Selling Death Row

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It's the dilemma every marketer faces sooner or later: is it right to be selling this product? Dave Waller investigates and finds out that the answer's not as black and white as you might think…

It's 1995. The Chronic, the debut solo LP by Dr Dre, the former NWA producer and MC, is on its way to going triple platinum. But there's a side-effect: by now, the guns, drugs and incendiary stories that had made NWA's gangsta rap so popular with teens from Compton to Cullompton has leapt from the grooves of the records to the corridors of the record companies themselves. Interscope Records has bought Dre’s label, Death Row, and installed it in an office on the same floor. 

That may appear a natural business move, but Death Row boss Suge Knight is a member of LA’s Mob Piru Bloods gang. Suddenly sound engineers are being beaten up in recording studios, and shootings involving various Death Row hangers-on start appearing on the news. The following year, 25-year-old Tupac Shakur, Death Row’s bright hope, will be fatally wounded in a drive-by. 

For Jimmy Iovine, the Italian-American music producer, marketer and head of Interscope, it proved to be an eye-opening period. "We're not in Kansas now," he'd realized at the time.  In the compelling Netflix documentary, The Defiant Ones, Iovine, now 65, is sat on the sofa with his cap on backwards, candidly recounting his reaction to the unfolding chaos. "Am I defending free speech, or funding Hamas?" he recalls asking his then wife. "I was so confused.” 

Other marketers will probably ask themselves similar questions at some point in their career: the world is full of grey areas about how beneficial a product truly is for the wider society, and whether they really should be promoting it.

Where do you draw the line? It’s a natural part of life, being forced to weigh up all these conflicting wishes and desires and work out what on earth you’re going to do about it.
— Laura Haycock

“This must be an issue for people in marketing all the time,” says Laura Haycock, a business psychologist at Pearn Kandola. “You may want to do what’s best for the environment, and your organization takes on an oil company. You may be asked to campaign for Brexit, or asked for something anti-gay. How do you resolve that? Where do you draw the line? It’s a natural part of life, being forced to weigh up all these conflicting wishes and desires and work out what on earth you’re going to do about it.”

Haycock points out that the experience of holding two sets of values or tasks that aren’t compatible with each other can be deeply uncomfortable. The phenomenon is known as cognitive dissonance: you want to do well in your work, to feed your family, to please your boss, to release gut-wrenchingly ground-breaking music. But you don’t want to fund Hamas.

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To market, or not to market?

Joss Ford, founder of sustainable marketing agency Enviral, has experienced his version of that dilemma. Having graduated with a degree in environmental business from the University of Leeds in 2014, he went freelance – and was approached by a prominent energy drinks company. 

“They gave me loads of money, and let me do some of the coolest projects I’m ever going to do,” he says. “That’s great. But suddenly I didn’t care about the environment because I had the carrot in front of me." 

Then he saw something that changed him. 

“After two years there I saw 14-year-old kids guzzling these drinks, pretty much getting high, and I thought it wasn't right. I didn’t want to be associated with that. The moral was that I needed to see something quite obvious, rather than just a pay check coming in, to be the crux of me not doing it any more. I sacked the company off from a values perspective.” 

Ford didn't stop there. In the past few weeks his startup has turned down four marketing jobs, including one with an airline, because their commitment to sustainability didn't ring true. 

After two years there I saw 14-year-old kids guzzling these drinks, getting high. I didn’t want to be associated with that. I sacked the company off from a values perspective.
— Joss Ford, Enviral

According to Haycock, this black and white choice – of giving up the job or giving up your ideals – is just one way of dealing with that clash of values and responsibilities when asked to sell something. And it’s probably the rarest. She believes you have three other options: you can reframe the dilemma, allowing you to keep your ideals but divorce them from the responsibility of the job; you can bargain with yourself, saying you’ll balance out the negative stuff by giving time to a more worthy cause or by, say, driving an electric car. Or you can bury your head in the sand. 

“Most people just try to pretend the conflict isn’t there,” she says. “Because if you make those choices they can be costly to you. So the easiest thing is to pretend it’s not as bad as it seems. Or that it must be ok, because otherwise you wouldn’t be being asked to do it.”

You don't have to dig too hard to see that phenomenon at work. Last year PR firm Bell Pottinger was famously paid a fee of £100,000 a month to run a social media campaign on behalf of South Africa's Oakbay Capital. The campaign was later judged by regulators to be stirring up racial hatred in the country. In the backlash, the company was plunged into administration, with the loss of hundreds of jobs, and commentators left wondering how on earth the people in the company could have gone ahead with such a campaign. 

