I struggled with whether to write this post. It’s dealing with a subject touching on personal values and I don’t want to offend anyone. But it does seem important. And I’m wondering if I’m an outlier when I fret about what kind of work to take on and what to avoid. We in the market research industry seem to think about ethics mainly in terms of how we conduct ourselves as we interact with respondents, clients and field. We strive to act with integrity and to be honest and worthy of trust. Most people I know in our industry are decent and sincere in their efforts to be ethical as they go about providing the guidance to help their clients succeed.
But we don’t seem to talk very much about whether some clients are worthy of our help. Again, it seems akin to talking about religion, and a little dangerous. It’s also bad for business. Once you begin to openly criticize one company’s products and the harm they might cause, you may as well kiss that company’s business goodbye. And along with it, many other companies who fear they might be the next on your hit list.
Over the years I’ve avoided working in certain areas. I’ve not been very vocal about my exclusions, unlike some other people like Alex Bogusky who started www.fearlessrevolution.com to use his marketing skills to challenge the brands he once championed. At Research Arts, we never accepted assignments from tobacco companies – that was easy. We did a lot of work for food companies and that seemed ok with me – until it wasn’t. I conducted a study for a very large global company among 8 to 12 year olds. Their goal was to understand how to get kids to demand more of their products (soft drinks and junk food snacks) in the vending machines at school. Micro-marketing they called it – building sales one school at a time. They paid me very well to moderate the groups and write the report. But I didn’t like myself for doing it and still don’t. That was the last project I accepted in that category.
As a side note, I’ve never really bought into the idea that I can counterbalance harm with an equivalent amount of good – that the project I did for Heifer International somehow made up for the one I felt badly about. Or that the need to earn money to support my children made up for doing work for brands that relied on the cheap labor of someone else’s children. Well, you get the idea.
I prefer not to be explicit when I turn down work that I feel contributes to making our world worse rather than better. It seems smug and high-handed. I simply say I am busy. For example, I don’t take projects for products that exploit animals for food. I’m not a strict vegan but I won’t work on anything that depends on factory farming. In reality, it’s hard to be so absolute about everything. These days, many companies are trying their best to incorporate sustainable practices. And I believe that within these companies, there are many people who care about the same things that I do, and are working on the inside to implement change.
So it’s complicated, and I understand why this subject is rarely discussed professionally. Most of us compartmentalize and compromise, separating our paid work from our work on the causes that we care most deeply about. You are lucky indeed if you work exclusively in an area that feeds your soul.
You probably have your own lines. I’m guessing you wouldn’t take on a project from a group advocating child pornography or heroin sales. Those are easy black areas. It’s the gray areas that are so troubling. At the end of my career, which is now closer than the beginning, I want to feel that my work in market research did some good or, at the very least, did no harm.