They probably do, provided that Apple continues to improve AirTag security and that the deviant behavior remains isolated.  Assuming those two ‘tag rules,’ AirTags can be useful for many people, helping to make the tracking devices “Mindful Marketing.”


David HagenbuchAbout the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org 




A Bad Sign: Macy’s vs. Amazon Billboard Battle

Macy's vs. Amazon Billboard Battle

 

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org

With the holiday shopping season in full swing, many consumers are unaware of two titan retailers’ battle over a billboard, the results of which could impact how and where shoppers buy gifts for years to come.  The clash also could impact what businesses come to accept as moral behavior.

The site of the showdown is the corner of 34th Street and Broadway, New York City, at the center of U.S. commerce.  It’s there that Macy’s, which once boasted “the worlds’ largest retail store,” is taking what could be a final stand against the encroachment of Earth’s fastest-growing retailer, and one of nature’s most irrepressible forces:  Amazon.

Macy’s has filed a lawsuit against Amazon, hoping to keep its close competitor from commandeering a 2,200 square foot billboard that adjoins Macy’s flagship Herald Square store.  It’s a signage space Macy’s has leased for nearly 60 years.

The huge billboard, which features Macy’s iconic star and logo typeface set against the familiar bright red background, serves as a beacon for millions of pedestrians and potential shoppers as they walk north on Broadway and west on 34th Street.  Millions more see the sign every November in countless camera shots during the retailer’s world-renowned Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Amazon, an organization that can send astronauts into orbit, is capable of just about anything, but how could even it endeavor to place its name on a billboard on the side of such a storied competitor’s flagship store?

Key to the controversy is the fact that Macy’s doesn’t own the building on which the billboard rests; the sign is actually attached to a small separate edifice situated just between the retailer’s massive 2.2 million sq. ft. store and the intersection.  The owner of the tiny architectural interloper and its very valuable billboard is Kaufman Realty Corp.

With the contract it signed in 1963 expiring, Macy’s asked Kaufman to renew its billboard ad, but the company told its long-standing tenant that it intended to rent the space to a “prominent online retailer”—one who apparently has deep pockets and who most believe is Amazon.

Of course, both Macy’s and Amazon have physical stores and virtual ones; yet, Macy’s is in many ways the quintessential brick-and-mortar retailer while Amazon practically owns online shopping.

In a very real way, therefore, the billboard battle represents a titanic clash of competing marketing channels and business models, the results of which could impact consumer shopping behavior for years to come, as well as set important moral precedent.

Macy’s firmly believes that its loss of the advertising space, next to its flagship store, would be disastrous, as the suit it filed states, “The damages to Macy’s customer goodwill, image, reputation and brand, should a ‘prominent online retailer’ (especially Amazon) advertise on the billboard are impossible to calculate.”

With net income that’s exceeded $1 billion for eight of the last ten years, Macy’s is doing well compared to many retailers, especially those that filed for bankruptcy over the last 18 months, e.g., Lord & Taylor, J.C. Penney, J Crew, Neiman Marcus, and Pier 1.

However, Macy’s profit margin for 2020 was a modest 2.9%.  Amazon, in contrast, had net income of $21.3 billion on revenue of $386 billion, giving it not only much greater earnings but also a significantly higher rate of return—5.5%.

So, although Macy’s is not quite on the cusp, it’s certainly not operating from a position of power versus Amazon, and it truly can’t afford to see its flagship store, which it’s described as its “most valuable asset,” take a serious financial hit.

However, a hit on Macy’s Herald Square store and its effect on the future of retail is only one concern of the billboard battle:  Amazon’s aggressive competitive tactic is also a breach of business’s moral bulwark.

Of course, Amazon has a right to buy any billboard it wants, but a key question is why the firm needs to buy that one.

According to Statista, there are over 340,000 billboards, or “big format outdoor displays,” in the United States.  Just a ten-minute walk north of Herald Square lies Time Square, which has probably the greatest display of outdoor advertising in the world.

Granted, a sign in this spectacle of commercialism comes at a very high cost: between $5,000 and $50,000 a day, which could mean as much as $18.25 million a year.  Still, that amount of money is almost immaterial to the one of the world’s richest companies.

