Thursday, November 15, 2007

The trouble with ethics

I was recently asked to speak at a seminar on ethics in marketing and communication by a leading business school and that got me thinking. Strange though it may seem, I do it on occasion, thinking I mean! But my first reaction was one of almost total incredulity — “Ethics in marketing communications … these guys must be joking!” Advertising, which is perhaps the most visible form of communication, has hardly ever been known for its ethical practices and this is not a new problem.

Historically advertising professionals have only been marginally ahead of used car salesmen when it comes to reputation, so there is a problem here. While this has been pretty well established in the West, in India we do not seem to be so much in the public eye as guys with shady reputations. But what actually constitutes ethical practices? What actually happens in India? Is there a better way? What can and must consumers do? Let me try to address some of these issues in this piece.

Multiple hats, double standards
All of us wear multiple hats and an important one is that of a consumer. All of us consume goods and services. When we wear this hat of a consumer we are discerning, demanding even! If the valet in the five-star hotel does not come rushing to open our car door we quickly categorise the service as poor. We expect the bank clerk in State Bank of Mysore to have the same poise, elegance and panache of the Kingfisher Airlines stewardess!

Yet, when we don the hat of the service provider in our own professions, we go into our shells and forget our own behaviour and expectations as customers. So clearly we have a problem and a lot of marketing suffers from this problem. I thought that it is important to table this fact before we get into the thorny issue of ethics.

What exactly is acceptable quality?
In India, many brands have been successful because they have delivered acceptable quality at affordable prices. Mind you, not over-engineered quality but acceptable quality, and herein lies the rub. I would suspect that some of these hugely successful products, like the Bajaj Scooter, left a lot to be desired on the quality front. I remember also that Bajaj had iconic advertising by way of the ‘Hamara Bajaj’ campaign. Wherever I went clients in the mid-Nineties would ask me “Why don’t you do a Hamara Bajaj for me?” “Hello, since when did you start manufacturing scooters?” is what I thought, but being a true blue advertising client service executive {read spineless} I smiled weakly and mumbled something.

The Bajaj scooter was something that people waited for seven years to get and sold it seven years later at the same price that they had bought it for. Bajaj got away for many years with passable quality (at best) and the brand lost its opportunity to be the Volkswagen (a true icon) of India simply because it thought it could get away with a product that just about made the quality cut. I really think the way forward for consumers to get the best quality is increased competition.

Take another vehicle of our time, the Ambassador car. It was a functional car and had its admirers as well. But as someone said, though India might be religiously inclined, the amount of religious fervour that this car raised had to be believed. Let me clarify. The first statement that anyone who got into the Ambassador car made was “Oh God!”, so comfortable was the ride!

Would anyone buy this car today when one has a choice of 721 automobile options in the country? I wonder! The choice will ensure that shoddy quality is a thing of the past. To repeat, the choice that consumers have today in a liberalised economy is also ensuring that they are getting better quality.

“Solpa adjust maadi!”
This is something that people in Bangalore are very familiar with. Translated it simply means “kindly adjust”. Have you seen the commercial for VIP underwear where people get pushed and put up with it? Sometimes as consumers we put up with a lot of nonsense and manufacturers take advantage of this. Manufacturers, if given a chance, will stretch ethics to the limit.

I was talking to a promoter of a large mall in Bangalore where tremendous footfalls were expected. What about the parking? Well, there was provision only for 200 cars, which to me at least seemed woefully inadequate.

To my protest, the client said, “Arre Yaar Shiridhar, people will find a way, why are you getting hassled? This is India.” Yes, I am hassled because I am also a consumer but people are able to get away because they know that I will not push them.

So if we want things to get better than we should not adjust when it comes to comforts or requirements. We should not be patient or stoical as Indians are supposed to be but vocal and demanding when it comes to our rights as consumers. That will push manufacturers and service providers on the ethical path.

Promise them anything
A lot of advertising today is creative, clever and clutter-breaking. Let me take one category that I am familiar with - mobile services. If my monthly bills are any indication I am certainly a heavy user. The advertising in the category has been clutter-breaking and award-winning.
I am sure all of us like the Hutch advertising where the dog keeps following the little boy everywhere. Wonderful advertising! But is the coverage really anywhere as good as the advertising makes it out to be? Well, whenever I do visit Mumbai I seem to be a little more on my toes, thanks to the coverage. The moment the phone rings I have to run out of office so that I can hear the caller!

The Airtel commercial with the grandson and the granddad playing chess, while one of them is on the train and the other is at home in his village, is another creative ad which in no way represents the truth of the coverage. Surely this is not the same service provider that I am using day in and day out to my great frustration, with call drops being as frequent as Australian test victories!

Advertising, in India at least, seems to be independent of the product and service quality. So we have great ads extolling the quality even if the product has indifferent quality. Obviously one of these two parties has a convenient view of ethics and the person who faces the consequences is the consumer and that is you and me, my friend.

Ethics and the media
What about the media? The media has a major role to play in a developing economy like ours. Yet, I remember when all the confusion with NBFCs was happening the crisis was actually worsened because of the media. Let me explain.

Do you remember all those companies that were offering fancy rates of interest including those that sold you teak trees? Doordarshan, whatever its failings as an entertainment medium, had one virtue: It did not run the ads of these companies. But the private television channels had no such compunctions and soon consumers were bombarded with a host of creative ads that promised the customers the moon. The results, sadly, were there for all of us to see and many retired people saw their lifetime’s savings being wiped out by these dubious companies.

Neither the advertising agency nor the channel bothered to check if these claims were true. And quite rightly, some of the agencies lost their money even as consumers lost their shirts.

Today we have a larger problem confronting us as some media will write anything about your company as long as you pay for it. Sad but true? Whatever happened to editorial integrity and ethics? Thankfully there are exceptions like the newspaper you are currently reading that value their integrity and may their tribe increase!

However, one must, even at the risk of sounding like a prophet of doom, mention that this is a serious problem and is getting worse. I really feel sorry for consumers of these media who have no way of knowing that all that they are reading in the newspaper is not necessarily true. It does not even look like advertising for them to be on their guard. Under the garb of editorial it is paid for advertising! Imagine the hazards. You think a restaurant that has actually paid for the write-up is top of the line; a company is worth investing in. As P.G. Wodehouse wrote “imagination boggles”. Yes, Sir, it does!

So what must we do?
I believe that self-help is an amazing philosophy, more so at a time and age when most people seem to have a convenient view of ethics. In India, most people in power, whether in government or corporations believe that they can get away with anything and sadly enough they usually do! So we must be on our guard as consumers.

Remember caveat emptor? We do see service providers stretching the limits of ethics and shortchanging us. What do we do? Some of us protest quietly. We take it up with the offender and may even get it resolved. Rarely ever do we escalate it. We do not talk about it, or if we do, we only do with our spouses who in any case are not listening to us. Yet many of us are educated, powerful individuals whose words carry some if not enormous weight. Why don’t we use the power that we have?

There is a breed of people who passionately write Letters to the Editor. While we may smile about this, they actually do a valuable service. They usually write about public utilities and services. But today we have more choices available to us.

The Net is a powerful medium. Today irate customers can create a lot of attention for their problems to a host of strangers even thanks to this wonderful medium.

Let’s take our responsibilities seriously. Let us stop thinking only about ourselves and our immediate family for a change. Let us remember that we can make a difference to everyone’s lives if we just take our responsibilities as citizens seriously. That will ensure that our rights as consumers continue even if the people around us are not ethical.

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)