North Face is not, by any means, the first company to try and alter their own Wikipedia entry for marketing-related purposes. They might, though, be the first to so publicly tout doing so and have their success presented as a successful effort to overcome the “obstacle” presented by the site’s own dictum that such efforts were strictly verboten.

There’s quite enough blame to go around here. Parties to be held accountable include:

  1. Those that pitched the campaign, regardless of whether they were junior or senior staffers at the agency involved.
  2. Those at a more senior level who approved the idea as one suitable to be presented to the client.
  3. Those at the company who approved the campaign and gave the go-ahead for implementation.
  4. Those at Ad Age who presented the campaign as a cheeky “subversion” of the rules, like we should reward those involved for willfully defiling a public space and see them as innovative instead of the vandals they are.

The situation we find ourselves in is one where professional ethics in the marketing industry seem to be all but completely abandoned. It’s not just that times have changed and norms have been adjusted in the last 20 years. Influencers don’t bother disclosing affiliate posts, celebrities don’t bother disclosing their paid posts and a shocking number of marketers aren’t even aware there are guidelines around influencer marketing.

15 years ago the people running online marketing programs were the same ones who had come up with the rise of the industry, many of whom were intimately involved in the creation of professional guidelines and best practices. As that generation was phased out they tried to pass on what they’d learned – sometimes the hard way – to those behind them. At some point it became a game of telephone, though, to the point that some current marketing professionals don’t even try. And the industry press, afraid of losing access, isn’t pressing on these points.

All of that is in service to the belief that the best way to run a successful campaign or program is to be “edgy.” Throw norms out the window, because all they do is get in the way of making money. If one agency says they won’t execute a program because it violates some standard or guideline, all a company has to do is find one that suffers from no such moral burden, at which point the original agency has lost the business and will have to report the reason why to their holding company. Failure is not an option because there’s always someone willing to cross the line and leave before having to face any consequences.

You see this all the time, particularly with agencies and consultancies built around a single personal brand. They will come up with the most outrageous idea and convince someone to execute it because they’re not in the business of having consistent, repeat clients. Instead they parachute in to a project, rack up scores of billable hours developing a half-baked idea that’s then dropped on another party’s lap and have moved on before the grenade explodes in someone’s hands.

The reputations of everyone involved remain intact because hey, at least there was some press coverage of the campaign, right? It may not be a Cannes Lion but it certainly broke through the media clutter and got some attention. So long as no one’s stock price was harmed, the only parties held responsible might be the junior staffer tasked with copy-editing the campaign.

I’m painting with broad brushes here and there are certainly ethical people operating at all levels of the marketing and advertising industry. Each time a story like this emerges, though, it’s hard to think those people aren’t becoming fewer and farther between while those free from any consideration beyond what will make the biggest impact proliferate.

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