As of December 31, 2020, Amazon’s balance sheet showed cash and cash equivalents of $41.2 billion.  Even a $50,000-a-day billboard would represent less than half of one percent of those liquid assets (just 0.0445%).

So, if hundreds of thousands of large outdoor signs are available and Amazon can afford to rent any billboard it wants, why does it have to have the one in Herald Square that’s adjacent to one of its biggest competitor’s flagship stores?

It’s reasonable to infer an intent to attack the heart of Macy’s operations, to steal shoppers from in front of its landmark store, and perhaps even to embarrass the firm before its own customers.

Some might respond to such assertions of over-the-top aggression with, “That’s business,” or “Amazon is just being competitive,” or “The company is playing to win.”  There’s a difference, though, between working hard to win and trying menacingly to make others lose.  Unfortunately, Amazon’s billboard-buy seems like the latter.

Growing up, I loved to play sports and considered myself a pretty competitive person—I wanted to win and tried my hardest to do so.  Although I didn’t like losing, I could tolerate it—it wasn’t the end of the world—especially if I played my best and the other person/team simply outperformed me.

By the same token, I never liked the idea of trying to sabotage or subvert opposing players’ performance.  Instead, I thought, “Let them do their best, and I’ll do my best, and whosever best is better deserves to win.”  I didn’t have to come out on top every time; I could ‘share the podium.’  Part of competing was knowing how to win and lose graciously.

In contrast, some individuals and organizations compete as if it’s all or nothing, and they have to have it all, all the time.  They’ve no sense that ‘the market’s big, so there’s plenty of business for everyone.’

Maybe it’s because of the holidays that this self-obsessed way of thinking reminds me of the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life–specifically the film’s antagonist, the greedy and scheming Mr. Potter.  Although he and his bank already own half of Bedford Falls, he won’t rest until it’s all under his control, not tolerating even a minor amount of competition from George Bailey’s small Building & Loan. No one else can win; he has to have it all.

My guess is that Mr. Potter would be proud of  Amazon’s attempt to pry the Herald Square billboard lease away from Macy’s.

Macy’s is no real threat to Amazon, which can afford any outdoor advertising it wants and doesn’t need to have that specific sign.  So, why go after it?  It seems like Amazon doesn’t want anyone else to win; it has to have it all.

Macy’s lawsuit claims that all past and present agreements have prohibited the billboard’s owner from ever leasing the space to any other “establishment selling at retail or directly to any consumer.”  If that claim is true and Macy’s is offering Kaufman Realty fair compensation for the lease, Macy’s has even more reason to believe its treatment is unreasonable.

Competition is not only necessary, it’s desirable, as it both benefits consumers and sharpens industry rivals.  However, when organizations like Amazon enlist predatory business practices, their strategies are a sign of “Single-Minded Marketing.”


David HagenbuchAbout the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org 




Thanking Employees for Giving

Thanking Employees for Giving

 

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org

Even during a pandemic, there’s much for which to be thankful.  Most organizations are grateful they’ve weathered the economic turmoil; at the same time, they also should be showing gratitude to the stakeholder group that has become increasingly important to them:  their employees.
 
Help wanted signs in store windows and job listings on websites abound.  Most of us can’t recall so many organizations, in all kinds of industries, competing for such a wide range of talent.
 
A few months ago, I offered some suggestions for how organizations might better market themselves to a shrinking pool of prospective employees.  Such successful onboarding is very important; however, it’s probably not as important as another tactic, which an old adage from personal selling mirrors:
 
It’s easier to keep current customers than it is to acquire new ones.
 
From a personnel perspective:
 
 It’s better to keep existing employees than it is to hire new ones.
 
Those of us who have served on search committees, conducted job interviews, and participated in training, know the significant time, effort, and expense it takes to make successful hires.
 
Yes, every organization needs to bring new employees ‘onto the bus,’ but if good, veteran employees are getting off faster than new ones are getting on, the company really needs to shift its focus, for economic and other reasons, from acquisition to retention.
 
Keeping employees satisfied and wanting to stay in their jobs has been the focus of HR practitioners and management theorist, such as Frederick Herzberg, for over half a century.  Marketers also have offered input through the specialization known as internal marketing, which treats employees as a unique target market and strives to meet their needs.
 
