For anyone in content marketing who wants to do good works by doing good work, there may finally be signs of a solution to a long-standing dilemma.
In 35 years as a communicator, I’ve met countless colleagues who entered the field because they wanted to do the right thing. Many of us began with the specific hope of helping to build a better world. Most everyone else at least intended to do no harm.
But if Facebook asked most of us to sum up the relationship between those early ideals and the day-to-day reality, we’d probably have to admit that…it’s complicated. We still have our good intentions. But in a tough economy driven by an ever-tougher bottom line, we can’t always be picky about where we ply our trade.
Using Our Power for Good?
In any of the disciplines we talk about on this blog—from content marketing and social media strategy to event planning and content capture—the first duty is to do the very best work we can, while adhering to high ethical standards. But those standards generally apply to the process by which we produce or distribute content, not the actual content we generate. That can set up situations where the better we do, the worse things get.
I had one of those moments a few years ago, while attending the Meeting Professionals International conference in Atlanta. From the moment we launched our firm in 1984, I knew we would always have an ethical screen against working for cigarette manufacturers—and that was long before my mother died of tobacco-induced lung cancer in 2008. But suddenly, not four months later, I found myself at risk of helping a fellow professional do a better job of promoting a product that causes illness and death when used as directed.
The conference took place just months after the economic crash of 2008, and as I wrote at the time, I wasn’t about to judge the colleague who’d chosen (or had to choose) to work for a tobacco company.
But that moment taught me that the ethical texture of our work is bound to be derivative—unless we have the great good fortune to find projects that line up with our ideals, we won’t always get to decide whether our powers are used for good. In a consumer society, there will be times when it’s our job to sell some audience on the virtues of paying money they don’t have for things they don’t need, while looking for the faintest of faint signs that our operations are sustainable.
A Modest Proposal…
That’s why I was so pleased to see sustainability icon Hazel Henderson’s latest update on an effort to bring tighter controls and a sharper ethical focus to the $500-billion-per-year global advertising industry. Since 1998, Henderson and colleagues have been promoting a Truth in Advertising Assurance Set-Aside that would reduce the tax-deductibility of all corporate advertising, penalize greenwashing and other forms of deceptive advertising, and generate funds that “would be made available to qualified NGOs and used to fund ad agencies willing to produce ‘counter-advertising.’”
…Against Immodest Manipulation
For a recent example of the depth of the problem, look no farther than The Guardian’s revelation in mid-February that about $120 million had been funneled “to more than 100 anti-climate groups working to discredit climate change science” between 2002 and 2010. “By 2010, the dark money amounted to $118 million distributed to 102 think tanks or action groups which have a record of denying the existence of a human factor in climate change, or opposing environmental regulations.”
Against the sheer weight of that activity, I don’t know how much headway Henderson’s group is making. But in the January 17 edition of CSRwire, she wrote that the ad industry “has encountered increasing criticism for promoting unsustainable consumerism, manipulative neuromarketing, especially to children, promoting unhealthy habits and resource waste. Yet, a new ethic is afoot within this industry.”
As content marketing practitioners, we do have moments of choice. Once a contract is signed, we’re obliged to do our very best work for any client, however we might feel about the message. But we can decide where we look for that work, and if we think an organization is missing an important issue, we can assemble the evidence and bring it up for discussion. That’s not insubordination. It comes under the heading of helping our clients manage risk and looking out for their broader interests.
(Photo by Mr. Kris)