Insensitive or Lucrative: Is It Ever Ethical To Use Sensitive Situations As A PR And Marketing Tool?

Is it ever right for organisations to use sensitive and emotive situations to increase their product sales or enhance their reputation? I instantly thought of this question as soon as I received the promotional email pictured below. This email was sent on Monday, less than 48 hours after the UK Government had announced England would be in lockdown for the next four weeks, due to Covid-19. With the negative impacts of bulk-buying and panic-buying in the forefront of many consumers’ minds (especially as we are heading towards Christmas), this advert could be seen as capitalising on people’s fears and concerns over Christmas shopping. It made me think, is it really responsible to advertise a product to encourage panic amongst loyal customers?

Is this promotional email insensitive or lucrative?

This issue is rather complex, as the retail sector has been hit significantly hard by the effects of Covid-19 and lockdown. I totally empathise with organisations in the retail industry, and it is understandable that many organisations wanted to maximise sales, especially Christmas-related purchases, over the past three days. However, I do not believe direct e-marketing to loyalty scheme members in this style, particularly using panic-inducing language such as “grab” and “quickly” and directly mentioning “lockdown”, is ever suitable. Regardless of whether or not this advert was only meant to reach existing customers, surely it is not very socially responsible to profit from consumers’, and wider society’s, fears and worries?

The subject of the email accompanying the advert pictured above, using language which could be considered to be inappropriate.

In terms of ethics, it could be argued that this organisation has taken an ethically egoistic approach towards this situation, by using emotions that consumers may feel have been exemplified by Covid-19 as a method of increasing sales. In case you are unaware, ethical egoism is a normative ethical theory, which states actions are morally right because they maximise self-interest. In this example, the use of this advert, which could be seen as morally incorrect, would be seen as morally right as it maximises the organisation’s interest to maximise sales.

In contrast, a PR approach to this situation would, arguably, be different. In order for businesses to build and maintain a loyal and happy customer base, organisations must ensure their actions are ethical and moral. Without loyal and happy customers, a business’ reputation can rapidly decline… and we all know the significant damage this can do from a PR perspective. It seems that using consumers’ emotions to increase sales opposes key PR values such as being open and transparent and not undertaking actions which could compromise the reputation of Public Relations. Therefore, it could be argued that this organisation could have taken a more considered ethical approach and instead of putting their self-interest at the forefront of their promotional campaign (to increase sales), they could have perhaps created an alternative campaign which encouraged customers to feel opposing, positive emotions. At a time when well-being and positivity is as important as ever, it seems that this particular organisation missed the opportunity to reach out to loyal customers and showcase their products in relation to what benefits they could bring. Instead, this advert focussed on consumers’ negative thoughts and tried to encourage sales by manipulating consumers’ feelings of stress and worry.

Indian supermarket Grofers have used lockdown within advertising to positively support customers. Source: Grofers Instagram.

Now, this particular organisation is definitely not alone in using emotive and often controversial situations to accelerate the impact of their campaign, just look at this Think! campaign. Emotional advertising definitely has a significant role in reaching and impacting target audiences, however, I feel this is better suited to campaigns which aim to bring awareness or education to consumers, rather than campaigns which revolve around one company’s sales and profit. Instead of organisations, such as the one discussed above, putting their personal gains at the forefront of their campaigns, perhaps a more consumer-well-being focus could prove beneficial in this case. For example, the online supermarket Grofers in India has used lockdown as an advertising tool to offer support to customers (see image above), illustrating that putting consumer needs first is a recipe for success. As an effect of receiving this email as a consumer, my feelings towards this organisation have become less positive, and as a consequence, I have since bought products from a competitor brand.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this- do you think this example of email marketing is perfectly acceptable? What are your thoughts on the ethical egoism theory?

Thank you for reading!

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