If you’ve ever left a job or thought of leaving one, you know many considerations impact the decision, some tangible like pay and benefits, others more intangible like respect and recognition.  In many ways, all these factors coalesce into one desire that practically everyone, employed or not, has each day: to feel appreciated.  We all like to know that others—family, friends, and employers—are thankful for us.
 
So, how exactly should employers show that they’re thankful for the people that work for them?  Of course, there’s no one way.  Also, different people might appreciate certain approaches more than others, similar to the way individuals have different “love languages,” or ways in which they’d like others to show love to them.
 
To help me understand best practices for showing gratitude, I reached out to three business professionals whose work prioritizes employee satisfaction.  Some ideas they shared were familiar, but many included a ‘creative twist,’ and still others were completely new.  Here are several of their responses to my question: How can organizations show their employees they’re thankful for them?
 
1. Anthony Hahn, president and CEO of Conestoga Wood Specialties

Manufacturing some of the nation’s highest-quality custom cabinets and wood components undoubtedly takes a skilled work force that is challenging to recruit and retain, especially in a tight labor market.  Hahn shared that new measures such as higher starting wages, improved vacation opportunities, and attendance bonuses have helped offset those challenges.
 
However, Conestoga have gone much further to communicate to its employees that they’re appreciated.  The company has given workers more flexibility in attending to personal needs, instituted employee recognition events with catered lunches, improved training of front-line supervisors, and enhanced corporate communication.
 
During the holidays, there are still more expressions of gratitude that Conestoga offers its 1,000+ employees, spread across several states, but two of the most significant things Hahn does throughout the year are to send each employee a birthday card and to seek opportunities to interact with individual employees and personally thank them for their work.

2. Stephanie Lehman, marketing coordinator for Martin’s Famous Potato Rolls and Bread
 
It’s unlikely that Martins would be the nation’s #1 potato roll and the bun of choice for Shake Shack if it didn’t have happy employees.  However, because of its workers’ exceptional response throughout the pandemic, the company felt it needed to do more to express its appreciation for them.
 
Lehman shared that one thing the firm has done is increase written communication to employees, sending a “Martin’s Management Minute” during the summer months—the  busiest time of year for a bun maker—in order to recognize employees’ exceptional contributions to the company’s success.
 
This past summer, Martin’s extended its gratitude a step further by videoing members of its executive team as they personally thanked employees for their contributions.  The firm played the videos on digital signs throughout buildings at its headquarters and in satellite locations.
 
In addition, every three years the company unfurls a full-out celebration of its workers by hosting employee picnics at each of its bakery locations.  With free food, games, and entertainment, the events are more like large carnivals or fairs, but they’re just for Martin’s families.
 
3. Jessica Walter, senior consultant for culture and employee engagement at Kincentric

Much of Walter’s career has involved helping all kinds of organizations communicate more effectively with their employees.  As such, she’s seen examples on either end of the efficacy continuum, as well as all points in between.
 
Above all, Walter emphasizes that organizational leaders need to examine their communication and “make it personal”:
 
“Today’s most effective leaders are focused on the human side of leadership – the heart side of leadership. Employees are craving connection, care, and compassion more than ever before, so a sincere expression of gratitude from a leader has a powerful impact.”  
 
She describes how that personal communication can happen, saying:
 
“Whether it’s a heartfelt email to the entire company, hand-written thank-you notes to your immediate team, or walking the floor and personally thanking each person you see, the act of appreciating and acknowledging [people] fosters trust and deepens the relationship.” 
 
I’m not sure if Walter has ever consulted with Conestoga or Martin’s, but it seems like she could have, as each of those companies’ expressions of gratitude to its employees are excellent reflections of her advice.
 
I’ve long been a believer that the customer comes first.  Although I still affirm that marketing mandate, I’m increasingly of the mind that treating one’s own personnel well is a critical, moral prerequisite.  Moreover, companies that regularly communicate thankfulness to their employees are engaged in some of the most “Mindful Marketing.”


David HagenbuchAbout the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org 




Will the Metaverse be Meta-Worse?

Will the Metaverse be Meta-Worse

 

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org

A name change is seldom a small thing.  It’s especially significant when one of the world’s most valuable companies decides to rebrand.  Facebook’s move to “Meta” offers an important signal about the firm’s future focus, which promises to impact billions of people who regularly sign onto its social media platforms.  The idea of a ‘metaverse’ sounds exciting, but will it really be a better place?

