In Chapter Three of Levy and Grewal’s Marketing they make the case for ethics explicitly (not just through stop-hand warnings!): “When customers believe that they can no longer trust a company or that the company is not acting responsibly, they will no longer support that company by purchasing its products or services or investing in its stock. For marketers, the firm’s ability to build and maintain consumer trust by conducting ethical transactions must be of paramount importance” (61). The central claim here is the typical one: business ethics makes good business sense.

Consumers and investors increasingly appear to want to purchase products and services from and invest in companies that act in socially responsible ways. Large global corporations, such as Coca-Cola, have recognized that they must be perceived as socially responsible by their stakeholders to earn their business. As a bonus, these companies earn both tangible and intangible benefits for acting in a socially desirable manner…; it just makes good business sense to take actions that benefit society. (Levy and Grewal, Marketing 67)

 

Does ethics make good business sense? If it does, in what sense does it remain ethical rather than simply instrumentally rational? Let us briefly recapitulate the argument thus far around business/marketing ethics that I advanced in my prior post (see What is Business Ethics?). Ethics is defined narrowly (and neo-liberally) as a set of values and norms for the proper, legal, and beneficial operation of a firm. These values and norms must be shared by all members of the firm through forms of identification, but legally legitimated through signatures on compliance forms. I suggested another kind of ethics, one rooted in a politics of becoming through ecologies of sensation, a materialist ethics that modulates, proliferates, and intensifies actual-virtual circuits, affirming the body as a center of indetermination and creativity, and affirming as well collective acts and projects of an untimely becoming. (As I have made clear throughout the postings in this blog, this tradition of affect ethics draws from the thought and practice of Zen, Deleuze, Benjamin, Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Bergson.)

We should recall a key passage early in Deleuze’s 1970 book Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, Robert Hurley, trans. (San Francisco: City Lights, 1988).

Spinoza is categorical on this point: all the phenomena that we group under the heading of Evil, illness, and death, are of this type: bad encounters, poisoning, intoxication, relational decomposition. In any case, there are always relations that enter into composition in their particular order, according to the eternal laws of nature. There is no Good or Evil, but there is good and bad. ‘Beyond Good and Evil, at least this does not mean: beyond good and bad.’ [Nietzsche from On the Genealogy of Morals] The good is when a body directly compounds its relation with ours, and, with all or part of its power, increases ours. A food, for example. For us, the bas is when a body decomposes our body’s relation, although it still combines with our parts, but in ways that do not correspond to our essence, as when a poison breaks down the blood. Hence good and bad have a primary, objective meaning, but one that is relative and partial: that which agrees with our nature or does not agree with it. And consequently, good and bad have a secondary meaning, which is subjective and modal, qualifying two types, to modes of man’s existence. That individual will be called good (or free, or rational, or strong) who strives, insofar as he is capable, to organize his encounters, to join with whatever agrees with his nature, to combine his relation with relations that are compatible with his, and thereby to increase his power. For goodness is a matter of dynamism, power, and the composition of powers. That individual will be called bad, or weak or foolish, who lives haphazardly, who is content to undergo the effects of his encounters, but wails and accuses every time the effect undergone does not agree with him and reveals his own impotence. For, by lending oneself in this way to whatever encounter in whatever circumstance, believing that with a lot of violence or a little guile, one will always extricate oneself, how can one fail to have more bad encounters than good? How can one keep from destroying oneself through guilt, and others through resentment, spreading one’s own powerlessness and enslavement everywhere, one’s own sickness, indigestions, and poisons? In the end one is unable even to encounter oneself. 22-23

There are aspects here which the deconstructively inclined semiotician would want to reverse and displace (essence, eternal laws of nature, even, though wrongly, good and bad). But that would be to miss the important point Deleuze is making about a Spinozan ethics. One could say that this passage is precisely the one that Manuel Delanda is implicitly drawing on when he answers a question of ethics toward the end of this clip from this EGS seminar:

Delanda and Deleuze draw on Spinoza to suggest that good and bad are about gradients of intensity that correlate two ecologies in relation to processes that after a certain threshold (of the exchange of information, matter, energy, force, chemicals) turn a dynamic connectivity (one node in a broader ecology) into a bad encounter that works through poisoning, intoxication, relational decomposition of powers. Ethics then becomes about understanding causal relations such that each encounter, each creative connectivity becomes about opening our bodies to potentials of dynamism, intensifying our power, and thereby strengthening our composition of powers.

As we shall see, business ethics in the forms in which it is most commonly articulated develops multiple, contradictory notions of subjectivity and ethics.

