Responsible desire – creating more ethical advertising
“Business has become the most powerful institution on the planet. The dominant institution in any society needs to take responsibility for the whole.”
William Willis Harmon, Co-Founder of the World Business Academy
Ethics and the idea of ethical advertising have recently become an extremely hot topic in the advertising industry. The whole issue has captured peoples’ attention both for personal (doing some good for our consciences) and professional reasons (doing some good for our bottom line as well as our Clients’). However, there are a wide variety of interpretations of what this means and how committed individual people are to the idea.
This paper is intended to help you explore a more ethical approach to advertising by providing a better explanation of the subject.
What the hell does ethical mean?
One of the key issues here is that ethical is such a subjective term – what is ethical to one person may not be to another. Moreover the concept of what is ethical is not fixed in stone – for example it used to be thought ethical to advertise cigarettes but not condoms however, these days the position has completely reversed.
The reality is that ethical is not an absolute term and the word ethics, strictly speaking, merely means the moral code by which someone decides right from wrong and is therefore highly personal.
That said, the term ethical has acquired a very specific meaning over the recent past. When we use the word ethical we mean an activity that doesn’t do harm. For example the term ethical investment fund implies that money will not be invested in companies that cause harm to people, animals or the environment.
In a sense then ethics really boils down to respect. Ethical people, ethical companies and ethical activities show respect for the world around them and are aware of the consequences of their actions upon others. Contrast the respective reputations of both Esso and BP both of which are engaged in the same industry. Esso is currently subject to a global consumer boycott because its denial of climate change is seen to show enormous disrespect to the environment and the people of earth. BP on the other hand is seen as more ethical because they show increasing respect for the world beyond the boardroom table and the oilrig.
What should we respect?
Clearly the concept of ethics becomes a little unmanageable if you are watching out for ‘all things bright and beautiful’. Fortunately there is now a really easy way of understanding what you need to respect in order to be more ethical.
This is the idea of the triple bottom line.
Traditionally the business world has operated with one bottom line – the profitability and financial sustainability of the company. However, the concept of a triple bottom line suggests that this is an oversimplification since the sustainability of a business depends on more than profitability alone.
The three components for a company’s triple bottom line are:
1 Profitability – respect for a business’ effect on the economy
2 Social responsibility – respect for a business’ effect on society
3 Environmental responsibility – respect for a business’ effect on the environement
In other words, for a business to be sustainable it needs to generate a profit, not harm society and not degrade the ‘natural’ capital (the earth’s resources) that it requires to function.
What the hell has all this got to do with advertising?
Because advertising is guilty of a lack of respect.
The advertising industry has rarely looked beyond the immediate success of its work and the profitability of individual agencies. It has tended to operate in a vacuum with its only responsibility being to the Client’s marketing objectives.
Sustainability, either of the advertising industry or its Client’s businesses has also rarely featured in the consciousness of agencies. Selling today is of paramount importance not respecting people or the environment so that you can also sell tomorrow and the day after that. For all the rhetoric about building long-term brands advertising is riddled with short termism.
In short advertising has lacked respect for the wider world. And people in the advertising industry have traditionally seen it as ethically neutral. Witness the way advertising people used to justify the continued advertising of tobacco in the face of overwhelming opposition. The argument went that it wasn’t for the advertising industry to decide what was right or wrong, that was the job of governments. As long as tobacco was a legal product, people in the industry argued, we should be allowed to advertise with impunity regardless of the harm it was doing to people.
And there is the small issue of sanctioning strategies and creative ideas that manipulate consumer desire by making people deliberately dissatisfied with what they have and with their lives. Think, for instance, about the way insurance companies scare the living daylights out of people in order to sell them a policy or the way that the relentless advertising of expensive trainer brands to children has helped fuel the increase in playground bullying.
Its not that advertising people are bad people hell bent on making the world a worse place but that we don’t take responsibility for our actions and we don’t respect anything but our client’s immediate business success and our financial bottom line.
So what?
Well for starters there is your own sense of self worth. In a recent Gallup poll advertising was ranked 43rd out of 45 professions based on ethics and honesty. While for many of us advertising is a stimulating and rewarding way to make a living, it is also increasingly criticised. At best people think our work is entertaining if trivial at worst many despise what we do and to a certain extent we only have ourselves to blame. Is it any wonder people think you and I lack integrity and honesty when we have treated these values with so little respect?
The bizarre thing is that it would be hard to find a group of people anywhere in Britain that are as bright, creative and and well intentioned than the people you tend to meet in the ad industry. If for no other reason than personal pride you should engage in the debate on ethics in advertising.
It is time that we all recognise the powerful influence we have both intentionally and accidentally on our economy, society and environment and behave in a more responsible manner. At one level we need to ensure that our work never does harm by respecting the unintentional consequences of our actions. At another we need to start to harness that power to do some good – not only to make our clients more profitable but to make our society happier and more cohesive and our environment healthier and more sustainable.