The recent decision of the planet’s most widely used social media platform to rename itself Meta surprised many; yet, it’s a move we’ve witnessed before, one of the most notable happening in 2015 when Google grew into Alphabet.

Like Google, Facebook would never do something as rash as discard one of the world’s most valuable  brands.  Rather, the company recognized that by retaining the Facebook name for just the specific social media platform and renaming the umbrella corporation Meta, the company’s expansion would be much more free from perceptual constraints.

Moreover, Meta might stimulate a whole new world of virtual possibilities.  According to the New York Times, the move encapsulates CEO Mark Zuckerberg’ plan to “refocus his Silicon Valley company on what he sees as the next digital frontier, which is the unification of disparate digital worlds into something called the metaverse.”

Wasn’t ‘unifying disparate digital worlds’ what Facebook did when it allowed users to link the platform to their Instagram accounts?  In a manner of speaking it was, but the metaverse purports to be much, much more.

So, what exactly is the metaverse?

Despite its sudden popularity, the concept is not one that’s easy to define, mainly because “it doesn’t necessarily exist”; rather, it’s “a dream for the future.”  It’s also hard to get a handle on the metaverse because, like the Internet, it’s not a singular product that Facebook or any one company can build alone.

Crypto game developer Andrei Shulgach, who spends several hours each day in the meta-space doing research for metaverse-related projects, affirms the concept’s evolving and evasive meaning:

“For the past four years, the term metaverse has mainly been a buzzword without a defined meaning, and even now it is often used ambiguously. For instance, there’s a distinction between the gaming metaverse and the metaverse as a whole.”

To the end of reducing the ambiguity, here’s how some have described the metaverse:

If it’s challenging just to understand what the metaverse is, it’s even more difficult to estimate its moral impact.  As Facebook and a slew of other organizations aim to engage us in their own region of the new ream, it’s important to ask:

To what extent will the metaverse be a force for good?

For those who don’t now frequent the metaverse, cynicism may be the understandable reaction, especially when some of the companies spearheading the change regularly make headlines for moral lapses like profiting from divisive content, playing fast and loose with data privacy, and allowing people to pummel others’ self-concepts.

There are undoubtedly more, but here are four main moral concerns related to the metaverse:

1. Time sink:  Whether it’s watching hours of TikTok videos or compulsively checking one’s Facebook feed, social media has already become a time waster for many, so one can only imagine how an even more immersive virtual experience might consume each waking hour.

2. Distraction:  In keeping with the first point, virtual worlds and avatars might also draw people’s attention away from what’s happening in the physical world around them, including relationships with flesh-and-blood people and resources that should be spent on real physical needs like food, clothing, and housing.

3. Safety:  Internet safety is already a perennial concern, especially for children.  Will even more complex and blended interaction, e.g., augmented reality, present new ways for predators to deceive and disadvantage vulnerable populations?

4. Accessibility:  As technology serves increasingly important functions in many of our lives, it’s easy to forget that not everyone has the same access, which can be because of limitations that are financial (affording hardware and related services), physical (seeing or hearing), cognitive (distinguishing the virtual form the physical).

These and other moral issues may be further complicated by what Shulgach has observed: “many companies jumping into the space, trying to ride the wave and catch an audience when they really have no experience or know what it takes to launch a successful metaverse project.”

Yes, its cynical, but it’s also realistic to expect that at least some of these firms that are willing to overleverage their experience and expertise will also be inclined to undervalue ethical concerns.  We see some of that ambivalence now with the Internet–Why would the metaverse be any different?

However, that rhetorical question can also have a favorable frame:  Despite its flaws, the Internet has been a tremendously positive force for communication, work productivity, relationship-building, entertainment, and more–Why should the metaverse be any different?

As the metaverse continues to evolve, we’ll likely witness increasingly positive outcomes such as:

  • Organizations using the metaverse to train employees and serve customers, all while saving time and conserving other resources
  • Individuals finding even more interesting and engaging opportunities for information, education, and entertainment
  • People forming meaningful relationships with others who they otherwise would have never known.