In contemporary discourses on business ethics, however, we must recognize a real range of approaches to the notion of “value and norm” (shall we call it virtue?) ethics. For instance, Jones et al, drawing on Levinas, Husserl, Derrida, Bachelard, and Foucault, argue for a very different approach than the one blithely forwarded by Levy and Grewal.

…we are also taking up the idea that ethics calls us to imagine other worlds and other social formations that might look inconceivable to us at the moment. Put simply, this is a call towards the willingness to be critical of the current order of things. My responsibility to the Other is not just something that happens in a space in which everything remains stable. I could assume that everything is already in its right place, and that what I want is no surprises, but that would be to deny the Other from the very beginning. If I am afraid to leave my hotel, I will learn little about this new place. If I already think that the world that I live in is the best of all possible worlds, then I have no need for a book on ethics. The Other calls me to responsibility in a different way, both in the sense that my relation to the Other will be different and that I will be different- And in such a context, the very world that you and we inhabit might be a radically different one too. (Jones et al, For Business Ethics 78-9)

While such a call, to my mind, remains pretty firmly within a dialectical horizon of human consciousness, it does open the question of ethics to something like monstrosity-ethics, an ethics for which we do not as yet have a name. Perhaps more to the point, it is an ethics that takes justice as the limit to what is, never its endorsement (as Drucilla Cornell once put it), an ethics that demands a movement and thought beyond the status quo. And this is perhaps fundamentally what is at stake in a radical critique of Levy and Grewal: what ethics is commensurate with a time to come, an untimely ethics affirming potentialities of mutation?

Let us move slowly through Levy and Grewal as they recapitulate their status-quoist ethics. For L&G, business ethics is defined as ethical rules and principles (values) within a commercial context, various moral or ethical problems that might arise in a business setting, and special duties or obligations that arise during the course of commerce. Thus, marketing ethics includes issues relating to 1) a high level of consumer skepticism of business practices, and especially of marketing (62); 2) the paucity of truth in advertising; 3) consumer issues, for instance surrounding the promotion of shoddy products; 4) societal issues such as the effects of business practices on the environment; 5) and of course global issues relating to outsourcing, offshoring, and the proliferation of sweatshops.

Without question, there seems to be a prevalence of unethical behavior within and across capitalist firms:

When asked in a survey whether they had seen any unethical behavior among their colleagues, chief marketing officers responded that they had observed employees participating in high pressure, misleading, or deceptive sales tactics (45 percent); misrepresenting company earnings, sales, and/or revenues (35 percent); withholding or destroying information that could hurt company sales or image (32 percent); and conducting false or misleading advertising (31 percent). Did all the marketers in these situations view their actions as unethical? In making marketing decisions, managers are often faced with the dilemma between doing what is beneficial for them and possibly the firm in the short run, and doing what is right and beneficial for the firm and society in the long run. (Levy and Grewal 65)

The project of business ethics entails establishing a strong commitment to “corporate social responsibility,” which

describes the voluntary actions taken by a company to address the ethical, social and environmental impacts of its business operations and the concerns of its stakeholders. For a company to act in a socially responsible manner, the employees within the company must also maintain high ethical standards and recognize how their individual decisions lead to the collective actions of the firm. Firms with strong ethical climates tend to be more socially responsible. (66)

Such a strong ethical climate is hierarchically established by setting forth a clear “framework for ethical decision making,” in which management and other powerful agents (such as a firm’s lawyers) begin by acknowledging the interdependence of responsibilities within a firm and between a firm and the world; these decision makers then go on to identify issues, gather information, identify stakeholders (including the firm’s employees, retirees, natural environment, customer groups, stockholders, members of the community in which the firm operates, needs of the industry, global community, future generations), brainstorm alternatives amongst themselves, and finally choose a course of action after having investigated the legal issues associated.

What kind of notion of subjectivity emerges from this ethical theory? In a limited, authoritarian sense, this ethical stakeholder theory moves business practice away from the Sovereign Subject of Marketing toward a kind of relational, intersubjective, I-am-an-Other subject. Nowhere do Levy and Grewal register such a shift. No surprise here as it would be contrary to their project of smoothing over the contradictions between norm-ethics and marketing.

So it should come as even less of a surprise that when they turn to arguing for integrating “Ethics into Marketing” they poorly pose the ethical problems of market segmentation. First, in a kind of fit of pragmatism (when up till this point the absolutism of norm-ethics had set a pretty homogenizing tone), they argue that there are in fact different levels of integrating ethics into marketing, and each stage has to be evaluated contextually: “The questions vary at each stage of the strategic marketing planning process. For instance, in the planning stage the firm will decide what level of commitment to its ethical policies and standards it is willing to declare publicly” (70). How shall we evaluate this assertion in terms of its ethics, because this is without question what it raises!?

