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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