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By Maria O. Pinochet, Ethical Markets Research Advisory Board

According to advertising professionals, the declining attention span of audiences is a key factor in changes to recent advertising messages. The length of a person’s attention span depends on what a person is focused on and on what their level of interest is in a certain topic. Therefore, the normal period of focused attention fluctuates somewhere between seconds and minutes. In fact, studies, polls and data-gathering agencies report a downward trend for all types of attention spans – whether the activity is listening to a lecture, viewing a slide presentation, reading (this article!) or Web browsing.

With these declining attention spans, and in an effort to maintain the effectiveness of the advertising, many advertisers have chosen to create messages that appeal to simple human emotions such as fear and greed. They argue that, by sheer time constraint, advertising cannot develop a strong cognitive/rational argument and must, instead, present a “slice of life”; therefore, the message cannot be anything but an unbalanced representation.

Indeed, many companies take a bite of the green “slice of life,” but their green messaging turns out to be little more than a “sound bite” for consumer consumption. In such cases, a company’s public relations department has most likely crafted the green messaging in an effort to align with positive consumer opinions about how important it is for companies to behave in a socially responsive way, not only within the ecosystem that sustains their product and service but also toward the communities they serve.

However, upon further inquiry, one often finds no company involvement in green initiatives beyond the public relations as demonstrated by the number of sustainability officers emerging from marketing departments. Again, in such cases, the green “sound bite” is indeed just a “slice of life,” a green washing that has no more value than the delivery of its feel-good message.

When emotional appeal is used in advertising, it is much too easy for audiences with different value orientations to perceive messages as more or less skewed or unethical.  When that happens, advertising messages may become subject to a higher level of controversy and may even be considered a misrepresentation of stakeholder interest.

Some feel that this reliance on primal emotions has made advertising, in general, unethical. They say such messages have no transparency, lack depth and clarity and are thus completely disassociated from the brand, product and service values.  Nowhere is this more apparent or more disputed than in the new practice of neuromarketing, where technologies such as MRIs attempt to identify triggers to bypass a brain’s evaluation process and go straight to its decision-making centers. Ethical Markets Media and the World Business Academy believe  neuromarketing’s deliberate attempt to influence buyers in a manner that inhibits their evaluation processes is manipulative and unethical.  They have a petition which anyone can sign to have this practice stopped.

There is guidance and reward for companies that have as their core value to better inform buyers and to serve all stakeholders. The EthicMark®, one of the highest honors in advertising, recognizes companies that contribute positively to the advertising community with their inspirational messaging. Founded by Hazel Henderson of Ethical Markets Media, the EthicMark® is awarded by the World Business Academy for advertising “that uplifts the human spirit and society.”

Organizations like Ethical Markets Media, the World Business Academy and SRI in the Rockies (where EthicMark® winners are announced) are raising awareness about the positive contributions of ethical advertising.  What are you and your organization doing to raise the bar and write the next chapter in the history of advertising?

Readers: What’s your take on neuromarketing – and ethical marketing? Share your ideas on Talkback!

Note: This article has appeared on CSRwire

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