There are (at least) two ways of approaching the subject of sustainable marketing. On the one hand we can look at marketing as a set of tools that have no inherent ethical, moral or sustainable implications.
From this view the tools take on the qualities of their object, but have no moral impact themselves. Thus two nearly identical marketing plans – one for hamburgers from cows pastured on a clear-cut rainforest, and another for local, organic milk – could have vastly different evaluations in relation to sustainability.
Another way to approach the subject would be to examine the impact of the marketing methods themselves and ask if some are inherently unsustainable and should be avoided. From this perspective the medium itself has an effect on the message, and an unsustainable marketing program could offset the impact of a sustainable product or message.
These two views can be seen in the debate over a recent advertising campaign (further reading here and here) in Mexico aimed at persuading Mexican men not to eat sea turtle eggs which are believed be an aphrodisiac. The ads feature scantily dressed models with copy reading: “My man doesn’t need turtle eggs.” The message is clear; men that get hot women don’t need any help from an endangered species.
The National Institute of Women (NIW) has denounced these ads saying they promote sexist stereotypes, while environmentalists have embraced them feeling that they speak directly and powerfully to macho males: the market that needs to be reached.
On both sides we see concerns that fall under the sustainability umbrella. The campaign’s designers are concerned about biodiversity and the critics about gender equality.
The first lesson I draw from this is that when we are marketing a sustainable product or message we are likely to be held to a higher standard — the NIW has not mentioned other ads in the region using similar imagery. While I personally may not be offended by the ads and believe the medium and message to be congruent, we must recognize that the community has diverse views and these need to be honored.
This particular case had trouble because its intended audience seems to hold different values from the progressive observers, yet both need to be taken into consideration.
The other lesson I draw is that it is sometimes difficult to see the true effect of a marketing campaign. These ads may not reach the man on the street but they have raised awareness in progressive communities in the US and Mexico, and may still have a profound impact on turtle populations as well as a cultural debate on gender equality. To paraphrase famed Apple marketer Guy Kawasaki, we often have no idea how our products will actually impact people’s lives or why they will be important.