Marketers make change happen. Good marketing can change governments, heal the sick and bring a new technology to the masses. Marketers spend money (sometimes lots of it), take our time and transform our culture. It's quite a powerful position to be in.
Who decides, then, what and how it's okay to market?
At a recent conference for non-profits, a college student asked me, "what right does a public health person have to try to change the behavior of an at-risk group?" That one was easy for me. How can they not work to tell stories and share information that will help those at risk change that behavior?
And then, just a day later, I heard the story of a marketer who intentionally bankrupts the elderly by loading them up with worthless 'investments'. He said, "Hey, if it makes them happy in the moment and they voluntarily buy what I'm selling, who cares? I'm not doing anything against the law, and if it's not against the law, I'm not going to stop."
Or the spam phone banks that steal brand names and generate tens of thousands of calls a day, tricking small businesses into buying fake SEO services, or the e-cig makers who market to kids, looking to build a long-term business based on addiction…
For me, the line is clear. If the person you're trying to change knew what you knew, would they want to change? And so the placebo is ethical, because in fact, it makes people better when they believe. And the expensive wine is ethical, because it's a placebo, purchased by people who can afford it. But the fraudulent penny-stock scam is wrong, because the withheld information about the fraud being perpetrated is a selfish lie.
If you're okay saying to yourself and your family, "I tell selfish lies to the weak, the young and the uninformed for a living," then I guess we need better laws. I'm hopeful, though, that we'll figure out how to do work we're proud of first.