Affirmative Action vs. Client Wishes

Topic: Advertising and Marketing Management

Characters: Jennifer, junior Account Executive Trainee at the XYZ Advertising


Agency Sharon, Account Executive to whom Jennifer is assigned
Mr. Hurn, Managing partner of the XYZ Advertising Agency
Mr. Bohlen, Director of Advertising at ABC Client Company

After graduating from college, Jennifer tried repeatedly to secure an Account Executive position in an advertising agency. Finally, after two years of working as a receptionist and “go-fer” at the XYZ Advertising Agency, she got a highly sought-after job as a junior Account Executive Trainee at the same agency.

It is now three years since Jennifer started her current job. Sharon (the Account Executive with whom she works) has just made a major sales presentation for the ABC Client Company account. XYZ Advertising is a small agency, and top management (Mr. Hurn) feels this account is essential to XYZ’s ability to retain its employees and remain financially solvent. In fact, the agency has lost its two most important accounts in the last year and will have to lay off half of its employees if the ABC account is not secured.

The day after the presentation, Mr. Bohlen, Director of Advertising at ABC, calls Mr. Hurn to inform him that XYZ Advertising Agency has the ABC account if the television advertisement presented in yesterday’s sales presentation is changed. Specifically, Mr. Bohlen wants the two African-American actors in the advertisement replaced with two white actors. His reason is that the advertisement is superb, but the African-American actors will offend his target market. Mr. Hurn agrees to this request. He hangs up the telephone, calls Sharon and Jennifer into his office, and informs them of the need to recast/replace the actors.

Sharon refuses. Although tests of the advertisement show that the target market is uncomfortable with the actors’ race, she feels it is wrong to change this advertisement. She feels that more African-Americans in general should be in television advertising. After two hours of discussion, with Jennifer in the room, Mr. Hurn informs Sharon that she is fired for insubordination. He then turns to Jennifer and tells her that she can replace Sharon (which is a promotion to Account Executive). “Of course,” Mr. Hurn states, “you must recast the commercial as I have asked, or you, along with Sharon, will be released from this company due to insubordination.”

Jennifer, who has wanted to be an Account Executive ever since her freshman year in college, is torn. Her decision is complicated by her strong belief in affirmative action, the general scarcity of jobs due to a poor economy, and the fact that Account Executive positions rarely become available. Furthermore, she is already behind in her student loan payments.

Author: Gordon L. Patzer, Professor of Marketing, University of Northern Iowa.

What Are the Relevant Facts?

  1. Jennifer wants very much to be an Account Executive in an advertising agency.
  2. The agency for which Jennifer works has financial problems. If the ABC Client Company is not secured, XYZ will release half of its employees.
  3. The client, Mr. Bohlen, believes that two African-American actors in the advertisement will offer his target market. He wants them replaced by white actors.
  4. Jennifer’s boss (Mr. Hum) has made his wishes clear and is committed to have them carried out.
  5. Jennifer needs the job to pay her bills.
  6. Jennifer is not sure what to do.

What Are the Ethical Issues?

  1. To what extent is Jennifer responsible for promoting affirmative action?
  2. Does she have an obligation to speak up when she believes marketing is promulgating an inferior role for African-Americans in society?
  3. Should she be concerned with her boss’s immediate agreement to such a request by a possible client?

Who Are the Primary Stakeholders?

  • Jennifer
  • XYZ Advertising Agency: the company overall, its employees, and its stockholders, and African- Americans
  • Less primary stakeholders: society overall and the advertising industry

What Are the Possible Alternatives?

  1. Refuse the offer/request (and pin Sharon).
  2. Accept the offer/request.
  3. Discuss the situation with Mr. Hum, including a request to meet with Mr. Bohlen to discuss the situation with him.
  4. Inform the media of the company’s stance.
  5. Contact the appropriate government agency/office concerning discrimination based on race.
  6. Contact the local NAACP chapter.

What Are the Ethics of the Alternatives?

  • Ask questions based on a “utilitarian” perspective (costs and benefits). For example:
  1. Which possible alternative provides the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people/entities?
  2. How would costs be measured in this situation? How much value should be placed on “doing the right thing” for (1) a much larger cause involving increased media presence of African-Americans, (2) a much larger cause involving greater recognition of cultural diversity overall, and (3) an individual’s own beliefs/conscience.
  • Ask questions based on a “rights” perspective. For example:
  1. What does each stakeholder have the right to expect?
  2. Does the ABC Client Company (Mr. Bohlen) have the right to make his request?
  3. What right does the company management (Mr. Hum) have in running the company?
  • Ask questions based on a “justice” perspective (benefits and burdens). For example:
  1. Which stakeholders carry the greatest burden if Jennifer takes the position as new Account Executive and changes the advertisement as requested?
  2. Which stakeholders stand to benefit the most if Jennifer takes the position as new Account Executive and changes the advertisement as requested?
  3. Does Jennifer benefit more or less by refusing the offer for the new position? By accepting it?
  4. Is there a difference, in regard to long-term versus short-term benefits/burdens, if Jennifer takes the position? If she does not take the position?

What Are the Practical Constraints?

  1. This position is what Jennifer has long wanted. If she passes it up it appears it will be a long time until another such opportunity becomes available.
  2. Jennifer needs to pay her bills.
  3. The company is in a weak financial situation; it needs the account to pay its bills and keep its current employees.
  4. Despite Jennifer’s social conscience, if she does not accept the position and change the advertisement, someone else will.

What Actions Should Be Taken?

  1. What should Jennifer do? Should she accept the new position, or should she resign?
  2. What alternative would you choose if you were in her position? Why would you make that choice?
  3. What ethical theories (utilitarian, rights, justice) make the most sense to you as they relate to this situation?

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