But finally it is in the implementation phase where a whole set of ethical concerns arise. As they note, in the choice of a target market can lead to charges of unethical behavior.

Procter & Gamble (P&G) teamed up with “tween” retailer Limited Too on a promotion featuring P&G’s Secret Sparkle Body Spray. The promotion offered a contest open only to girls aged 7 to 14 years. But even as this group was being targeted, the Sparkle Body Spray product carried a warning label on its own packaging stating that it was to be kept out of children’s reach. The spray also was being advertised in teen and tween magazines that attracted audiences under the age of 12 years. Clearly, this promotion to young girls was inappropriate according to P&G’s own labeling and was terminated when the Children’s Advertising Review Unit of the Better Business Bureau stepped in and requested that P&G stop promoting the product to children. Had P&G considered all the potential ethical dilemmas at the implementation stage in its strategic marketing planning process, it might have avoided the issue of promoting spray to the same children it warned not to use the product. (74)

Segmenting a market the marketer determines what aspect of the product, service, and overall marketing effort are important – particular groups may be responsive to a firm’s marketing efforts but still not be an appropriate target market (as the case above highlights). But we have to skip all the way to Chapter Eight, on page 215 to understand the full implications of market segmentation and the studied silence around ethics in that chapter.

In elaborating the various forms of market segmentation (Ch. 8, 215), Levy and Grewal offer the following list:
1. Geographic
2. Demographic: age, gender, income
3. Psychographic (how consumers describe themselves in terms of behavior, self-values [life-goals], self-concepts, lifestyles, and psychological motivation, often using a Values and Lifestyles Survey): innovators, thinkers, achievers, experiencers, believers, strivers, makers, survivors (not as objective as demographic segmentation strategy)
4. Benefits Segmentation: a utility maximizing subject calculating convenience, economy, prestige
5. Geodemographic (uses combination of geographic, demographic, and lifestyle characteristics to classify consumers): Urban, exurban, established, sophisticated townhouses, bohemians, affluent retirees
6. Loyalty Segmentation
7. Internet segmentation

Marketers “use” this information to get people to act in various ways. It shows, first and foremost, the specific ways in which marketing incorporates, embodies, actualizes strategies of neoliberal biopower. Recall Foucault’s definition from his lectures: biopower is the “set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species become the object of a political strategy…” (Foucault, Security, Territory, Population 1). His later (or late middle-phase?) research was focused on the genealogy of these mechanisms that from the 18th century on developed relations of power that slowly began focusing on human beings as a species with a given range of capacities, “a living species in a living world, to have a body, conditions of existence, probabilities of life, an individual and collective welfare, forces that could be modified…” (Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, 135-159; also in P. Rabinow, ed. The Foucault Reader [New York: Pantheon, 1984] 264). Lazzarato gives some contemporary examples to which we can add neuro-marketing, RFID chips, particle swarm optimization, and neural networks: “The patenting of the human genome and the development of artificial intelligence; biotechnology and the harnessing of life’s forces for work, trace a new cartography of biopowers. These strategies put in question the forms of life itself” (Maurizio Lazzarato, “From Biopower to Biopolitics,” pli, 13 (2002) 100).

Second, we see the form of subjectivity itself that was assumed by Grewal and Levy to be necessary for ethical decision-making (way back in Chapter Three) in corporate social responsibility strategies distilled back into the utility maximizing individual:

How does that underlying goal affect the individual? It does so through self-concept or the image people have of themselves. A person who has a goal to belong may see, or want to see, himself as a fun-loving, gregarious type whom people wish to be around. Marketers can make use of this image through communications that show their products being used by groups of laughing people who are having a good time. The connection emerges between the group fun and the product being shown and connotes a certain lifestyle. (Levy and Grewal 217)

That this making use of (we would do better to call it exploitation of) a perhaps vulnerable but always volatile self-concept could have ethical implications both at the level of desire (identifications) and at the level of habituation does not enter the purview of Grewal and Levy. Why? Because marketing segmentation is a form of strategically differentiating marketing communication through compelling attention, eliciting anticipation, and regulating populations to maximize consumption. This is its biopolitical project. Grewal and Levy call it an emergent connection.

Yet as we return in conclusion to their chapter on ethics, we find another subjectivity invoked, indeed necessitated by corporate social responsibility.

