Marketing, Morality, and Modern Advertising

Every day, when I open my phone or computer, I am met with advertisements– on my facebook feed, on instagram or tumblr, at the top of my emails and on the sidebars of websites I visit. In fact, of all the ways I access the internet every day, I am hard pressed to think of a service I use on which I do not encounter advertisements, with the possible exception of my course Canvas pages.

And I am not alone in this. CBS News quotes Jay Walker-Smith, President of the Marketing Firm Yankelovich, as saying modern consumers see as many as 5,000 ads in a day. According to an article published by Forbes, the number could be anywhere from 4,000 to even 10,000. Faced with numbers like these, it is hardly a controversial assertion that advertising has changed drastically in recent years. Today’s brand landscape looks dramatically different than the one businesses and aspiring business owners faced 15 or 20 years ago. While I don’t have concrete data to support it, I would postulate that advertising– along with subscription services eliminating it– is the dominant business model in the technological entrepreneurship world; if not, I cannot help but think it will be in the not-so-distant future. Somewhat ironically, the ability to advertise everywhere has made consumer attention an even more competitive resource.

This exponential increase in advertising goes hand in hand with an equally drastic expansion in the market of goods and services available. With a few taps, I can purchase anything from clothing to ingredients for dinner, with an almost limitless selection of each. It is understood, from a variety of studies, that this expanse of choices does not actually improve consumer satisfaction (https://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/27/your-money/27shortcuts.html). When there are too many options to make a decision considering all the data, the fear that some other choice could be better can keep people from making a decision or from being content with the decision they’ve made.

My own experience corroborates this: recently, I needed to purchase a new backpack, since the one I used throughout high school was falling apart. Without the time to go physically to a store, I looked online– but the sheer number of choices was so overwhelming I wasn’t sure what to pick. I read probably about 20 lists of “expert reviews” ranking different backpacks for college students, young adults, or professionals; assembled, re-assembled, and revised a short list of choices; skimmed the reviews on amazon and the brand page of each backpack I was considering; and finally, after all this, bought the same backpack I would have bought at Costco. It took me four months to get to the point of clicking purchase.

I’ll admit I am exaggerating– but only slightly. Something about the quantity of choices makes it extremely difficult to make simple decisions. In this world of endless advertising and endless choices, branding and consumer loyalty seems to offer a solution on both ends. Companies can lessen their need to compete for attention, recruit new customers and re-attract previous ones. Consumers can make fewer decisions, and be rewarded for it. It’s no wonder that subscription services are popping up in almost every industry, from men’s personal care to meal services. Madison Reed, an online-based retailer of hair color and care products, is one such company.

Madison Reed has also capitalized on another facet of the transformed retail industry. Modern consumers are also modern citizens, with information about what’s happening around the world at their fingertips. That means they—we—are more informed about the ethical ramifications of consumption choices. There’s value, even more than before, in being a company that’s ethical, that’s free trade, that’s environmentally friendly and natural and healthy. In essence, there’s value in being good. At least, there’s value in being perceived as good.

At this, Madison Reed excels. Its marketing, from press releases to its website to its advertisements, continually emphasizes that its products are less toxic than traditional choices. Its ethic as a company—to empower women—fits perfectly with this image. The company pledged to avoid retouching and altering of photographs, a choice that’s been acclaimed by many. Combined with the fact that it’s founded and directed by a woman, Amy Errett, Madison Reed feels like a feminist manifesto.

It’s easy to forget that in its vision of happy, healthy, laughing women, everyone has hair dyed by Madison Reed products. It’s not that that’s a bad thing. Companies being successful is a thing worthy of acclaim, especially if they can do it while making ethical choices. And yet I worry about the day when it comes out that Madison Reed – or Aerie, or Fenty Beauty, or any of the other companies that occupy this same positive-vibes niche in the market—has business practices that violate its stated values.

It’s a question worth asking, as we’re watching Facebook going through a period of intense public suspicion. No longer is the tech giant universally perceived as a positive place to work, a force to connect people in the world. People are increasingly suspicious of Facebook’s motives and critical of its decisions. Just today, I read an article describing how young computer science grads are less inclined to work at Facebook than before (although their recruiting numbers are still great). Facebook’s fall from grace is by no means unique, but it is public, and it illustrates how quickly public opinion can shift.

When your business model depends on women liking and trusting the company as well as depending on the products, that’s a dangerous thing.

8 thoughts on “Marketing, Morality, and Modern Advertising

  1. Really interesting article here, Rachel. I had never thought of this prospect before: that a company could be doing all the right/transparent things with its actual products, but could lose their rapport with consumers based on their data/privacy/marketing practices. These practices are definitely something that I could see becoming at the core of a company in this digital age.

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  2. Great blog Rachel! In the book that I read for Tech Trek, Hooked, the author emphasized the importance of creating simplicity within a product or service. Like you pointed out, having many options distracts consumers and causes them to wait longer before choosing. One company that is great at simplicity is Apple. They only sell a handful of products (iPhone, Mac, Apple Watch, iHome, etc), which makes it easy for consumers to choose. Also, by releasing 1-2 products per year, Apple makes it simple for consumers to choose to buy the latest product. This also allows the Apple product to market for itself, as consumers spread the word about their brand new iPhone or MacBook. Therefore, Apple spends less time and money on paid advertisements and marketing because their products are clear, simple and market for themselves.

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  3. Great post! I really liked how you evaluated how the business of marketing has changed because of the availability of data. It seems like today people talk about companies using effective marketing strategies using data, such as placing targeted ads for specific people. But creative advertising choices, such as Madison Reed’s campaign, can still have a big impact as well. It seems like companies who understand how to properly leverage an advantage in both ‘big data’ marketing and creative campaigns that create customer loyalty will be the successful retailers in the future.

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  4. I love your take on modern consumerism Rachel! Especially as college students, I feel as if we never have time to go to physical stores, and therefore online advertising is huge in our perception of products. I recently bought new headphones and felt like I needed to do an incredible amount of research for a purchase of less than $100 dollars. Do you think we may have too much choice online? It certainly feels overwhelming at times!

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  5. Nice post, Rachel! You make a great point about the sheer number of overwhelming choices available to us now. Branding, ethicality, and customer loyalty definitely play a huge role in the success of companies due to this incredible range of options and potential competitors. You did a great job tying these notions into your presentation on Madison Reed and from the things I’ve learned about that company, they have undeniably built a strong and perpetual customer base. They promote their ethical decisions and the empowerment of women to great success.

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  6. Great post Rachel! When I think about advertising in today’s world, I remember reading from some marketing thing about how it’s less appealing to advertise through television now because people just go on their phones while the ads are on. So now advertising has thus moved much towards optimizing for mobile users. The too many choices story you give is a classic one and one that occurs every time people shop online. I find myself opening like 20 tabs when on amazon all on the same product!

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  7. Hi Rachel, I had previously never directly associated data with turning a customer away, yet, given your own experience I was able to relate. There have been countless times that an ad has popped up for the exact product I am looking for and I wonder if this further deters customers away due to a sense of lack of privacy.

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  8. Great post Rachel! It’s really interesting how ads are subconsciously aimed to make you buy their product, yet clearly consumer loyalty is the new marketing trend. Switching brands after being invested in a certain product is never easy and customers are all about ease. Madison Reed is definitely doing something right the way they run their campaigns and I’m excited to see where it goes in the future!

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