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Why I Became An (Ethical) Digital Marketer

Confessions of an ethical digital marketer
Written by Jennifer Nini

Before I tell you the reason for my return to marketing, I want to first explain how I decided on writing this particular topic at this particular moment in time.

The inspiration for this piece came from a book. On a recent expedition to the library I came across The Gruen Transfer, a book named after the popular Australian TV show of the same name, that lifts the lid on advertising and marketing spin.

When I opened the cover, to my utter delight, it was the TV show in book format (one of the few TV programs I watched). But rather than focus on particular advertisements and critiquing them (as the TV program would), the book follows a day in the life of an individual and explores at each point in the day, how advertising weaves its way into the individuals' life, from awakening to lights out.

Before I continue with my story (and explain how I came to be a digital agency business founder), let me first clarify what the Gruen Transfer is.

What is the Gruen Transfer?

According to the book, the Gruen Transfer is a split-second involuntary human reaction that occurs when confronted with "scripted disorientation," the point at which we respond to cues in the environment designed to destabilise us. Coined after the Austrian-born architect  Victor Gruen, who invented the first shopping mall, the term describes the experience of shopping at a shopping centre. The layout, the lighting, music, temperature all designed to trick outsider senses so that we "impulse buy."

Bet you've been struck by The Gruen Transfer, I know I have.

Anyway back to the story.

By now you've worked out that I am less than impressed with this industry. Here's why: it only exists to sell us stuff. Consider these facts:

Then if that wasn't bad enough, there's this:

More facts about the industry you probably didn't know about.

  • Nearly all TV shows and movies have some sort of product placement. For example in 2004, The Block (Australian renovation TV show) packed 161 product placements into 48 minutes and in 2008 The Biggest Loser (USA) was TV's biggest product placer with 6248 instances recorded.
  • Celebrities, influencers and bloggers are used to endorse products. In an article for Yahoo, Antoinette Koulas, also known as Sydney Fashion Blogger, earns up to $5000 every time she updates her Instagram feed. Koulas admits: "Clients say, 'I'll pay you to wear that dress, I'll pay you to wear those shoes', so, yeah, you know, they sponsor me. I hate to say it, but if you think of me like a big billboard, people are paying for that space."
ethical digital marketing

Credit: Sydney Fashion Blogger

  • Armpit shaving became a 'thing' in 1915 on the back of advertising. It began when Harper's Bazaar featured a model in a sleeveless evening dress and brands jumped on the opportunity to sell products. The advertising for depilatory powder for example, connected hairy armpits to ugliness. Another company selling razors to men, sensed an opportunity to sell to the other half of the population and within two years doubled its sales all because advertising trickery led women to believe that underarm hair was both unhygienic and unfeminine.
  • There is an even darker side to advertising (yes, it gets more evil) and it's called: Stealth advertising. Stealth advertising, also known as undercover advertising, is advertising that is done secretly. Why the secrecy? Well experts agree that advertising is most effective when people aren't conscious of it. Some examples of stealth advertising include product placements, fake online reviews and actors hired to have public discussions as a way to secretly promote products.
  • And just when you thought greenwashing was bad, along came 'pink washing' (actually this term may have been coined first). This is a term describing how companies affiliate itself with breast cancer charities and the pink ribbon to promote one of its products, when it is highly likely the products they sell contain ingredients that are linked to or cause the cancer in some way.

This is a crazy industry and I'm back working in it aaarrrggghhh!

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Full disclosure: I am an (ethical) digital marketer. One of the 'good' bad guys so to speak.

I bet you're wondering: How did this happen? I thought she was setting up a farm?

Yes I know, I'm as perplexed as you. This is how life goes sometimes. One day I'm leaving Melbourne to establish a permaculture farm and the next minute I'm actually starting-up my own digital agency whilst simultaneously learning the ins and outs of organic farming. Life is full of randomness.

The Social Copywriter - Ethical Digital Agency

The truth is, when you dream big (certified organic farm) it also costs big. Farming is expensive, as you can appreciate. We didn't want to get huge loans like other farmers (the mortgage is plenty enough) so I decided to launch this business.

Given that I previously worked for a digital firm in Melbourne and still have bills to pay, launching a digital content agency is a logical decision. I was offered a promotion to be Operations Manager at the last agency but turned it down to pursue organic farming which gives you an idea of my experience (#geekgirlboss).

Now before you right me off as another evil marketer hear me out. I actually run the digital business the same way I've been running this blog, extremely selective with the businesses I choose to work with.

