In 2001, Alan Jackson wrote a song about the murder of thousands of innocent Americans. The song earned him multiple CMAs and a Grammy. And, because he refuses to be transparent about how he spent the millions of dollars he earned from the song, we are left to assume it was a very profitable marketing move for him. Twelve years later, AT&T somberly submitted a photo of a phone taking a picture of the changed Manhattan skyline on Twitter, and was publicly shamed for “commercializing” a tragedy.
What is the difference between these two scenarios? Social Media. The article below will argue that in today’s current social landscape, Alan Jackson could never write and market a song about murder and get away with it.
Below, it will be shown how networked consumers on social media are posing tough, moral questions for marketing managers. The article will begin by reminding readers about a time when marketers could promote a brand around a national tragedy. Next, a recent Twitter event will be offered as evidence that such a time in marketing history is long gone. Last, a widely accepted “Ethical Reasoning Process” will be presented as a tool that marketers can use when addressing moral questions.
Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?
Were you in the yard with your wife and children
Or working on some stage in L.A.?
Did you stand there in shock at the sight of that black smoke
Risin’ against that blue sky?
Did you shout out in anger, in fear for your neighbor
Or did you just sit down and cry? (Jackson, 2001)
MARKETERS USED TO GET AWAY WITH (benefiting from) MURDER
These memorable lyrics were written by Alan Jackson in the days following the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. Jackson’s song about the tragic day when thousands of Americans died in a terrorist attack earned him a lot of money, recognition, and clout. According to an article in CMT News, after Jackson performed the song at the CMA “the song quickly climbed to No. 1 on the country chart and stayed there for five weeks. The following year, he won five CMA Awards, including entertainer of the year, male vocalist and album (Drive), as well as single and song of the year honors for ‘Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).’ He also claimed his first-ever Grammy for the song” (para. 13, 2011). Moreover, ten years after the song was released the singer/song writer said that it was still “one of my biggest songs” (para. 4). And, if all of that was not enough, the lyrics have been entered into the U.S. Congressional record.
Unlike other musicians, who collaborated on charity albums in an effort to raise money for the United Way and the American Red Cross, according to a 2002 article in Entertainment Weekly, “Jackson’s album has no official ties to any nonprofit group and he prefers to make his donations privately” (Flynn & Young, para. 5).
It is not hard to imagine that the approach Alan Jackson took in marketing his song, with no attempt to make it about raising money or awareness for a nonprofit, would miserably fail in today’s social landscape.
ONLINE CONSUMERS ARE HOLDING MARKETERS TO HIGHER STANDARDS
Unlike Jackson, who had the luxury of hiding behind a preference for privacy, today, social media has created an environment where brands cannot hide from public scrutiny. It is not hard to imagine that the approach Alan Jackson took in marketing his song, with no attempt to make it about raising money or awareness for a nonprofit, would miserably fail in today’s social landscape. For example, many corporations and individuals were blasted earlier this month for “commercializing” the anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy. AT&T was shamed into deleting a tweet that its followers said wrongly employed a product placement marketing tactic.
The overwhelming negative feedback regarding the tweet caused Ad Age to pose a moral question that marketing managers are confronted with in today’s world of social media:
“Is it ever right for brands to weigh in on tragedies?” (Delo, 2013).
HIGHER CONSUMER STANDARDS ARE GENERATING TOUGH ETHICAL QUESTIONS
Clearly, back in the first part of this century, before social media had taken a seat in the mainstream, the Alan Jackson brand not only successfully weighed in on a tragedy, but benefited financially from it. Considering this fact, it could easily be argued that consumer engagement on social media has made the accepted norms and values, which marketers must respect, more severe. In other words, whereas Alan Jackson and his marketing team received little to no backlash for financially benefitting from others’ tragic deaths, today marketing managers are publicly challenged by their constituents with tough ethical questions.
HOW MARKETERS CAN ANALYZE TOUGH ETHICAL QUESTIONS
In “Ethical Marketing” (2005), the authors suggested that marketing managers can “better structure ethical questions” by “systematically analyzing an ethical issue and applying to it one or more ethical standards” (Bowie, Klein, Laczniak, & Murphy, p. 17). This systematic analysis was broken down into three steps.
Step One. The first step in the systematic analysis, which was outlined in “Ethical Marketing,” was to define “a marketing question as an ethical problem.” Therefore, in the case of the 9/11 scenarios above, Ad Age appropriately framed the marketing question, “Is it ever right for brands to weigh in on tragedies?” as an ethical problem, which should be discussed by the marketing industry.
Step Two. Next, the authors recommended that marketing managers select an ethical standard on which to evaluate the problem. The ethical standards outlined in the text included “Comprehensive Ethical Theories” (p. 21) and “Religious Models of Marketing Ethics” (p. 35), as well as more modern models, such as the “Moral Development Model” (p. 40) and the “Hunt-Vitell” model (p. 42). With so many established standards available, it was suggested that in different instances, marketing managers will be required to “draw from various and multiple ethical theories” (p. 45), which will require professional training and/or formal education in applied ethics.
Step Three. The authors of “Ethical Marketing” recommended that after the guiding ethical theory is selected, the last step is to apply that standard to the specific ethical problem in question. By following this systematic approach, marketers avoid a “clash of personal opinion or preference” (p. 18), because the ethical reasoning “is grounded in knowledge of ethical theory.”
Above it was proposed that the days of when marketers could commercialize, or otherwise take advantage of tragic events, are long gone. Social media has connected consumers and given them a collective voice to approve or disapprove of marketing tactics as demonstrated in AT&T’s misguided product placement. It was concluded that the marketers, which are operating under the scrutiny of social media, would benefit from defining tough marketing questions as ethical problems, understanding applicable ethical theories, and applying those specific standards to decision making.
Alan Jackson Recalls 9/11 on 10th Anniversary. (2011). CMT News. Retrieved from http://www.cmt.com/news/country-music/1670361/alan-jackson-recalls-9-11-on-10th-anniversary.jhtml
Bowie, N. E., Klein, T. A., Laczniak, G. R., & Murphy, P. E. (2005). Ethical Marketing. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Delo, C. (2013). AT&T and Others Are Browbeaten on Twitter Following 9/11-Related Posts. Ad Age. Retrieved from http://adage.com/article/digital/t-schooled-twitter-inane-9-11-tweets/244103/
Flynn, G. & Yong, J. (2002). Face the Music. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,220680,00.html
Jackson, A. (2001). Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning). Drive. Nashville, TN: Arista. (2002).