Discussions of the fundamental flaws of a Super Bowl truck ad are soaring higher today than any missed field goal during the game played Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018.
But that’s not the bigger story in persuasion ethics today.
You’ll read much righteous indignation of the ad that peddled Ram trucks using Dr. Martin Luther King’s voice, recorded precisely 50 years to the day, from his Drum Major speech.
The ad superimposed do-gooders using Ram trucks while helping others, with audio of King riffing from Matthew 20, in which Jesus reminded followers that the “first shall be last” and true leaders are actually servants.
Missing from the ad is exactly what King said in that speech about advertising. (For fun, hear his words above the ad’s video):
Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. In order to be lovely to love you must wear this kind of lipstick or this kind of perfume. And you know, before you know it, you’re just buying that stuff. That’s the way the advertisers do it.
Two of King’s children say a third sibling made the deal without their knowledge. The two see the real ethical rub: Using King’s words to do precisely what King railed against.
This dustup, however, seems to pale in comparison to another example of what can be the perversion of persuasion: How a British public relations firm intentionally sowed racial discord for a shady, wealthy client.
The New York Times‘ tick-tock shows how Bell Pottinger, a “P.R. firm for despots and rogues,” deliberately heightened racial tension in South Africa to aid men from India using their political contacts to make money in that nation. The firm collapsed after clients pulled out, appalled by tactics that even included efforts that harmed other clients.
What makes it worse: Unlike traditional advertising that everyone can see and know the original source, public relations efforts often are part of an “unseen power” that hides its true motives, payments, and practices.
For anyone who cares about ethics, the money quote in The Times story comes from Tim Bell, the founder of the firm:
“Morality is a job for priests. Not P.R. men,” he said.
Actually, morality is a job for everyone, but not just because higher-minded clients will rebel.
People who don’t think their morality matters — and that it’s OK as long as the checks clear — ought not be in the media business. It’s as true for persuaders as it is for the news business, as the folks at the late News of the World and Gawker.com can attest.
At the end of the day, good ethics has a relationship with good business.by