Isn’t this the longest suicide note in advertising?
The idea of ethics in business is not a flight of fancy. It is all part of a powerful new agenda with in the business community and a topic of constant discussion around the boardroom table. Whether its called corporate social responsibility or business ethics there is a sea change happening in the way that businesses regard their roles with in society. As Sir John Brown, CEO of BP maintained “these days businesses have to be a positive force for good” and this from an oil man!
For instance the FTSE4good monitors the performance of companies that comply with a series of ethical benchmarks that precisely match the elements of the triple bottom line. The very existence of the FTSE4good is proof of just how seriously business is taking the issue. Not least because they have to as by law all pension funds now have to disclose whether they are taking in to account environmental and social issues. And these days many fund managers threaten to vote down the annual accounts of any FTSE 100 company that does not include an environmental report.
The long and short is that while it may not have reached the marketing department yet but all of the issues that we have raised here are being discussed within Clients organisations.
Increasingly business believes that good is good.
What is the answer?
There is a future in which more ethical advertising builds brands that behave more ethically and I call this the creation of responsible desire.
Responsible desire is the idea that though we are still in the business of creating powerful desire for our client’s brands we have to start doing this responsibly. If for no other reason this is because we want to go back to people and create the same desire year after year without hindrance either from regulation or consumer rejection.
Responsible desire is a new way that we think about the way advertising works and a way of developing challenging and engaging strategies and creative work. Above all responsible desire is about better work and more successful clients.
Applying responsible desire to your work
There seems to be a general interest in making advertising and marketing more responsible but when it comes down to creating work few people seem clear on what is expected of them.
There are two ways to approach responsible desire.
1) Not doing harm
At a basic level creating responsible desire is about being aware of the unintentional consequences of the advertising you are creating.
Is there anything about ads, the idea, their casting, the dialogue or even the media plan for instance that is likely to show a lack of respect to people who will see it? For instance every time that an ad is played out that suggests that the average Briton is white, all men are incompetent and all women are interested in the quality of their wash we do harm.
Its important to understand that this is not about creating bland advertising that is uncontroversial or is overflowing with lowest common denominator political correctness. Responsible advertising can be controversial especially when it is exposing the lazy conventions of the rest of our industry and the many advertising and marketing conventions that people never question.
The easiest way to approach responsible desire is simply to be aware of the unintended consequences of the ad you are making and doing something to prevent this. The majority of advertising that does harm does so out of laziness not intent.
2) Doing good
The second approach is a little more fundamental. It involves harnessing the power that brands and advertising has to do some good.
This is a far more challenging area because its about how the client presents their product or service to the world and requires the client to be far more engaged in the concept of responsible desire.
Let’s take strategies first. Here responsible desire is about creating and manipulating brands so that their appeal is wholly or in part because of the ‘good’ that they do or the respect that they show the world around them.
Of course some client relationships don’t always allow for such fundamental influence on the brand strategy but they usually allows us to create work that exhibits responsible desire.
For instance, at hhcl we have always rejected the sort of advertising that promises a Client’s products will give its customers a better and more fulfilling life – so called image advertising.
When it comes to developing creative work responsible desire can be about ensuring that you aren’t using dishonest or misleading techniques to sell the brand in question. It is clumsy manipulation that most increases consumer cynicism towards the work we do.
The historic hhcl advertising for Egg for instance challenged the cynicism consumers have about financial services advertising by overtly attacking the techniques that these brands use to communicate with customers. We exposed the claims and stereotypes that they use to peddle their wares in ads like token black man (which won a Council for Racial Equality Award for its troubles).
Responsible desire can also be more directly concerned with society and the environment, using these as central to the creative idea.
In the past hhcl’s work for Fuji used the opportunity that photography presents to challenge stereotypes and preconceptions. While our work for Homepride cook in sauces dramatised the authenticity of the product by using ethnically diverse British families.
Both were engaged in fostering greater cohesion in our society by representing its diversity and the need to accept difference.
What about greenwash?
Greenwash is the essentially ethical spin. It is where companies present themselves as ethical without any, or at least a commensurate, change in their behaviour. It is vitally important that you avoid greenwashing clients and so like all advertising it is our responsibility to ensure that any strategy, creative idea or execution is credible.
So should you just handle ethical clients?
It is the responsibility of all businesses to address the ills on their doorsteps, to look at their sectors and clean up the harm that they do. The concept of responsible desire is an attempt by an advertising and marketing communications agency to reform advertising and marketing. It is not an attempt to reform business as a whole and it is not our responsibility to try and do this.
Of course I believe that businesses that build more ethical brands using more ethical means will be the long term winners and people in our industry should want to be a part of the success of any organisation that is engaging with this process. More than that responsible desire is about elevating the debate on ethics beyond one of risk management towards one of demand generation because brands that do good should use this as way of building business – after all trust is the bedrock of all brands.

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