Shulgach, who actively works within the game industry metaverse with others, has a vision for a metaverse that makes such a positive impact:

“The idea of connecting users through virtual worlds, and digital economies powered by crypto and NFTs with real-world effects, is crucial for what the metaverse will be defined as in the future. This is an incredible opportunity to re-define and innovate the way we interact with each other moving forward.”

Like many things in life, the metaverse is a kind of tool.  Whether a tool is something as simple as a hammer or as complex as a car, most can be used for either good or bad—the outcomes depend on the motivation of the user.

The metaverse is a collection of tools that together form a mechanism unlike any other.  It’s wishful thinking to believe that every user of the tool will actively consider its moral impact, but hopefully many will, if not most.  There’s no reason that metaverse marketing can’t be “Mindful Marketing.”


David HagenbuchAbout the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org 




Will Heinz’s Halloween Promotion Scare Away Consumers?

Will Heinz’s Halloween Promotion Scare Away Consumers

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Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org

Halloween is a time when many companies give a glimpse into their dark sides, usually with carefully created, humor-filled ads.  However, one iconic consumer product company’s frightful holiday tactic brings to mind the fearful parental warning, “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt!”  Is Heinz’s gory Halloween promotion going to bloody its own brand?

The H. J. Heinz Company merged with Kraft Foods in 2015, creating one of the largest food and drink companies in the world, with an enticing selection of edibles, from Maxwell House Coffee, to Oscar Meyer Hot Dogs, to Philadelphia Cream Cheese.  With such consumer product success, Kraft Heinz obviously knows something about branding, which makes Heinz’s decision to turn its ketchup into Halloween blood even eerier.

Yes, Heinz is suggesting that America’s favorite condiment for covering hamburgers at July 4th cookouts can also be used to coat Halloween costumes to give them a gruesomely bloody appeal.

Specially labeled Tomato Blood Ketchup is just one of the brand extensions.  The company is also offering “Tomato Blood costume kits, masks and premade outfits themed around mummies, pirates and more,” all available on a company microsite, HeinzHalloween.com.

YouTube video introduces the Tomato Blood Ketchup, which the microsite further describes as “a collectible limited edition 20 oz. squeeze bottle . . . the same classic Heinz ketchup you know and love, but with a spooky Halloween makeover.”

What should we make of Heinz’s move into the macabre?  First, it’s important to note that Heinz is far from the only consumer products company that has sought to tap into the revenue potential of Halloween.  Other brands that have created “Frightfully Fabulous Halloween Marketing Campaigns” include:

  • Butterfinger:  mugshots aim to convict parents who have eaten their kids’ Halloween candy to turn themselves in.
  • Snickers:  a grown-up trick-or-treater in a bear costume insists she really is a bruin.
  • Temptations:  the cat food company recommends that pet owners feed its treats to their felines, so their cats won’t eat them.
  • Nike:  has created a special Halloween-themed sneaker with orange and black colors, an illuminated outsole, and a “creepy spider pattern on the insole.”
  • Lego, Star Wars, Disney+:  have partnered to produce a series of animated shorts with clever storylines based on Halloween themes.
  • Reese’s:  a longtime Halloween favorite, suggests that all the Reese’s that disappear during the holiday have gone on to “a better place.”
  • Skittles:  has released a special line of Zombie Skittles in Halloween themed flavors that include Mummified Melon and Boogeyman Blackberry.

The point is that other brands’ Halloween-themed promotions are heavy on humor and light on realism.  For instance, no one would actually believe the Temptation commercial’s suggestion that a housecat would eat a person.

Contrast that humorous hyperbole with the bloody realism of Heinz Ketchup, which really does resemble plasma.  If the next time you’re chopping vegetables for dinner you squeeze ketchup over your hand and wail in pain, members of your household will likely believe you’re badly injured.

Heinz Ketchup acting as blood has the ability to genuinely shock or sicken people unlike any of the other Halloween promotions mentioned above.  Still, whether you’re a fan of Halloween or not, much of the holiday is increasingly about scaring and nauseating people, so in that grisly context, the tomato blood ketchup is not as outrageous as it otherwise would be.

So, most people can probably tolerate the idea and image of ketchup blood—there are things even more grotesque that people watch throughout the year in movies, TV shows, and online videos. Graphic violence that was seldom seen decades ago is now much more commonplace.