In the final section of this chapter, we present a series of ethical scenarios designed to assist you in developing your skills at identifying ethical issues. There is no one right answer to the dilemmas below, just as there will be no correct answers to many of the ethical situations you will face throughout your career. Instead, these scenarios can help you develop your sensitivity toward ethical issues, as well as your ethical reasoning skills. (77)

This subject is processual, practice oriented, can change and learn, and indeed ethical behavior must be habituated. Ethics is a practice then of sensitization toward the set of relations pre-given in the firm’s declaration of its valued stakeholder; more than simply a set of norms, it is a practice of caring for a Self-who-is-an-Other, and turning, valuing this practice into good business sense.

(To elaborate later: L&G, Marketing, Ch. 8:

Perceptual maps display in two or more dimensions the position of products or brands in the consumer’s mind. (232)
Determine consumers’ perceptions and evaluations of the product in relation to competitors (neuromarketing)
Identity competitors’ positions
Determine consumer preferences
Select the position
Monitor the positioning strategy)

Finally, Levy and Grewal suggest that many factors can contribute to unethical (non-normative) business practices. A high degree of competition between a firm’s teams and members contributes to that clichéd Wall Street (the movie—1987, dir. Oliver Stone), cut-throat attitude. The problem as Grewal and Levy see it is how to align short term goals (profits) with the long term goals (building customer base, reputation, brand equity, etc.)?

So what for Levy and Grewal is the answer for marketers and the organization more generally? Firms must create a “Strong Ethical Climate.” First, it is necessary to have a clear set of values that guides decision-making and behavior. Second, establish a set of norms: “Everyone within the firm must share the same understanding of these values and how they translate into the business activities of the firm, and they must share a consistent language to discuss them” (62). Third, set up a system of controls and rewards that rewards behavior consistent with the firm’s values, and punishes inconsistent behavior.

Let us pause for a moment over this project of establishing a strong ethical climate. Numerous mainstream media have ruthlessly lampooned the ambitions and compromises this production of ethical norms within firms: see for instance, the Office, S5, E2; Dilbert, S2, E17; or Futurama, S6, E3. So there is a certain accepted cynicism (and thus naturalization) about what such a project of ethical norms actually does. Scholars in the field of business ethics have also suggested that too strong a normative culture in a corporation – where everyone strongly identifies with the values of the brand owner – actually inhibits innovation within the firm. Writing in the Journal of Business Ethics, Arne Nygaard and Harald Biong note,

While some scholars strongly argue that high commitment among employees leads to higher organizational performance, others suggest that strong organizational commitment may have detrimental effects. Randall (1987), for example, argues that strong organizational commitment can result in too much trust in past policies and procedures, and highly committed employees may even be willing to engage in illegal or unethical behavior on behalf of the organization. As a consequence, overcommitted employees may reduce the organization’s creativity, flexibility, adaptability, innovation, and even hurt profits. (Nygaard and Biong, “The Influence of Retail Management’s Use of Social Power on Corporate Ethical Values, Employee Commitment, and Performance,” Journal of Business Ethics (2010) 97:87–108, 88)

Later in the article, citing the example of Wal-Mart and McDonald’s in foreign markets, they argue that a “[c]ommitment to a global strategy may be beneficial for promoting a consistent brand image but curbs adaptation to local preferences. Therefore, it loses attractiveness and entails a negative effect on revenues and sales” (93).

What are the implications of this? Could it be that a too strong ethical climate in fact is not good business? It depends on how one defines business it seems. So there is a range of organizational structure from the authoritarian (IBM in the 80s, for example) to the quasi-libertarian (Google or Apple in the early 2000s), and reproducing the status quo or creating the conditions for innovation would be correlated with each pole respectively. We can push this notion further: does norm-ethics in business close off the creative margin that capital has needed to renew its drive toward the new? Does the ethical-as-value produce a form of normative subjectivity that negates one of the fundamental aspects of contemporary affective capital—innovation?

I’ll end this though remembering the words of Naomi Klein, who urged an ethics beyond the brand:

…the sheer voracity of the corporate cool hunt did
much to provoke the rise of brand-based activism: through adbusting, computer hacking and spontaneous illegal street parties, young people all over the world are aggressively reclaiming space from the corporate world, “unbranding” it, guerrilla-style. But the effeetiveness of the cool hunt also set the stage for anticorporate activism in another way: inadvertently, it exposed the impotence of almost all other forms of political resistance except anticorporate resistance, one cutting-edge marketing trend at a time. (No Logo 81)

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