What's The Social Impact Of Marketing That Works Too Well?

What’s The Social Impact Of Marketing That Works Too Well?

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It’s ironic.

A huge swath of marketing executives wrote off the whole enterprise as quaint when I started writing about cause marketing nearly 20 years ago.

(I know some people HATE the term cause marketing seeing it as shorthand for short-term, opportunistic, promotional initiatives. I, alternatively and expansively, would define cause marketing as efforts by for-profit entities to simultaneously achieve commercial and social impacts. But let’s not permit jargon to stand in the way – please use whatever phrase you prefer – social impact, responsibility, purpose - to describe such work.)

Back in the day, most in the business establishment did not embrace the idea that substantial enterprises could successfully combine efforts to build a better world and the bottom line.

Numerous waves of consumer research, changing consumer and employee expectations, new views of the role of business in attacking societal ills and many examples of success in the marketplace have dramatically increased the percentage of businesspeople who have embraced the idea that purpose should be considered the fifth “P” of marketing.

Which is why I have been struck by a spate of articles recently voicing concerns about marketing efforts with seemingly good intentions that raise ethical issues.

To be fair, it’s not really the goals of the efforts that are raising concerns, but rather their use of behavior change marketing, artificial intelligence and data analytics. These powerful tools can be used to achieve great things – but the danger is that they can also be put to nefarious ends.

On New Year’s Eve, for example, The New York Times ran a fascinating piece on the work of Humu, a start-up using artificial intelligence to identify and socialize among a company’s employees behavioral changes that would positively impact workforce happiness.


A noble goal, no doubt, but not without questions of whether the means justify the ends. Is the process finding golden insights among the chaff when it sifts through mountains of employee data or encroaching on employee privacy? Are the behavior change suggestions it makes benign or better or are they manipulative? And what checks are there on using such systems for good purposes versus wicked ones?

Before I go on, let me be clear, I am not an expert on Humu or the other companies discussed below and I am not endorsing or bashing their work. I’m just raising questions as these medias have provocatively and appropriately done.

Bloomberg Businessweek recently highlighted how the language learning app Duolingo had adopted from online game companies many of the techniques that made games addictive to players.

The changes – such as hooking people with in-app rewards for using the site everyday – have had dramatic effects, according the article. Reportedly next-day retention hit 55 percent due to these practices, up from 13 percent in 2012.

The question, Businessweek appropriately asks, is whether successfully “addicting” people to online language learning is better than getting them hooked on games which the World Health Organization, for one, has denounced as harmful.

And as Duolingo management drives toward greater profit-making goals will they have the moral fortitude not to step over the line and abandon goals of working toward a social good in order to drive higher user engagement?

Finally an opinion piece in Adweek by Contently’s Joe Lazauskas was alternately fascinating and terrifying. It shared some ways neuroscience is being adapted by start-up companies to enable clients to evaluate the effectiveness of their marketing. He described algorithms linked to measures of oxytocin or galvanic skin response (sweat) that are being used to better predict programming popularity than traditional surveys or focus groups in which participants often don’t accurately report how they truly feel.

“Change like this should be scary – and exciting,” he writes. “The ability to quantify the emotional impact content has on consumers and connect that to purchase actions is transformative and leads to deeper investment in great brand stories.”

As long as those greater insights are used to share stories that have positive social and business impacts, I’m all for such progress.

However, numerous revelations in the last year of questionable practices managing issues of privacy and deceptive advertising at major technology companies should give us all pause.

All of us who take are committed to building sustainable business systems that yield social and financial dividends have our work cut out for us. What oversight, regulations and industry norms must we work together to establish to keep making progress at simultaneously doing good when we are doing well?

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