Advertisers on “moral mute?”

In sum:

Today saw the publication of another treatment of advertising, the agency world, and marketing as undertakings of dubious moral character. The treatment in question is riddled with contradictions which I labor to detail.

In total:

A recent study of the advertising industry was reported today in the pages of the Baptist Standard. (With thanks to marketingvox for the link).

The study, to appear in The Journal of Advertising, was done by Meme Drumwright, an associate professor of advertising at University of Texas, and Patrick Murphy, a marketing professor at the University of Notre Dame. Drumwright and Murphy interviewed more than 50 advertising practitioners at 29 agencies in eight cities.

It is perhaps not reasonable to judge an academic study from journalistic coverage and fully, fairer treatment will have to wait for JA publication. But there is something so odd about the Baptist Standard coverage that even premature comment is perhaps warranted.

The Baptist Standard says that Drumwright and Murphy

“found most of the people they interviewed suffered from “moral myopia”—a distorted moral vision that keeps ethical issues from coming into focus—and “moral muteness”—an unwillingness to talk about moral concerns.”

It looks as if Drumwright and Murphy broke the first rule of qualitative research. Ethnographers may not supply the terms with which respondents describe their experience and, still more fundamentally, they may not fault respondents for using terms other than our own. Apparently, Drumwright and Murphy are accusing the agency world of failing to care about the things Drumwright and Murphy care about.

I can hear the objection: but surely morality matters to everyone. This is certainly true. And so does motherhood. What would happen if we were to rush into most contemporary organizations and demand a cogent position of this topic? I’d be surprised if one were were forthcoming. Plainly, this would not entitle us to say that the organization in question doesn’t not care about motherhood or that it suffered “maternal myopia.”

What’s really scary is that Drumwright and Murphy’s methodological error actually creates their finding. When Drumwright and Murphy interview executives and find them unable to supply a detailed moral account of their actions and their industry, they take this as evidence of a moral myopia and muteness. But what they call an important, telling, damning absence is only absent because they insist it should be present!

If we dig down (this is after all anthropology), we find a presumption that there is something so dubious about advertising that in fact the executives should have a well developed moral understanding of what they do. That this is a peculiar assumption is, I think, demonstrated by the fact that we would be surprised if a pair of researchers descended on the world of dentistry and returned with the indignant declaration that this world has no active moral vision of itself. (I believe we would have the right to reply, with all due solemnity and eloquence, “hey, it’s dentistry.”)

There are lots of understandings that would be acceptable alternatives to the moral vision that Drumwright and Murphy insist upon. Some advertisers might plausibly say that they are meaning makers, that meanings create value for the product and the brand, that meanings create value for which the consumer surrenders value and so on. This is a robust, well formed understanding of what advertising is (if you will forgive me schilling for my own view) and there is no obvious or necessary ethical subtext here. By this account, advertising is an unobjectionable practice, indeed it is a vital part of the economy (and one of the most interesting places that anthropology and economics begin to mix). But it is no more moral than dentistry.

Let’s conclude with a final irony. The term “myopia” that Drumwright and Murphy press into accusatory service here is attached in the marketing world most clearly to the important work of Theodore Levitt. Levitt wrote a paradigm-shifting essay entitled “Marketing Myopia” that appeared in 1960. (Levitt taught for many years at the Harvard Business School. He was one of the people who encouraged the corporation to shift from a producer to a consumer orientation. As he put it, “…what [a firm] offers for sale is determined not by the seller but by the buyer.”)

Drumwright and Murphy went looking for their own vision of advertising and were unhappy when the world disappointed them. But surely this is the very shortsightedness that marketing was designed to help us overcome. Levitt and a generation of scholars said plainly, “it doesn’t matter what we want. It doesn’t matter what we think the consumer should want.” What matters is what consumers want, everything else is shortsightedness.

So Drumwright and Murphy break not only the first rule of qualitative research, but the first rule of their scholarly discipline. Somehow you’d think that scholars who indulge themselves in short-sightedness might be more careful about how they use the term.

The reference for Levitt:

Levitt, Theodore. 1960. Marketing Myopia. Harvard Business Review 38, no. 4 (July August): 45-56. reprinted in Levitt, Theodore. 1986. The Marketing Imagination. Expanded Ed. New York: The Free Press.

2 thoughts on “Advertisers on “moral mute?”

  1. steve

    I would bet that the researchers are not trained as anthropolgists. They would be more likely to have received their scientific training in either the psychology or sociology fields, or in marketing per se which has, to my knowledge, a lot more psych than antrho in its DNA. So maybe you need to stick up for your home team a bit–anthropologists may have distinct and important things to teach their fellow social scientists.

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