No matter what people think about advertising, everybody thinks about it. How can you not? Nearly everything we see, hear, touch or eat has a logo on it. Even our thoughts are branded. Advertising has been called an art form, a parasite, freedom of speech, propaganda, healthy capitalism, a necessary evil, and what makes the world go round.
The art of persuasion.
Many of the world’s most talented artists honed their crafts in advertising. When paying its last respects in 1982 to famous advertising guru, Bill Bernbach, Harper’s Magazine commented on his contribution to modern society, “William Bernbach has certainly had a greater impact on American culture that any other writer or artist honored by this magazine over the last 133 years.” Among his famous quotes are “The most powerful element in advertising is the truth” and “Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”
Advertising, indeed, may best be defined as the art of persuasion. Its purpose is specifically to move product and services, and influence one’s thinking.
In an economy driven two-thirds by consumer spending (CNN, 10/6/08) consumption is an objective, regardless of how it impacts the planet. Ads urge people to better define themselves and seek satisfaction in what they drive, who they wear, the candy they eat, the toys they play with, the phone they choose, the wrinkles they hide and the cigarettes they smoke. It tells us how to get our bathrooms cleaner than clean, our clothes brighter than white, and our furniture so shiny we can see ourselves.
Commercialized freedom of speech.
There are few legal restrictions on advertising claims, with the exception of advertising to children, which has fostered self-regulating organizations like the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) that evaluates child-directed advertising and promotional material in all media to advance truthfulness, accuracy and consistency. Burger King, McDonald’s and NBC have taken active measures to eliminate advertising that can be harmful to children, particularly in the area of junk food.
Ads can entertain us, upset us, embarrass us, or expose our children to things otherwise banned from daytime tv. A new barrage of pharma ads tell us how we can be happier, feel fresher, and have better sex with new drugs we should ask our doctors about. Watching messages that we may or may not like about male functions, female hygiene, insomnia and depression is the price we pay for media. If you asked the advertisers they might say they are making the world a better place, and maybe they are.
Advertising can’t control our perception of brands because we can get plenty of other opinions as fast as you can say, “google” or “read my blog.”
While we’re viewing ads, they’re viewing us.
Once a shot in the dark, the effectiveness of advertising has become easier to track and predict. The industry has lead to technological breakthroughs with the advent of bar codes, interactive engagement, and double sided electronic content that enables the media to read you as you read it. Advertisers know what you see and when, and what kind of attention span you have for various messages and content delivery systems.
The less obvious the advertising, in some ways, the more invasive. From product placement, sponsorship, endorsement and public relations, messages blend into the scenery like subliminal mind control.
The consolidation of advertising agencies in the last decade has resulted in four mega-conglomerates that each range in revenues somewhere between $5 to $10 billion a year (Omnicom, WPP, Interpublic and Publicis). It is projected that worldwide advertising expenditures for 2009 will exceed $700 billion (Robert Coen, July 2008) though figures tend to mirror the economy which is presently in turmoil.
Sustainability departments are sprouting up in ad agencies, and the growth of sustainability conferences are skyrocketing worldwide as brand managers weigh in the value of the environment as a marketing tool. With corporate transparency on the rise, this is leading to more responsible corporate practices. If the ethics of advertising reflects the ethics of the advertiser, which reflects the ethics of shareholders and consumers, then there may be good reason to feel optimistic if you have faith in human nature.
Advertising: a reflection of our society?
To look at ethics in advertising means looking at the ethics of the advertisers, and of our society as a whole. U.S. laws require publicly traded companies to act in the best fiduciary interest of its shareholders, not of society as a whole. Yet, corporations are finding that lack of environmental and social responsibility can become a financial liability that affects their valuation. Also, more and more businesses are finding that environmental stewardship can lead to higher profits through better practices, energy efficiency, reduced waste, less consumption of resources, employee loyalty and company morale.
Joel Makower is the founder of Green Biz, a leading online news and information resource on how to align environmental responsibility with business success. He shared his view on whether advertising can be ethical. “There is nothing inherently unethical about advertising. It’s when it pushes people to buy things they don’t really need, or that are destructive to the environment, communities, or the people who make them, that it becomes problematic. For example, claiming that something will help to save the earth. It’s too easy to play into people’s desire to change without changing, to shop our way to environmental health by picking brands and products that are just a little better than the others. At best, this is delusional, at worst, fraudulent.”
U.S. public cares, but not as much as you’d hope.
Focus groups reveal that people express concern for the planet, yet behavior patterns and purchasing decisions don’t reflect the level of commitment to the environment found in Europe.
