Ethical Marketing

It’s hard to imagine a truly conscientious marketer who won’t be delighted and energized by the ideas in Romi Mahajan’s newest book, To Thine Own Self: Honesty In Marketing.

Romi comes out slugging like George Foreman. He ruthlessly questions the marketing status quo: Should Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, the only US holiday that celebrates peaceful resistance to power, be used by corporations as an occasion for consumer-duping “blowout sales”? Should marketers promote state lotteries, which cut deficits by making the poor poorer? On a slightly lighter note, should zoos be selling “endangered species animal cookies”? This is just the start; the book is a true feast for thought.

To Thine Own Self - Honesty in Marketing

Not only does Romi call upon individual marketers to change—to unilaterally embrace honesty and ethics as they ply their trade—he foresees, within the next two years, an age in which corporations will welcome the marketing “ethicist” to restore honesty to the corporate message.

That latter prophecy seems problematic. But in fairness, Romi is an essayist, and as such is seldom permitted the publishing space to flesh out every idea.

I believed an interview could answer some natural questions, and Romi was only too happy to oblige:

Q: Throughout the 20th century, many people and organizations attempted to moderate the “Lie” of corporate marketing, e.g. Upton Sinclair, Teddy Roosevelt, the FDA, labor unions, consumer advocates. Yet in the 21st century, corporations have not only dodged most attempts at outside policing, they have emerged with greater protections under the Bill Of Rights than individual citizens. Why do you believe, in the next few years, corporations will voluntarily submit to the will of internal “corporate ethicists”?

Romi: I disagree that folks like Teddy Roosevelt ever really tried to moderate the “Lie” of corporate marketing. For folks like him, when corruption got too hard to handle, he acted—but not out of some great ethical principle: Look at how he benefitted from yellow journalism and war propaganda. Now, folks who aren’t in power—those whose lives have been damaged by the “Lie”—they have often fought for honesty and reparation and have won. People like Ralph Nader have been able to make huge strides in getting corporations to act “more” honestly. But as Frederick Douglass admonished us, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Which brings me to your question around corporations and voluntary submission. To which the answer is: No, they won’t submit until we all force them too. And marketers have to lead the way. Don’t accept any role that requires disingenuousness or nonsense. Vote with your feet.

Q: Corporate self-policing has usually been a farce; the hospital industry is a prime example. Will “corporate ethicists” have real power, or will they gravitate toward lauding the status quo for fear of losing their jobs?

Romi: Great question. Many will be too weak to act. Many will get too frustrated to act. But some will do their jobs well and lighten the payload of false marketing. And we all have to collectively judge them.

Q: If CMOs and other marketers will indeed have a say in the marketing world of the future, what are their first steps in bringing ethics into the world of corporate marketing—without losing their jobs on account of “inefficiency”?

Romi: The first step is to abandon the fear of being fired. If it happens, it happens, and if you are talented, you can find something else. Self-censorship is a huge problem. Imagine a different world, live according to that imagination, and align what you think, what you do, and what you profess. Start there.

Note: Romi Mahajan’s latest book, To Thine Own Self: Honesty in Marketing, is published by SMITH and available at


About Matt Simon

Matt Simon worked in Washington, DC, for 23 years as a political writer, magazine editor, and producer, including eight years as producer of "Face-Off," a national daily debate program featuring US Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain. He is founder of the Seattle-area Eastlake Digital Group, which specializes in social media marketing. Matt can be reached at [email protected]

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