Advertising’s moral responsibility


Advertising and ethics have never been close bedfellows in the popular imagination. When I entered the industry it was characterised by a culture derived from the bar (not the agency one the legal one) – that all businesses deserved representation as long as their product was legal.

This may sound perfectly sensible to you but it has always left me cold, it is after all the sort of moral degeneracy that led to the ad industry causing countless deaths flogging cigarettes decades after the harm they caused was well understood.

So, many of us that followed this generation that was happy to sell their grandmother to make a fast buck, created personal moral codes. Mine always involved refusing to have anything to do with tobacco and declining to work in any company that dabbled in it – fortunately most good agencies had anti-tobacco policies in place by then.

But I also believe that advertising has some more universal moral responsibilities. Moral responsibilities that go beyond adherence to the law and delivering a return to our clients.

A recent debate amongst our planning department about how brands engage with the LGBT community stirred something in side me – a moral responsibility I hold very dear. When it comes to ethnicity, gender, sexuality or disability advertising has a responsibility to embrace and represent all of society and make work that doesn’t consciously or unconsciously alienate any of it. This is informed by two fundamental values – a belief in social progress and a belief that because of its power and ubiquity no advertising is socially or culturally neutral.

Making advertising more representative of the society it serves tends to follow two clear stages. The first is to actively break taboos that hold society back and in which the inclusion of people that are different to the norm is to make a point. The second is about normalising those groups as an unremarkable part of contemporary life. When a brand shows a gay or lesbian couple getting married it is usually doing the former, calling out that it supports the LGBT community and making a point about society, itself and by inference the competition. When a brand creates an ad in which the couple portrayed talking about insurance or washing up liquid happens to be same sex, that’s normalising. You can always spot the difference because if the gag doesn’t make sense if the couple aren’t gay you are still in the taboo breaking stage.

Guinness breaking Taboos with AMV.BBDO

J C Penny normalising (I think)


So how are we doing in the UK business?

The sad fact of the matter is that very little of the work made by the industry attempts any of this, content to peddle a sterile and comfortable view of Britain that UKIP seems to pine for. This is issue both about the creation of the work and then its casting, in which the subconscious default is always to portray our society as male, pale and stale or populated by housewives with kids (which is still, I kid you not, a media buying audience in the UK).

And when brands do engage with subjects like race and ethnicity, gender roles, sexuality and disability the vast majority are doing this to make a point rather than making it part of their marketing bread and butter. Good in many ways but rather immature when 11% people in the UK are non-white (rising to 40% in London), 6% are LGBT, over half the population are women and we have just held the most successful Paralympics in history.

For the sake of our society, culture and the health of our brands we must do better day by day and campaign by campaign to honour this moral responsibility to break cultural taboos and embrace all of the people we seek to serve and to represent.

Image courtesy of Never//Bored



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8 Replies to “Advertising’s moral responsibility”

  1. Advertising is a process, and those involved in advertising are merely cultural intermediaries.
    Yes, advertising contributes to culture and society. It is part of the background noise that generates public discourse, challenging or supporting the status quo for business and institutions. But it cannot have morals.
    Only people can have morals and by extension make judgements on moral responsibility. The difficulty here is that morals are a personal choice, a subjective thing. There is no universally accepted definition of good or bad morals.
    We see on a daily basis the suffering and strife caused by individuals and groups trying to impose their set of morals onto others whilst claiming justification from a higher authority.
    What gives one person or group the right to claim moral superiority over others?
    As an individual your own moral code can, and will, determine the direction and content of work you produce or choose to work on. That is your right as a human being. However, from a group, institutional or cultural perspective a moral code is nothing more than an attempted means of control.
    Actions can never be objectively judged as good or bad. Suggestions of morality to be coded into advertising are therefore nonsensical. Brands only choose to engage with defined groups on the basis of commercial self interest. Why else advertise? On this basis it makes sense to work within a sensitive brand narrative, but do not talk of morals. No matter how subconscious or unintentional, overt attempts at setting a moral code run the risk of sanctimonious posturing and dealing in humbug.

  2. You are what you advertise.
    Everything we do has a moral dimension.
    What ever we say and do makes a statement about who we are and what we believe.
    If we fill the world with delicious images that make people ill, then we must shoulder some responsibility.
    We cannot hide behind moral relativism.
    What we can do is make choices.
    And work for those who we believe make a positive difference in people’s lives.

  3. Great post, Richard.

    Good advertising has always been a catalyst for inflection points in popular culture. I agree that advertising should think of inclusivity, diversity and the society at large.

    But, good advertising should always be a fair representation of the inherent truth of how a brand understands its customers. Advertising with morals cannot save a brand and/or the parent firm do not have a moral responsibility.

    It was widely reported that JC Penny’s sales dropped in double digit after this ad. Its customer base did not take kindly to the ‘two dads’ advertising( was one of the reasons why CEO Ron Johnson, who stood for the right thing, had to leave.

    Was it Bernbach who said “Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising” ? In today’s world, Advertising will only hasten the death of the brand if its customers and the organisation do not have the same moral reference point.

    It is important that the moral revolution starts at the client’s offices.

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