How I feel about what I do.

I have a rather complex relationship with advertising and marketing. On the one hand, I appreciate the get-rid-of-the-box thinking involved in creating exceptional content and digital strategy. On the other hand, I don't want to in any way influence someone to buy things they don't need and really don't want to help promote a culture of consumption (it's unsustainable).

But focussing on businesses that share the same values makes it easy. I don't work for any multinationals, just smaller to medium sized businesses who are doing their bit to revolutionise their industries. With most digital marketing agencies pandering to the businesses who can afford it most, I choose to work with businesses with hearts.

Summary:

Is advertising evil? Yes and no. I honestly believe it comes down to the values of the brand and advertisers (if you have no integrity, your product kills people, or its known to wreak havoc to our planet, well then it's a hell yes!)

Also because of my personal set of circumstances and current location (The Middle of Nowhere) it means I have no other options. There are few (read: zero) job opportunities in my line of work out here so rather than work remotely for a digital agency with questionable ethics, I decided to launch my own ethical one.

The biggest difference between mine and everyone else's which allows me to sleep at night? I'm helping the good guys win. So if I'm working with you in some capacity, whether on this blog or for my agency, you know which category you fall into. You're a good guy.

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About the author

Jennifer Nini

Jennifer Nini is a writer, activist and the founding editor of Eco Warrior Princess. In 2010, after studying Fashion Business, she began this blog to explore her interests in fashion, politics, social justice and sustainability. Jennifer is also the founder of The Social Copywriter, a digital agency harnessing the power of copywriting and content marketing to help mindful businesses reach more people. When she's not perfecting a sentence or coaching business clients, you will find her at her certified organic farm reconnecting with nature.

8 Comments

  • I recently graduated with a marketing / psych degree and came out thinking, “I cannot be one of the bad guys!”. What a complex industry. Your post validates what I have been figuring out this summer- you can make a difference in this industry by working with the right people who share your same ethical values.
    Thank you so much for your post. Here’s to doing good and following your passions! P.S. best of luck on your farm 🙂
    -Elizabeth

    • Wonderful to know that the post helped in some way! I think many of us in marketing who are led by our values grapple with this. Luckily there are a growing number of us questioning and doing things differently. You will be on the front line too now that you’ve graduated and I know you will be a part of revolutionising this industry because it really needs people like us! Thanks for the well wishes and I wish the same for you. Hope you carve out a fab career, following your dreams with your principles still in tact 🙂

  • I love how honest and transparent you are about everything. Working in fashion particularly has always been a struggle considering the harmful effects many of its practices can have. But the first step to changing “the way things have always been done” is recognizing the issue and working towards change within that industry. Just because something has always been done one way doesn’t mean it’s the right way! It’s refreshing to meet others that feel the same way. Keep up the great work Eco Warrior Princess!

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. This is why I started a blog many years ago as I could freely express my views honestly without an editor censoring and changing my thoughts and ideas to suit their publication LOL! You are right too about taking that first step. Why should we feel bad because we love fashion? We do not walk around in the nude. It is a part of our lives. So if we feel uncomfortable about how it’s being done, let’s change it! Great to see another brand on the front line 🙂

  • Thank you for sharing your quandary and your journey to reach this decision. You are an inspiring person to watch and a bit of a teacher to a novice like me.
    Keep up the great work and your strong ethics that help make our world better. <3

    • Thanks so much Bonnie for your kind words. Life is a wild journey when you decide on the road less travelled but I wouldn’t have it any other way. People may view my life as ‘alternative’ and ‘radical’ and yet, it is the life most aligned to my heart 🙂

  • I have a degree in marketing myself and have not had the opportunity to use it. I fell into teaching soon after graduating. As a lover of fashion, it was until recently that I noticed how many emails I received daily from department stores to take part of the latest clothing sale. I rarely watch TV so I do avoid some marketing that way. An avid YouTube watcher, I find myself becoming quite bored with those who showcase their latest beauty and fashion hauls. In my head I’m thinking how much stuff does one really need and why do we allow companies to feel like we constantly need things?

    • Yes I’m the same, I’m pretty selective with who I give my email address to. Also I don’t watch many YouTube clips unless it’s informational or entertaining like a doco or a music video 😛 I follow some video bloggers but I do get bored with it too because I tend to make my own mind up about something after reading articles rather than seeking out others opinions through videos. That could be because I’m a writer 🙂

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