A decision-tree for conscientious marketers?

This blog was originally posted at Identity Campaigning.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the debate we had on this site a couple of weeks ago about the Ford advert, and Ciaran’s challenge in one of the comments: that, because intrinsic values (such as those used to help sell cars in the advert) are antagonistic to extrinsic values, there is little danger of confusing people into thinking that intrinsic values can be pursued through buying a car.

Ciaran Mundy wrote:

“If the thesis is that eliciting intrinsic values leads to more pro-environmental behaviors, transcendent view of self etc. then Ford are doing us all a favour with the ad. Is it possible to co-opt such deeper values for such ends in the the long run? One could argue that if most advertising were like this, rather than appealing to the usual aspects of our fears and insecurities, status, immediate physical desires etc. then overall, people would be less interested in buying new cars, or anything else for that matter.”

To which Tim Kasser replied:

“I’d like to comment on the question about whether Ford is “doing us a favor” by even mentioning intrinsic values. My sense is that they are not doing us a favor, for, as others have pointed out, they link intrinsic values (primarily for community feeling and probably affiliation as well) with the act of consumption.”

Thinking about this point of difference led me to think about various aspects of a marketing campaign – the impact of the physical product (or service) it sells, the values it helps to promulgate (often these are unrelated to the product), and the conjunction of these two things (the perception that certain desirable goals/values are to be pursued through the acquisition of a product or service – a perception that will exacerbate materialism).

Trying to unpack these things led me to wonder whether we can begin to develop a decision-tree for responsible advertising? Here are some initial thoughts. I know at one level, the response to this might be ‘no advertising’s good advertising’, but bear with me a moment. If that is our ultimate conclusion, I still want to go through the thought process!

Setting aside for a moment concerns about how sustainable a product is, I see two probable cognitive effects of advertisements:

  1. They may serve to legitimise and reinforce certain values, irrespective of any product link. (In the case of the Ford advert, the advert may have served to support the emergence of a set of intrinsic values; other adverts serve to activate a set of extrinsic values).
  2. They probably serve to link these values to a particular product. That, I guess, is the definition of materialism – the desire to pursue aims in one’s life through the acquisition of material things? So to the extent that advertisements link desirable goals to products they fuel materialism. And many studies show that materialism is antagonistic to social and environmental concern.

I want to consider these two effects in relation to a few different advertisements.

Exhibit A: An advertisement that appeals to a set of extrinsic values


It’s an advert for Lynx deodorant in which women in underwear are spelling out ‘Greed is Good’. The strap-line is ‘Spray more, get more: The Lynx Effect’. But some culture jammers have been at it, too.

So what about this advert? In respect of the first effect, these values are unhelpful (to say the least). So the advertisement scores negatively here.

In regard to the second effect, the advertisement suggests that something some people may want to pursue (an extrinsic goal – power over women in this case) can be pursued through buying an object (a type of deodorant). This reinforces a set of materialistic values. Materialism, we know, is counterproductive in the emergence of social and environmental concern. So the advert scores negatively here, too.

Conclusion for Exhibit A:
Leaving aside the ‘material’ impacts of an advertisement (whether what it seeks to sell is socially or environmentally positive), advertisements appealing to extrinsic values are cognitively unhelpful. (Note that this is recognised in some advertising guidelines – voluntary or enforced – that discourage advertisers from using some extrinsic values: for example, the Portman group demands that drinks manufacturers don’t appeal to sexual success to sell alcoholic beverages).

Exhibit B: Intrinsic values (e.g. that Ford ad)

How does this fare in terms of our two cognitive effects?

In respect of the first effect, it scores positively – it makes a set of positive intrinsic values more salient.

In respect of the second effect, to the extent that the advertisement successfully creates the impression that these intrinsic goals can be pursued through the purchase of a car, the advertisement is likely to accentuate materialism and is therefore undesirable. This is where Tim’s point (see the quote above) comes in.

So we need to ask whether the negative impact of the second effect here more than outweighs the positive impact of the first effect. That’s not obvious, it seems to me.

So much for the ‘cognitive’ impacts of marketing. What about the ‘material’ impacts?

What about the environmental or social impact of the product – the ‘material’ effects that the advertisement has if it leads to more units of the product being sold? We might ask: “Does the product (or service) embody intrinsic values?”

Selling an organic box scheme through appeal to intrinsic values (perhaps, an increased sense of community) seems honest, if we accept that organic box schemes do genuinely build social capital. Does such an advertisement still risk fuelling materialism? Maybe. I don’t know.

And if we admit intrinsic advertising of a box-scheme, on the grounds that the scheme is socially and environmentally beneficial, then where do we draw the line? Sale of organic food in a supermarket? Sale of locally produced furniture made from unsustainably sourced wood?

