The National Postcode Lottery has once again succeeded: at the beginning of this year the Netherlands was in turmoil thanks to one of their advertising letters. And that is certainly not the first time. This lottery regularly receives complaints that their mailings are misleading. But what about marketing ethics? As a marketer, it is our job to entice the consumer. I assume that most of us want to stay within the boundaries of ethics, yet this often creates problems because the boundary between temptation and deception is not always clear.
Marketing ethics: wrong direct mail advertising
Marketing ethics is a much-discussed topic. Luckily, most neuro marketers know how far they can go. The National Postal Lottery is known to use all neuromarketing tricks shamelessly. They often tests the limits of marketing ethics. What did the Postal lottery do in January ? They sent out letters addressed to house holders in white envelopes with the heading ‘REMINDER’ in bold letters. Many people associate this with payment reminders and collection agencies. When they opened the letter in a shocked state, they discovered that it was advertising. Anger and frustration was the result. The Postcode Lottery itself says it was a misunderstanding. They already sent lots of tickets that had to be activated to play in the lottery. The second mailing was therefore a reminder to activate these tickets before they would expire.
This was not the first time that letters were sent that didn’t go down well. In 2012 the Postal Lottery was ordered by the courts to pay a cash prize to six complainants. At that time, advertising had been sent out in such a way that some people thought they would receive a guaranteed cash prize, while in reality it was only a chance to win. After this incident the Postcode Lottery has set up a review committee to check that every campaign stands up in the light of day. Nevertheless, the Advertising Code Committee still regularly receives complaints about this company.
Marketing ethics: misleading names
There are many more forms of misleading marketing. For example, domain names are used as advertising and can also put the consumer on the wrong track.
In November 2017, someone filed a complaint about the domain name www.alles4noppes.nl (everything4free.nl). This site offers hefty discounts with even a free product here and there. The complaint was therefore that the domain name incorrectly suggested that everything was free of charge. Of course, everything4little, or sometimes4free sounds a lot less catchy and therefore their ads would be clicked less often. Although it is understandable to choose a catchy name, the Advertising Code Committee issued the judgment in January that the domain name alles4noppes is indeed misleading.
In the examples above it is very clear why this communication is considered misleading. The advertisements express a message that deviates from the content of the actual action. But there are also more subtle examples, where the ethical boundary is crossed without it being clear. Currently it is popular for companies to have a green image, and this is often explicitly communicated. When the company appears greener and more environmentally conscious than it actually is, that’s greenwashing.
Coca Cola, for example, had a big advertising campaign last year that their bottles are 100% recyclable. That sounds great, but it is not mentioned that all PET bottles, including those of their competitors, are theoretically recyclable. Moreover, according to Greenpeace, Coca Cola works with a relatively low proportion of recycled plastic. The environmental organization filed a complaint about this with the Advertising Code Commission in November 2017, but this complaint was quickly declared unfounded because no false information was actually given.
Marketing ethics: the consequences
Different people will have different views when it comes to what ethically responsible marketing is, and when you would be crossing the line. It is tempting to think that the end justifies the means, and you can also question whether the examples given above are really that bad. Ultimately, the decision is up to the consumer, right?
But even if you omit the purely ethical arguments there is still a possible consequence to these practices. Because aggressive or misleading advertising can certainly lead to reputational damage for your company or brand. The risk is that you get an unbelievable or unreliable image, or you have to deal with irritation from the public.
Ultimately, it is a trade-off between your image and the purpose of your campaign. The National Postcode Lottery may consider it to be more important that people see and read their advertising in order to sell lottery tickets, rather than the possible negative feeling that they are left with afterwards.
The IPO of Tony’s Chocolonely
It would be a completely different story if your brand has an explicit social and responsible character. In this regard Tony’s Chocolonely recently made a questionable choice. The brand sells 100% slave-free chocolate and the promotion of fair trade forms the core of their mission. But Tony’s sent out a press release in September 2017 from which it was suggested that they were considering an IPO. In the end it turned out to be a PR stunt for the opening of a store in the Beurs van Berlage. A lot of media had already published the message, and when it was announced that it was a hoax, even more attention was paid to this story. This is not a bad campaign for driving brand awareness. However, the resulting revelation was not very appealing, because when a company with honesty at its core lies to the press and the public in this way, can the rest of their communication be trusted?
The boundary between seduction and deception is a thin line. Moreover, the ethical scope also depends on your corporate identity, image and mission. Still, I do not think anyone is waiting for an audience that has the feeling of been sold down the river, or has been lied to. Make well-thought-out considerations about how far you really want to go with your campaigns. Because before you know it, the ball ends up in your own goal!