Ethical marketing baddies uber

Uber: “Are We The Baddies?” – Ethical Marketing Part 6

We previously explored the ethical marketing value chain and applied the BUD Framework to some real world scenarios, which in fact are some of our real world clients. Let’s take that same framework and suss out a company who may not be so ethical…

Uber Car Rental have revolutionised the delivery industry by transitioning it to a gig economy. Previously, taxis cost a fortune and if you needed one to get home at the wrong time of day or night, you might be waiting around for hours and paying through the nose.

Food delivery was similarly fraught – without calling around, you didn’t know what food would be available, how long it would take to get there, or whether it would arrive at all.

By creating an app which connected the end consumer (you) with the service provider (the driver), they made things easier for a number of stakeholders:

  • You, with cheap and dependable transport options.
  • The drivers, with a simple “pick up & go” approach to work.
  • Themselves, with an app that takes between ¼ and 1/3 of the value of an order.

All good, right?


After rolling out a devious marketing plan to systematically destroy their competitors, they achieved market domination.

Next, they began to hike up their prices. They introduced artificial “surge pricing” to inflate the price further. They began lying about delivery and transport times to hoodwink consumers. This was not no accident – it was a strategy.

All this was possible because they have zero transparency.

What became apparent is that drivers had no rights and were being paid below minimum wage. Restaurants were losing most of their margin to Uber cost, who take 30% or more of the value we pay for a meal. Other companies had been driven out of the market by Uber’s ability to run at a loss, due to having a lot of capital investment which they spent on artificially lowering prices until they’d destroyed all their competitors.

There are heaps more examples, but that’s enough – let’s critically apply the BUD framework.

  • Behaviour – What is ethical behaviour? Is the outcome you’re looking to influence something which will affect the individual you’re marketing to in positive, neutral or negative way?

Uber are cheap, convenient and accessible for the end consumer. Great! What about the drivers? Not so much; no offence to Uber drivers, but out of curiosity I’ve talked with a lot of Uber drivers about their work – the costs of doing business, the take home pay, the work/life balance. It’s not good. No wonder they target vulnerable people to be drivers. So in terms of behaviour, they’re marketing zero hour contracts as part of the gig economy. Good for the consumer, bad for the worker. 50/50 here.

  • Universal considerations – is the outcome you’re looking to influence good for people, society, the local/national/global economy, and the planet? Does it flow on in a positive way, or where does the buck stop?

No, no, no and no. It’s good for nobody except shareholders who are already rich enough. Sure, you can make a case for consumer ease, but when convenience has become the number one indicator of social good, you’ve already lost. If you want to have a talk about free market idealism and economic liberalism, go for it – but in my opinion, technocratic hyper capitalism of this variety is not good. Not to mention that the environmental outcomes are way worse than using public transport.

  • Data – is the person you’re marketing to aware that their data is being used in order for you to target them? If they truly were, would they consent?

Again, no. I’m not even going to get into Uber’s advertisement strategies and how they are using data harvested from their drivers to develop driverless car technology in the ultimate example of the dig-your-own-grave neoliberal necropolitics, but I am going to put on my “old man yells at cloud” hat for a moment.

Let me take you back to the halcyon days of the year 2000. Having narrowly escaped the Y2K bug, my parents took me out for a meal at a Thai restaurant in Dublin to celebrate my 18th birthday. It was myself, my sister, my parents and my aunty – we probably would’ve had a main each, some wine, a beer or two – I remember getting a glance at the bill when it came and it cost £85 (Irish pounds, prior to when the Euro came in). I was flabbergasted – allowing for inflation and currency conversion up to the present date, that’s about $200 AUD. What a bloody fortune! I would’ve cooked that meal for a fraction of the price (and spent the rest on beer). 

Do keep in mind that this is the mind of an 18-year-old who’s never had money, but bear with me a moment…

My point is that a couple of decades ago, it was unthinkable for someone on the cusp of adulthood to regularly spend money on eating out – a bag of chips (sorry, “hot chips” for Aussies) is fine, but unless you had rich parents or you were working full time (and even then), it wasn’t happening. Nowadays, social expectations have changed – I have a lot of mates in their early-to-mid 20s due to my involvement in underground music, and it’s pretty normal for them to get Uber Eats multiple times a week (sometimes multiple times a day). It’s also de rigueur to spend a ton of cash on getting Ubers around the place rather than using a bike or public transport (as I still tend to do).

Now before you start throwing avocado toast at me, consider how society has changed. We live in a culture of now now now, more more more, me me me. Social media and advertising encourage instant gratification, and marketing strategies are based on self-aggrandisement. Is this real? Indubitably. Did it “just happen”? No – vested interests pushed things in this direction. So was it Uber’s fault? Not directly, but are they fuelling it and pushing it to new heights? Yes they are. This is the core business of the tech industry: manipulate and coerce.

Our expectations around “what’s normal and expected for a good life” and “what I am entitled to as a person” have changed, and they tend to revolve around consuming a lot of goods and services. The future has been mortgaged against the present for the benefit of company shareholders, and rampant consumerism is the outcome. I don’t judge anyone whose response to this world is to simply enjoy themselves with whatever’s legal, but I do hold the cynical business practices of companies like Uber responsible for our race-to-the-bottom consumer culture. This isn’t ethical business behaviour.

So, what to do about? My perspective is clear – educate, inform and seek change. Interrogate the commercial interests that drive our culture. Pedestal and platform the ventures and initiatives that are doing better. Use ethical data.

If you feel the same, and you have the skills, it might be time to become an ethical marketer.

And that’s a wrap on the series! Thanks for reading! Keen to read more? We have some excellent content primed and ready – click here to explore…

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