Sunday, September 01, 2013

Should Advertising Be A Force For Good?

Advertising was once considered so unethical, a famous ad-man entitled his autobiography: 'Don't Tell My Mother I Work In Advertising, She Thinks I Play Piano In A Brothel.'

But that could be changing.

Not because advertising or the people within it have changed. We're still the same (creative businesspeople) and our job is still the same (help clients with their communications needs). 

But our clients are changing.

Last week I was writing about how every brand should have a 'purpose', and today it seems many companies are concluding that this purpose should not just be any old purpose but actually 'a higher purpose.'

Again, I don't think companies have suddenly become more moral just for fun. But they've realised that their consumers want them to be.

I went to a presentation on this theme a couple of weeks ago, it was given by Craig Davis, former ECD of Publicis Mojo in Sydney, who is now a speaker and consultant on 'conscious capitalism'. You can see his talk here. I'll probably mess this up, but the idea is along the lines of how every company should be striving to do more than just generate profit. Every company should operate ethically, truthfully, empathetically. A company should genuinely care about its employees, and its customers, and should be actively trying to make the world a better place. 

A great example is TOMS shoes. For every pair of shoes they sell, the company donates a new pair of shoes to a child in the developing world.

But where Craig gets really clever is with an assertion (backed up with data) that the stock prices of companies operating 'conscious capitalism' are outperforming their peers. Presumably because members of the public prefer to buy goods from companies that have a higher purpose over companies that don't.

And that affects us.

Increasingly, as our clients put ethics at the heart of what they do, our work will no longer be about selling products, but about communicating values.

Amir Kassaei, DDB’s global chief creative officer, put it pretty well at Cannes:

"We can’t get away with it any more," he said. "We can’t go on selling bullshit products and fooling people… it is time to start adding real value to people’s lives."

He's right, no?


Charles Edward Frith said...

He's right. But there's a good living to be made milking programmed conciousness for a while to go yet.

Anonymous said...

seems like it's just about awards and recognition to do a 'clever idea' for organisations that'll take anything for free. so then this idea will go in to the book and make a creative look good to get a pay rise and then work on brands like coca cola and mcdonalds. advertising doesn't really care. it likes to be seen to be caring. advertising is its best advertiser afterall.

Anonymous said...

It can be. But it shouldn't have to be. The purpose of advertising is to promote (and sell) products, not to save the world. As long as the business is ethical and the advertising isn't deceptive, it doesn't have to be a force for good.

I get the sense this attitude is partly a Bogusky-esque guilt felt collectively by veterans of the industry. Those mired in the seamier advertising past.

Anonymous said...

actually, we're pretty OK with advertisers trying to sell us stuff.

we get it: you need to sell, we need to buy, money must circulate etc...
what we also get is that you're doing it for profit. to earn money, to pay salaries, to make people keep their jobs, to feed kids, to pay for their best education possible.
Adam Smith put it best:
"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest."

just remember this: WE'RE FINE WITH THAT!

but if you really, really, really try to make a world a better place, stop treating us like we're morons. show some respect.
one ad at the time.

yours sincerely,
everyday customer

Anonymous said...

The money that once was in the business that made most ad people not give a fuck is gone. All of a sudden they got a conscience, so let's use it for good! Who are you kidding?

Daniel Muro said...

"The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made." - Groucho Marx.

Rings a bell?

I'm all about ethical business to thrive and take over not-so-ethical ones (I really like Method and a few well known "be nice" ones), but we are also in the business of choosing who we do advertising for.

Some years ago, a very talented (and very nice) friend of mine told me he would do work for any brand. Straightaway, I asked him if he would do ads for a weapons company. He's face was a poem.

Probably most of us have some internal deterrents (mine, for example, are tobacco and fur, among others), but the question that remains is if we blindly believe in our clients (ethical or not-so), or if we work in the acceptance of a reasonable doubt.

Some brands hire our skills to help them make dubious claims appealing and believable (healthy foods, anyone?), or to promote products that we don't really know if have been made as ethically as the brand tells through its PR spinners (fashion and sports brands, anyone?).

So, all in all, I think it is not that there's a lack of business with purposse. Lots of small or local producers have way more ethical means and attitudes - but less money to advertise- than big, wealthy, multinational brands.

If we aspire to do amazing ads for interesting brands, we also hope that they better really care for their products, customers, employees, quality controls, environmental policies, supply chain, etc. But we really don't know it all. Sometimes even they don't know. This, more than others, is a belief business.

Global world, global hipocrisy?

I don't want to seem too cynical about this though, as I try to work by Ogilvy's maxim: "you wouldn't lie to your wife; don't lie to mine". (he bought himself a castle, didn't he?)

Advertising is a powerful force, full of great, commited, bright people (and some cunning weasels). We make it work for good, or for bad, through our choices. Faced with an ethical dilemma, sometimes we choose to act and work/not work conciously, sometimes we choose not to let our conscience choose for us. Making a living is never easy.

Anonymous said...

If it's legal to sell, it's legal to advertise.

Anonymous said...

There was a programme on TV a few weeks ago about misleading labelling on food products. E.g. a carton of 'mango and passion fruit juice' contained less than 10% mango and less than 1% passion fruit! The ad industry has often been used as a convenient scapegoat for that kind of lie. However, the majority of creative people in advertising get as upset as everyone else about misrepresentation and immoral business practices.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the jist of the article, but Toms is a terrible example. The brand seems to be more about making Western consumers feel good than about solving real problems. After all, the million shoes were given away in countries that have a small local industry that will be crippled by Tom's shortsighted philanthropy. More details in this link:

Daniel Muro said...

@Anonymous 12:38. Agree with that, which I have heard Dave Trott sensibly and fairly say a few times. However, that's not always the case. Not in Spain, for example, where although high grade spirits are legal to sell, and nicely taxed (like cigarrettes), its advertising is banned on mass media. Not everything is so black and white.

Anonymous said...

Bill Bernbach said all there is to say when he talks about the "future uses" of advertising.

"I think advertising is a form of persuasion. It happens to be used by business, but it should be used in almost all other areas - where communication is important. We have developed a skill in persuasion which can form public opinion, and nothing is more important to the world today than the proper formulation of public opinion...why shouldn't we put our skills on persuading people and creating public opinion to work on behalf of causes that are important and that we believe in."

Matt & Dan said...

What's good and bad? Almost all companies fund something we could consider negative if we trace back enough.

Banks investing in arms manufacturers.

Fast food restaurants deforesting the Amazon.

Eggs causing the slaughter of countless male chicks.

Clothing made in sweatshops.

Charities paying six-figure salaries.

Every company has something in its closet. It's not advertising's responsibility to be 'good' or 'bad' or anything in between.

Advertising's purpose is to make money, just like all of the above. Good or bad, that's the purpose of the capitalist economy of which advertising is a part.