Exhibit C: ‘Wedge’ advertising


Here is my last exhibit. I call this ‘wedge’ marketing. It is selling a kitchen through appeal to intrinsic values (quality of family life) but its not suggesting that the product embodies these values. Its strapline is “have a life outside work – you can afford to”. The proposition is not that your new IKEA kitchen embodies the intrinsic goal of a high quality family life (which would have been attempted by showing a happy family sharing a meal around an IKEA kitchen). The proposition is that you should spend less money, earn less, and spend more time with your family. It drives a wedge between the product and the intrinsic values. There is no attempt to directly embody the values in the product.

Does this advertisement have a positive cognitive impact? Or is it just a more subtle and perhaps dangerous appeal to intrinsic values?

Maybe you can help think these issues through? Then we can jointly develop a decision tree, to raise some of the pertinent questions for marketers-with-a-conscience to think through when faced with a new brief – before we dismiss all advertising as inherently bad.

Tom CromptonA decision-tree for conscientious marketers?


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  • Victoria Hurth - August 4, 2009 reply

    Hey Tom and all,

    Re the ‘Wedge’ advert. I would argue that they might not be trying to connect the message with a specific product, but they are certainly connecting it with the brand.

    Brand experience/ management is an increasingly popular way of creating a relationship between customers and a company – at a deeper level than just one of their products. If it didn’t ultimately sell more products they wouldn’t spend money on it.

    The only way companies can really create non product marketing is by donating money to organisations (like the LoCEM project I am working on). They then do not have their branding on the ad but just get to report it as a good CSR deed – so the connection between product and ad is very very indirect.

    I think we have to admit that if we are going to engage with marketeers (which I believe we definitely should) then we are saying – your products can be part of a sustainable future, but with a number of key changes (as part of that we should be talking about increasing market share in a diminishing overall marketplace).

    If we are saying consumerism is evil therefore everything you sell is wrong then we are not talking about engagement but protests and calls for complete bans on products (even if you ban ads alone symbolic meaning will still be created through a raft of marketing tools and when products are used by people). I really think we should be talking about the former for many reasons.


  • Tom - August 4, 2009 reply

    Thanks Victoria. I don’t have any problem with moving from engagement to protest per se, but I imagine that some marketing, of some products,is a good thing.

    At one end of the spectrum, we might have the Lynx advert, which seems to be an unmitigated bad; at the other, that advert for local organic box schemes, which seems to be good.

    What is in the middle? What else is on that spectrum,and what criteria might we begin to use to place marketing campaigns on this relative to one another?

    I’ve suggested three criteria – the inherent product characteristics (life-cycle analysis), the values that the advertisement promotes (whether these values are positive in and of themselves), and the implicit link between product/service and those values (which may tend to promote materialistic aspirations; aspirations that we know to be socially and environmentally damaging).

    But that’s just a start – are there other criteria? And how do we begin to think through the relationship between these three?

  • Victoria Hurth - August 4, 2009 reply

    going back to the popular brand relationship approach of marketing – I would suggest another criteria might be assessment of the brand as a whole – i.e. all marketing campaigns/ products of in the whole of a company’s range. People build stories about a brand over time, so if a company engages genuinely on environmental issues with one product but the others are unsustainable this has an overall effect.

  • Berry D'Arcy - August 7, 2009 reply


    I’m new here, so I’m just going to have to jump into the flow. I did have a look around and don’t think this point is made elsewhere, but apologies if I’ve missed it!

    I’m curious about whether a decision tree is the right type of instrument, at least in isolation, or whether it needs to be part of a suite of interventions.

    The criteria you’ve applied Tom is pretty tight(!), but I wonder whether it would drive behaviour amongst the marketing community along the lines of a ‘better’ TV ad, rather than leading thinking on new approaches that start to change the system.

    If we share the belief that what we need is myriad innovations, a small number of which will catch light, then are marketers, in their role as creative problem solvers, the very people whose talents we want to harness (and co-opt their budgets!) towards solving the transition challenge?

    If so, then the issue becomes ‘how’ do we do this in the right way?

    I’m sure you’ll have thought of this, so hope to hear!


  • Mark Meisner - August 12, 2009 reply

    Thanks for this post Tom and an interesting challenge. It would be helpful if you could link the images to high resolution versions so we can get a good look at the adverts.

  • Tom Crompton - August 18, 2009 reply

    Hi Berry – Thanks for this.

    I now realise that ‘decision-tree’ might be the wrong phrase – I didn’t mena to convey the impression that this could substitute for any critical reflection on the issues – just that it might help in trying to highlight the full range of impacts that a responsible marketing campaign might have to consider.

    And you are right, too, of course, that – viewed dispassionately – marketeers represent a huge pool of bright and creative people with some highly refined communication techniques at their fingertips. It would be great to get more of them involved in engaging unhelpful aspects of our identities – rather than ‘helping’ by selling more green stuff.

    Thanks for your comment, too, Mark. I’ll endeavour to put the links in, in future. You’ve probably found the picture that you were looking for now – let me know if not!


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