Some might say it’s a good thing that more people are now acclimated to the sight of blood, but what is that desensitization doing to society?  Although it’s probably true that most of us are no more likely to kill someone, how do we respond when we see real bloodshed and violence on screen or in-person.  Are we as likely to be appalled and to act against it?

A few weeks ago, on a SEPTA train outside of Philadelphia, a man raped a woman while several bystanders reportedly did nothing.  Of course, intervening in an act of violence is no small thing.  Still, if we weren’t exposed to so much violence and bloodshed, would we react differently when we see it?  Is fake blood or anything that trivializes trauma adding a little more insensitivity to our collective apathy?

Such societal impact is certainly the most significant consideration here; yet, from a business perspective, there’s another important question to ask about the Halloween promotion:

Can Heinz’s own bottom-line stomach the bloodshed?

Of course, the campaign is the company’s own doing, so surely Heinz has conducted cashflow analyses to project how much marginal revenue Tomato Blood will raise against incremental costs for things like new labels and special promotion.

It’s fairly easy to estimate that net income.  What’s much harder to determine is the blood’s long-term impact on Heinz’s well-established brand.  To that end, the AIDA model (attention, interest, desire action) may help.

On one hand, the uniquely appalling nature of Tomato Blood has gained Heinz considerable attention, or awareness that the brand wouldn’t otherwise have, e.g., news coverage, social media shares.  Similarly, the mere idea of the repulsive product piques curiosity, or interest, and likely causes many people to want to find out more, just as I did.

For some people that attention and interest might also lead to desire, or identifying a need to use the product either as fake blood or to put on burgers, as well as to action, i.e., purchasing the bottles and/or recommending them to others.

On the other hand, there’s a real risk in associating a beloved condiment with a body fluid that many people literally “can’t stand the sight of.”

Between 3 and 4 percent of the population has hemophobia, or an irrational fear of blood. For these individuals, even seeing blood on television can cause symptoms such as difficulty breathing and extreme anxiety or panic.

It’s easy to dismiss a relatively small group whose reactions to blood are clinically considered “irrational.”  However, the same primitive reflex that causes some people to faint at the sight of blood exists in all of us to some extent.

How many people actually enjoy blood?  It seems that a visual of the vital fluid makes most people at least a little squeamish if not nauseous.  Given that widespread response . . .

Why would any brand, especially one whose consumption is predicated upon appearing appetizing, want to associate itself with such strong and innately negative reactions?

Human history and Maslow’s hierarchy have taught us that the motivation to eat is one of the most basic human needs and, if given a choice, people prefer to eat things that ‘pass the eye test’ and look appealing, if not delicious.

Food companies like Kraft Heinz usually go to great lengths in ads to make their products appear as attractive as possible.  Some even use little tricks, like putting a light layer of deodorant spray on fruit to make it shine or substituting shaving cream for whipped cream, which looks better in pictures.

Industry insiders know that bad food experiences and negative impressions can be very difficult to overcome.  I was one of many people who were slow to go back to Chipotle after about 1,100 of its customers contracted norovirus between 2015 to 2018. Many diners are even reluctant to return to a restaurant after finding something as simple as a hair on their plate.

More than what they wear, type on, or wash with, people are understandably very particular about the products they put in their bodies.  Any kind of negative association real or imagined, can be difficult to overcome.  So, it’s hard to understand why the manufacturer of a very popular tomato product would plant in people’s minds a seed of dissonance that could bloom into a very ‘bloody taste in their mouths.’

It’s hard to know actually how Heinz’s Halloween promotion will play out.  It might offer a nice short-term shot to income, but it may also be a blow that bruises the brand while also helping make people a little more comfortable for gore.  For these reasons, the matrix type for Tomato Blood is ‘MM negative’ for Mindless Marketing.


David HagenbuchAbout the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org 




Two Lessons TikTok can Teach Facebook

Two Lessons TikTok can Teach Facebook

 

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org  

Most of us have used social media to learn how to do something, from making bread to remodeling a bathroom.  We often turn to such media for new skills, but what if these sites could educate each other?  In the wake of the latest revelations about negative social media impact, it seems there are at least two lessons the up-and-coming platform could teach the seasoned pro.