Wading through the grey area

Most issues, however, are not so black and white. Even gangsta rap. Yes, the music has taken a huge amount of flak over the past 30 years for its role in damaging society – both black and white. Yet this year, Dre and Iovine's latest protégé, Kendrick Lamar, won a Pulitzer Prize for his nuanced, complex, introspective expression of what's it's like to be a young, black male on the streets of Compton – having grown up there inspired by the music of NWA and Dre. No NWA, no Kendrick, no Pulitzer Prize for a kid from Compton.

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For the marketer trying to do the right thing, there's a clear problem: it can be hard to know what the right thing is – even in a world where, as Ford's experiences would suggest, brands are shouting about values and purpose more than ever before. Take an issue as seemingly straightforward as plastic. Thanks to some high-profile campaigns involving the likes of David Attenborough, the nation's shops, cafes and bars have jumped on board the apparently progressive drive to ban plastic straws. This has, however, sparked anger among disabled people, many of whom need straws to drink. 

If you worked on that straw ban campaign, the dissonance lights must now be flashing furiously. So how do you resolve it? 

It may not be worth looking to companies for help. Mark Pollard is a strategy director at New York-based marketing agency Mighty Jungle. He says that while many organizations are jumping on the idea of brand purpose, the value they proudly espouse often remains akin to a 'wetty warmer'. "It's cold in the ocean, so you pee in your wetsuit," he says. "It feels nice and warm, but it doesn't really help you much."

"We're living in the most individualistic era ever," he continues, "so people have to continually work out who they are and where they fit. We're walking around as kids or teenagers as a Mr or Mrs Potato Head. Then we start to have relationships: with family, school; then college, internships, jobs. At the same time post-modernism is telling you everything we thought we knew about gender and race is changing. And the conservatives are going: 'No it's not'. It's a strange place to be. People take off an ear here, an eyebrow there – and if you're not careful you're going to be a bald Potato Head."

The implication is that, should a bald Potato Head find themselves working in marketing, they're going to struggle more than anyone to tell right from wrong. Pollard's solution? To regularly check in on yourself and really hone in on your own values to make them as sharp as you can.

"For me right now it's about self-selection," he says. "I want to work like with like, so I'm putting out very strong signals about what I'm about. I put out some pretty direct and sometimes strange stuff and sometimes that attracts people."

We’re walking around as kids as a Mr or Mrs Potato Head. Then we start to have relationships: with family, school; then college, internships, jobs. At the same time post-modernism is telling you everything we thought we knew about gender and race is changing. It’s a strange place to be.
— Mark Pollard, Mighty Jungle

Be true

Watching Jimmy Iovine describe his sprawling career, you sense that's exactly what he's done. While he alludes to facing a dilemma over the reality behind the gangsta soundtracks he found himself selling, he also offers an analogy as to how he dealt with it. 

"Fuck what anybody thinks," he says. "When you're a race horse, the reason they put blinders on these things is, if you look at the horse on the left or the horse on the right, you're going to miss a step. That's why those horses should have fucking blinders on. And that's what people should have. When you're running after something, you should not look left and right. 'What does this person think? What does that person think?' No. Go." 

It certainly worked for Iovine. Despite family members, business partners and the mainstream media all telling him he was wrong, he made clear his commitment to Dre, and his trust in Dre's ear for music, and they raced ahead – bringing the likes of Eminem, 50 Cent and The Game to the world, and later breaking the mould on the marketing of headphones with their Beats brand, which they eventually sold to Apple for an incredible $3 billion in 2014.

Iovine probably never did find an answer to the question of whether he was supporting free speech or funding Hamas. And is the world a better place for all his work? That's for you to decide.


Dave Waller

Dave Waller is a Cornwall-based writer who has spent years writing about, and for, businesses.

In that time he’s finally worked out what he really likes: stories about people and why they do what they do. He’s not good at self-promotion, so interviewing marketers is proving quite handy.

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We cross over to the wrong side of marketing town with STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, as our usual gang of marketing rock stars pound the pavements alongside some new kids on the block - Christine Bailey, Tom Wentworth and Stephen Kelly - exploring profanity, humor, and a slightly skewed moral compass in our marketing efforts. Read more