Opinion: Push for More Ethical and Sustainable Advertising

FILES: A food delivery motorist rides on an overpass empty of traffic due to lockdown restrictions introduced to try to halt a surge in cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Phnom Penh on April 16, 2021.

Chanbora Sek, a post-graduate student focused on sustainable management, warns of the need for brands in Cambodia to take more into account than just profit when it comes to advertising

Every time I turn to social media, I am hit with unsatisfying product and service ads and unethical marketing tactics. Traditionally, Cambodia’s marketing industry focused on physical billboards, newspapers, magazines, and TVs, where most of the unethical marketing came from businesses such as alcohol, tobacco, and gambling.

However, with the new dawn of digitalization and the rise of social media such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, problems with sustainable marketing in Cambodia have been put into question even further, especially in the beauty industry where people start pushing out sales through social media platforms and telling lies about their produces using so-called influencers—which, by the way, have not been known for their social activism, but rather for their racist and sexist remarks.

An Overview of Cambodia’s Marketing Industry

Cambodia was one of the fastest-growing countries in Asia and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic was reporting economic growth of 7 percent annually, although 2020 saw a 3.1 percent contraction of the Cambodian economy and both the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank have forecast slim growth for 2021 at 1.9 percent and 2.2 percent respectively.

Cambodia has been reliant on foreign aid and foreign direct investment since the 1990s, but the flow of investments from abroad has opened up opportunities for many kinds of businesses, allowing marketing to develop as a sector. From 2010 to 2012, advertising sales jumped by 39 percent to $105.4 million.

Access to both the internet and smartphones has improved rapidly, with Facebook overtaking TV and radio as the key source of information—according to B2B Cambodia. Some 9 million Facebook accounts were registered in Cambodia in 2019, so for the past two years, brands have overhauled their marketing strategies to adapt to this new reality and reach the target demographics of under-30s who make up roughly 60 percent of mobile users in Cambodia.

Sustainable and Ethical Marketing

The Cambodian government knows that the current business and economic environment need a push of innovation, socially responsible and ethical practices in order to foster sustainable growth as a means to meet the market demand from the young population, who are increasingly environmentally conscious and ethically focused.

For instance, a lot of efforts have been put in place by the Cambodian government and the private sector, and civil society to transform and regulate the “marketing” environment. According to B2B Cambodia, in 2015 a law was passed and enforced the banning of alcohol TV advertising from 6 pm to 9 pm, in addition to the ban on tobacco advertising in order to meet international advertising regulatory standards. This was a welcome move by the Cambodian government and well-received both domestically and internationally.

Earlier this year, Kampong Speu Governor Vey Samnang ordered the removal of all alcohol advertising from public spaces in the province and a campaign rallied around a total ban on alcohol adverts, but the Commerce Ministry has so far cited a lack of legislation as the reason for not banning such adverts.

The question is, will this lead to more sustainable marketing in Cambodia?

Socially responsible campaign and advertising agencies such as Melon Rouge Agency and QED set a leading example that sustainable marketing has market potential in Cambodia. For Melon Rouge Agency, they work with clients from the private, social and public sector (including national and international companies, NGOs, and public agencies), seeking to generate behavior change campaigns in rural areas as mentioned by Fernando Valdes, head of Social Design at Melon Rouge, whose work demonstrates a switch towards research-led communications strategies that seek to better understand the target audience.

According to Yohan Brizolier, Chief Creative Officer at QED, the major challenge for brands is understanding the demands of digital transformation and the increasing importance of data, as well as the ability to add value and cope with new trends in order to reach out to the right people at the right time.

These are just two examples of the shifts within Cambodia’s marketing and advertising sector and suggest that things are moving in the right direction.

All Things Considered

Despite this progress, my point is that sustainable marketing is still largely ignored by most businesses and companies in Cambodia. The purpose of marketing and advertisement has been solely for the purpose of maximizing profit and financial benefits for stakeholders and investors.

Here are my three recommendations that businesses should consider:

First, it is important for companies and businesses to be able to identify their own long-term value that prioritizes both the business and society at large. This can achieve by using a Triple-Bottom-Line approach by taking into account profit, people and the planet. This revolves around an ideal value that would generate profit for the business while at the same time helping to restore ecosystems and solving pressing issues we collectively face. Simply, it means taking other more ethical factors into account rather than focusing solely on profits.

Second, companies must strike the right balance to accommodate the potential of conflicting stakeholder interests and moral interests. Is it right to maximize profit and stakeholders’ interests at the expense of people and the planet? Or is it beneficial in the long run to become a socially responsible business that has a strong ethical brand value?

Third, guarantee that marketing strategies are both accountable and transparent. Companies that create harm to humans and the environment, and then try to hide this, face public scrutiny when discovered, which negatively affects the brand’s image and subsequently that of the stakeholders.

Chanbora Sek works in the non-profit sector and is currently pursuing his ASEAN Master Degree in Sustainability Management at the Universitas Gadjah Mada.

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