It’s been hard to find news feeds recently that haven’ featured Facebook.  The iconic social network that’s often been the focus of questions from citizens and senators, was back in the spotlight after a former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower appeared on 60 Minutes and exposed a series of alleged corporate abuses, most impacting consumers.

Francis Haugen is a 37-year-old data scientist and Harvard MBA who has worked for a variety of top-tier social media firms for 15 years, including a two-year tenure at Facebook.  In her October 3rd interview on 60 Minutes, she didn’t pull punches in portraying what she believes is her former employers’ danger to society.  Among her accusations were:

  • Facebook’s algorithms systematically amplify angry and divisive content, which are rewarded with more revenue, as other content doesn’t receive adequate returns.
  • Facebook employees are compelled to curate polarizing posts in order to drive site traffic, maintain user engagement, and ultimately keep their jobs.
  • “Facebook has set up a system of incentives that is pulling people apart.”

Two days later, Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee, where she made several other stinging revelations:

  • Facebook has ways of determining people’s ages and could be doing much more to identify users younger than 13.
  • Hate speech and misinformation boosts meaningful social interaction (MSI), a key Facebook metric to which employee bonuses are tied.
  • Facebook’s “amplification algorithms” and “engagement-based ranking” drive young people to destructive online content, resulting in bullying, body image issues, and mental health crises.

Facebook has responded to Haugen’s accusations, including with a written statement to 60 Minutes in which it claims that polarization has decreased in countries where internet and Facebook use has risen.  Also, in a Facebook post, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has suggested that Haugen’s revelations represent “a false picture of the company” and that the idea that the firm prioritizes profit above safety and well-being is “just not true.”

Unlike Haugen and Zuckerberg, most of us have no window into Facebook’s innerworkings.  At best, we’re just one of world’s largest social media platform’s 2.7 billion monthly active users, meaning we have no way of knowing whose representations are really true.

Human nature and history tell us that both sides are likely right in some ways, and perhaps responsible for certain misrepresentations.  That said, many people have experienced firsthand Facebook feeds strewn with angry and polarizing posts.  Likewise, the company’s recent decision to pause its work on an Instagram product for children under age 13 seems to reflect some sense of mea culpa.

In short, it’s becoming ever-more-apparent, even to nominal social media users, that there are important issues Facebook needs to address more effectively.  The question, then, becomes, “Who can teach Facebook how to rehabilitate its social impact?”

It must be hard for one of the largest and most influential companies in the world to accept advise from anyone, including members of congress, as evidenced during Zuckerberg’s many visits to testify on Capitol Hill.

That doesn’t mean that government regulation isn’t effective.  It plays a critical behavior-modifying role.  However, there are natural delays in passing legislation, and those lag-times are often exacerbated by the speed at which social media and related technology change.  Furthermore, members of congress typically don’t understand an industry as well as those who work in it, particularly when the industry involves high-tech.

So, who also lives at the cutting edge of technology and could influence Facebook toward more positive social impact?  One particular competitor could—TikTok.

I admit; on the surface, this suggestion seems almost ridiculous:  With its own algorithms driven by artificial intelligence, isn’t TikTok part of the same problem?

In fact, I’ve expressed my misgivings about the influence of the widely-popular app that Search Engine Journal describes as having “the fastest growth of any social media platform.”  In the end, however, I concluded that users’ abilities to restrict or stop using TikTok suggested that it was not truly addictive.

Of course, ‘not being part of the problem’ doesn’t necessarily mean that TikTok can be part of a Facebook solution.  However, the social media upstart has recently taken two initiatives that align squarely with two of the main principles that Haugen suggested Facebook must learn:

1.  To discourage bad behavior:  Compared to the millions and millions of videos available on TikTok, it was admittedly a minor move when the app recently began to ban posts that referred to stealing school property—a disturbing late-summer trend among teens.  Still, the moral stand that the company took shouldn’t be diminished.  A TikTok spokesperson explained the ethos:

“We expect our community to stay safe and create responsibly, and we do not allow content that promotes or enables criminal activities.”

2.  To support users’ mental health:  Also about a month ago, TikTok unveiled “a slew of features intended to help users struggling with mental health issues and thoughts of suicide.”  Among the app-related resources are well-being guides for those struggling with eating disorders and a search intervention feature that activates if a user enters a term like “suicide.”

