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“Do No Harm” Does Not Suffice

Updated: Mar 22, 2020

The American Marketing Association’s (AMA) first principle is “Do no harm.” It’s fitting that the association’s first tenet is the principle most associated with physicians (who, in the U.S., are often members of the other AMA — the American Medical Association). However, contrary to popular belief, physicians do not swear a standardized oath whereby they explicitly affirm to “do no harm.” This is because, among other reasons, “do no harm” inherently centers inaction. Physicians treat patients — hardly a passive enterprise.


The doctor-patient relationship is one-to-one; the marketer-to-consumer relationship is one-to-many. This is not a small distinction. And the differences between the two professions certainly don’t end there. That said, there’s at least one important similarity marketers and physicians share: we seek to guide or even alter behavior. The doctor’s intentions are altruistic; the marketer’s intentions are not, and that needs to change.

It is time marketers move beyond the passivity of “do no harm” and actively “do good.” The former, though well-intentioned, can only lead to neutrality at best and apathy at worst; the latter ultimately may not lead to better outcomes, but its pursuit centers consumers and their well-being. That is where we need to start, regardless of how elusive the goal or how imperfect the execution.

If we offer a glimpse of the world as it could be, we should not ignore the limitations and complexities of our current reality. We must listen more and talk less.

Marketing has always acted as the conduit between consumer and brand, the “lubricant of the free enterprise system,” according to the late Leo-Arthur Kelmenson. Traditionally this has been defined in broad strokes as serving brands’ market interests by shaping public perception. But consumers’ unprecedented access to information now puts the power to shape perception in their hands, thereby altering our role and responsibilities: we must serve brands’ market interests by serving the public interest. These two entities — brand and consumer — previously balanced but held somewhat in opposition are now intertwined. As never before, while we answer to the client, we must serve the public; and in doing so we help both.


In practical terms, this means our first responsibility is to make life better for consumers. We must give people the information they need when they need it. We must augment their lives by providing solutions to problems that exist rather than problems we invent. If we offer a glimpse of the world as it could be, we should not ignore the limitations and complexities of our current reality. We must listen more and talk less. Finally, we must act as the consumer’s last line of defense by championing, among other things, privacy protection, sourcing transparency, and environmental consciousness. In real world terms, this requires challenging, rather than ignoring or enabling, brands’ blind spots and reminding brands that the values they espouse must be reflected in their actions. Advocating for the consumer’s interests serves our clients’ needs and protects their brands.

In this age of disinformation and epistemological fracturing, it is more important than ever that marketers participate in creating solutions to the problems people face, rather than being satisfied for having not compounded them. This is the difference between the innocuousness of “do no harm” and the clarion call of “always do good.”


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