Have you milked any whales lately? A kinder, gentler marketing philosophy

Every now and again I like to grab a few beers with a friend of mine, and boldly pontificate over the course of an evening about life, philosophy, literature, and our lofty ambitions of making the world a better place.

He’s a personal trainer, gym manager, and consultant to elite athletes. It’s a no brainer – he helps people live better, healthier lives. He finds incredible value in investing 10 hours of his day working with rehab or elderly clients to improve their quality of life. A pillar of the community, to be sure.

And, of course, as a marketer I’m always left wanting in these conversations. Maximising shareholder value will never sound as impressive as saving lives for a living. There’s not much solace being part of an industry where deception and manipulation is the bread and butter.

As a marketer, there is always a perfect storm brewing for a career dilemma. Some company oversteps the boundaries of taste and common sense in an outrageous way, and all of marketing suffers an image problem. Consider the case of mobile game developers.

Bottom of the barrel – a case study of scummy marketing

One of the most egregious examples of scumbag marketing is in the mobile ‘free to play’ games industry (you know, those cute little games on your phone). The mobile gaming business model is based on generating 90% of its revenue from 10% of its users.  The high value users are referred to as ‘whales’, with the goal of the developer being to make a whale addicted to the feeling of achievement they receive from success in the game. Once the whale is hooked, their ability to make any meaningful progress in the game is locked behind a paywall.

The user must pay money in exchange for in-game currency, which serves to obscure the actual amount of real money that the user spending. This is a similar tactic to purchasing chips a casino – the user doesn’t see real money exchanging hands, with the loss of a $50 chip being more obscure and less impactful than handing over a real $50 bank note. The in-game currency is often used to bypass waiting periods (a game may force a user to wait 24 hours before accessing the next level), or to outright purchase the next level or equipment needed to progress the game.

Gamesradar reported that in the iOS game ‘Gun Bros’ that a single weapon can be purchased for a whopping $US600 – which is more than the cost of the iPhone or iPad that the game is actually played on. And you can bet that a game-addicted whale somewhere in the world has made this purchase. Believe it, because one 8 year old has already spent $US6,000.

Mobile game marketing has become so scummy and offensive that Apple Insider reports that in January 2015 Apple settled a $US32m lawsuit from the US government over users who felt scammed into spending real money on games that were explicitly advertised as ‘free to play’.

As marketers, is this our fate? To find increasingly disgusting ways of separating fools from their wallets? Are we doomed to be the eternal peddlers of snake oil?

A kinder, gentler marketing philosophy

The good news is that we can hold ourselves to a higher standard.  We don’t have to succumb to dishonest or damaging marketing methods. We can decide our own fate, and we can hold companies accountable for their actions by withholding our skills and labour.

As a starting point for any marketing professional, I propose the following guidelines:

  • Only ever accepting work from clients or employers who can demonstrate at the very least a neutral impact on society and the environment
  • Working with products and services whose key target audience are able to make informed decisions and to spend their money responsibly
  • Holding membership in a professional marketing or regulatory body, and seeking independent advice if you think your work crosses legal or ethical boundaries
  • To hold current marketing qualifications and continually seek knowledge about legal and social marketing best practise

We have the power, and we need to exercise our right to say ‘no’. After all, don’t you want to feel proud of what you do for a living? Marketing doesn’t have to be a dirty word.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback.


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