Facebook’s challenges to more effectively discourage bad behavior and to support mental health may be somewhat unique, both in terms of their nature and magnitude.  Still, TikTok now has 1 billion monthly users, up from 700 million just a year ago, and those users seem to deal with many of the same social concerns that Facebook users do.

Businesses routinely learn from others, often by observing and emulating them (e.g., developing new products).  Facebook certainly can and likely does already do that, but maybe there’s another level of within-industry education that could occur.

This suggestion may be the most ridiculous one yet, but what if Facebook and TikTok cooperated?  What if the two companies ‘compared notes’ and in some way worked together to address the physical, emotional, and social challenges that threaten both their users?

Of course, imaging any cooperation between such large and close competitors is practically unthinkable, but it’s not unprecedented.  Several decades removed, both Harvard Business Review (1989) and Forbes (2019) published articles citing such partnership examples, like General Motors and Toyota, and explaining the win-win outcomes that accrued from such “coopetition.”

What might Facebook and TikTok’s motivations be for cooperating?  Perhaps they both would like to avoid probable government regulation.  Or, they may want to see how they can advance themselves, without compromising their competitive positions.

Moreover, maybe Facebook and TikTok can recognize that personal and societal well-being are what matter most, and together they have the power to shape it like few others can.  Actually, all three of motivations have merit and together they certainly represent “Mindful Marketing.”


David HagenbuchAbout the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org 




Four Behaviors of a Peacemaking Brand

 

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org  

In one of my favorite commercials, Liberty Mutual spotlighted acts of kindness that inspired others to pay the good deeds forward.  Most people want a kinder, gentler world, but in a society awash in antagonism, how many of us think seriously about whether our daily actions encourage peace? 

There are many ways for both personal and organizational brands to support serenity.  To-of-mind for me and accessible for all are four peacemaking behaviors that coincidentally all begin with the letter ‘L’: 

1) Listen:  Anyone who has dealt successfully with dissatisfied customers knows that first and foremost they want to be heard.  More often than not, just listening to and acknowledging their frustration allays their anger.  

Brands that genuinely listen, for instance, through other-focused interactions on social media, model humility, which according to Mother Teresa, is an important precursor to peace: “Only humility will lead us to unity, and unity will lead to peace.”  

2) Learn:  When we genuinely listen, we naturally learn.  When that learning is aimed at appreciating and understanding others, interpersonal and interorganizational peace often result. 

Most of us have experienced situations in which our exacerbation with coworkers, classmates, or others was largely due to not knowing them well or understanding their circumstances.  However, after learning both, our appreciation grew, our annoyance subsided, and a more peaceful relationship ensued. 

3) Laugh:  Two research colleagues and I recently completed a study about playful teasing in advertising in which we learned that good-natured ribbing builds social bonds.  Not only is laughter the best medicine, it’s a great peacemaker. 

As a young aspiring athlete, I enjoyed playing basketball at local playgrounds with friends.  One day an older, bigger boy, known to be a ‘rough character,’ asked to join our game—with trepidation, we obliged.  Tension ran high as we worried about doing something to set him off, then one of my friends playfully teased the older boy, making some ridiculous comment about him playing professional baseball.  I gasped, wondering how the short-fused guy would react—he burst out laughing, the mood lightened, and gratefully the game ended without incident.    

4) Love:  The best way any of us can promote peace is to show others love.  It’s difficult to be at odds with those who treat us charitably.  Although they might cringe at calling it love, companies are often able to act compassionately on levels that individuals cannot, as this extraordinary example illustrates. 

A major meat processor had a smaller competitor whose plant became submerged from unprecedented flooding.  While many firms would seize the opportunity to gain market share and eliminate an adversary, the larger company showed compassion, first sending some of its own employees to help clean up the water-logged facility then, unimaginably, lending equipment so the challenger could continue to fulfill orders. 

The two competitors eventually returned to vying for business but likely with uncommon mutual appreciation and respect.  Like the good Samaritans in the Liberty Mutual ad, these companies remind us that reconciliation isn’t someone else’s responsibility.  Every individual and organizational brand can practice peace by listening, learning, laughing, and loving, which ultimately make for “Mindful Marketing.”


David HagenbuchAbout the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org