‘Conscious consumers’ who do strive to align their belief systems with their purchasing habits are the least likely to believe in paid advertising, and they consume less. They are not necessarily the target market of big brands dependent on a “main stream” audience. These consumers get their information from editorial content, books, news, internet research, blogs, social networking, talking to friends, listening to gurus, editorials, and experts.
Media as a mechanism to change the world.
In 2003, the Sundance Institute and Social Venture Network members brought together media moguls, producers, writers, investors and celebrities to brainstorm about how conscious investments in ‘media that matters’ could change the world.
Anchorman and journalist Walter Cronkite was asked for his perspective about the potential of media to inform, engage and serve the public good. Excerpts of his answer include, “I don’t think there is any subject beyond the ability of the public to handle, including the environment.. it takes more imagination perhaps, and a little more initiation, and a little more time and space to tell the story.. With the media conglomerates today, there is a lot less responsibility to keep the public informed. The budget has been cut to the bone on all foreign news coverage.. We don’t get enough to understand the problems of the world.. and this is dangerous.. a bonfire in a country that we don’t understand can become a mushroom cloud.. Management has been inclined to cut down on news content in favor of advertising.. (media) I don’t pretend to understand the entertainment industry today but it is primarily a profit-making organization that produces what sells.. It takes an educated society to want to be more informed, to know more.. I would suggest we need to have the bedrock of an educated population.. ”
The Vatican weighs in.
Even the Vatican has an opinion on advertising (Vatican City, February 22, 1997, Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle.) “We believe advertising can, and often does, play a constructive role in economic growth, in the exchange of information and ideas, and in the fostering of solidarity among individuals and groups. Yet it also can do, and often does, grave harm to individuals and to the common good.”
The EthicMark® award.
Ethical Markets Media and the World Business Academy award an EthicMark® each year for advertising that ‘uplifts the human spirit & society.’ (see EthicMark®)
It is the brainchild of Hazel Henderson of Ethical Markets Media, which showcases best practices and the ethical, social and environmental performance of companies, investors, and entrepreneurs. Henderson, and the Calvert Group of socially responsible mutual funds, created the Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators – a broader measure of national progress – to complement GNP-GDP indices.
On October 1, 2008 at the SustainCommWorld “The Green Media Show,” the EthicMark® was awarded to Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection in recognition of their “Unlikely Alliances” advertising campaign, produced by the Martin Agency. Matt Williams, who accepted the award for the agency, stated his opinion on whether advertising can be ethical, “It has to be.”
The Institute for Sustainable Communication (ISC) is a sponsoring organization of SustainCommWorld and focuses on reducing the environmental impact of the media industry. ISC fellow Don Carli shared his view. “By its very nature, advertising calls into play a great deal of energy, materials and human effort. It’s possible that one aspect can be ethical regardless of another. For instance it can be carbon neutral.”
Green Media Show founder Lisa Wellman concludes, “Advertising can educate and inform and can be a powerful driver for positive action – or not. Those in the business of creating and delivering advertising messages take on some responsibility for all this. But so does the audience. The public has the obligation to make critical judgments, to evaluate what they’re hearing and seeing and to make choices. They vote every day with their wallets.”
Maybe advertising is on the up and up.
The Emmy award-winning Mad Men depicts the dark side of advertising as a cut-throat business of hard drinking, chain-smoking, wife-cheating, money-hungry executives in the fast lane. Real advertising veterans have fond memories of those days gone, and lament that it’s just no fun anymore.
There is a growing sincerity for doing the right thing by Mother Nature, despite an onslaught of green-washing. Now we have the Marlboro men on oxygen tanks and breathing tubes telling kids not to smoke. We have cars that don’t go from 0 to 60 in under 3 seconds, and are proud of it because they save gas.
The good news is that brands are competing for the hearts of the public by being more passionate about our future. Responsible products are growing in leaps in bounds, GE really is bringing good things to life, BP are others are going beyond petroleum, and someday soon maybe toxic all-purpose spray cleaners and such will be banned from advertising the way they banned cigarette. Until then, we’ll read the labels warning us to keep them out of reach of children and pets because they’re harmful if swallowed and cause eye irritation, even though the ads recommend known carcinogens for cleaning the playroom and the kitchen counter.
Can advertising be ethical? We are what we buy.
Martha Shaw, the author, is the founder and principal of Earth Advertising and its production studio eFlicks Media, promoting the growth of sustainable business through PR, Advertising, Promotion, Social Networking, Field Marketing, eFlicks, and eGames. She is the recipient of Radio Mercury Award, Best of Show New England Broadcast Award, Los Angeles Belding Awards, New York One Show, New York Art Directors Award and Adweek Creative All-Star.