A big news story recently concerned a baker in Northern Ireland refusing to decorate a cake with an overtly pro-gay marriage slogan.  You may well be aware that this case passed through various Courts until it ended up being presided over by 5 Judges in the Supreme Court.  They found for the baker and ruled that his actions were not discriminatory.

This case was fundamental to those of us who operate within marketing, print, design, advertising, in fact any type of promotional business because, whatever you think of this individual case, marketers retain the right to decline work that does not sit comfortably with them, and for this reason I applaud the judgement.

Imagine, for a moment, this ruling had gone the other way.  I own a business that is accessible to the public, I offer a service that involves creating slogans, promoting causes, printing promotional materials.  If the judgement had gone the other way, it is not without irony that I could have been forced to produce marketing materials for a group, product or brand that I find deeply unpleasant if not downright obnoxious.

This got me thinking about the whole point of marketing, creating advertisements, how we execute a campaign and who we work for and why. I feel that if I can wrap up the purpose of marketing in one word, that one word has to be influence.  We influence people’s buying habits; the way they dress; what car they drive, in fact we influence nearly every aspect of materialistic, social and political life and with that, there has to be some responsibility, or does there?

Where do we draw the line?  At what point do we, as marketers say? “Hang on, I am not comfortable with that.”

I always get excited when a new brief arrives.  I love the thinking; the planning; the exchange of ideas with others in the creative team and I love the excitement of presenting the finished campaign material (always assuming the response from the client is positive), but how would I feel if a brief arrived looking for a creative response to promote something that really did not sit well with me? Like, for instance, influencing the outcome of a foreign democratic election?

One can reasonably assume that the Russian Government had an overriding influence on the outcome of the last US presidential election; and maybe on the EU referendum too?  Is this how marketing is now being used? The tools we have available have made us more powerful; we have the skills to not only reach a market but, instead of influencing a brand switch, we are potentially capable of a government switch too and all by knocking up some dubious memes in Photoshop and pinging them out into cyberspace.

Where is the difference though between a big-budgeted Facebook campaign designed to put Trump in the White House and a big-budgeted Facebook campaign by an online gambling firm?  Both campaigns are designed to influence a decision and effect an action. Going back a few years, was the ‘Labour’s not working’ Saatchi produced outdoor media campaign just the same, only using the technology of the day? That creative helped put Thatcher in power, it influenced the election result, as did The Sun’s: “Would the last person to leave the country please turn the lights out’ headline, on the morning of the 1992 general election.

Looking at the tactics involved, they are exactly the same: Define your audience, create a message for that audience and repeat it over time - eventually the message will get through and you will change the thinking/buying habits/whatever of your target audience. Which makes me wonder why am I so outraged by Russian interference of elections/referenda because it cannot be the tools they have employed to do the job - they are open to all of us if we have the budget, and it’s not because I didn’t get the job!

I don’t know why I am outraged, it just feels wrong that the skills I, and many others, have developed over the years are being used for nefarious means, but the same could be said about marketing payday loans in poor areas where the vulnerable are more likely to get sucked into re-paying huge amounts of interest.

Marketing, it’s a moral minefield and little wonder marketers acquire a reputation for lacking morals: these are my principles, but I have others if you don’t like them!


Would you like clearer thinking to help promote your brand, service, dictatorship? Send us a brief and, if we like and agree with what you are trying to do, we’ll get busy - if not, we won’t. With grateful thanks to the 5 justices who have retained my right to claim the moral high-ground!

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