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The Taste Debate
Making a Case for Decency in Advertising

"De gustibus non est disputandum" is a phrase I know you remember from high school Latin. And shame on you if you don't. According to experts who worry about such things, it is one of 265 proverbs every American needs to know. It means taste is something we can't argue about. Because taste is a personal thing, very much a matter of individual choice.

I agree that taste is a choice and I defend the right of anyone to say anything and show anything. Yet I am embarrassed by the gratuitous sex and gross potty humor found in a lot of advertising today.

Others are bothered as well. Last year, Kirk Carr, the Advertising Services Director at The Wall Street Journal, asked the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) and other industry associations to join with him in drafting "a more specific statement about the kinds of things that cross the line of decency and taste."

I agreed with the industry's response that such a plan was unfeasible. We either choose to be decent, or we choose not to be. But, I also agreed with Kirk Carr's response to the industry's decision. He said, "The fact that constructive measures are not easily crafted and that universal agreement is not likely to emerge doesn't relieve the leaders of our community from the responsibility of tackling this difficult issue."

Carr is right. As leaders of our professional community, we are solidly on the hook for taste and decency. This means it is up to us to let our people know how we interpret the AAAA's creative code - the one we all signed off on. The one that reads in part: "...we will not knowingly create advertising that contains...statements, suggestions or pictures offensive to public decency..."

It is also up to us to stop sending a different message to the creative people who make the ads in question. Too often, by the ads we honor, we send a message to aspiring creative stars that is disturbingly clear: "The more rude and shocking you can be, the more successful you'll be in advertising."

Whether the ads we create are in good or bad taste, whether they are decent or indecent, is a choice each of us has to make. We can't cop out by saying that, compared to what goes on in prime-time television, or in the movies or in the pages of our magazines, we in advertising still look pretty good.

Nor is it relevant to use marketplace success as a criterion. Sex sells, said the CEO of a AAAA's agency client. So it does. And so does pornography - so far the Internet's only commercial success. Anger and violence sell, too. Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP in which he bashes gays and lesbians, binds people up with duct tape and finishes them off with a chain saw, sold more than 8 million copies.

Sales have nothing to do with taste and decency. You can succeed with vulgar advertising, or with tasteful advertising.

If we choose the latter, we ought to at least ask these questions when presented with a questionable creative concept.

First of all, what is the real intent? What are the ad's creators really trying to do? Shock? Win an award? Create controversy? See what they can get away with? Or are they honestly trying to sell a product or build a brand?

Next question: Is the content relevant? Does the questionable content have anything to do with the product? Breasts are important if you're selling sports bras. They are not important to the sale of beer.

Where and when will the message appear? This is the question of context. An ad running in Maxim is subject to different guidelines than an ad running in Teen People.

How "artfully" is the questionable material presented? When someone tells me a dirty joke that's not funny, I feel embarrassed and kind of dirty myself - even embarrassed for the teller. But if the same words are used in a joke that is superbly constructed and brilliantly told, I feel quite different - even appreciative.

The last question has to do with personal pride: Would I be proud to have my name associated with this ad or campaign? Would my teen-aged daughter be proud of me for doing it? Would I be proud to tell her I did it?

In addition to the questions we ask of our work, I would ask for a little help from jurors. Members of award juries must realize that, by their decisions, they set our industry's standard for creative excellence. They must understand the message they send to our young creative people when they give the highest honors to the lowest appeals.

We need help, too, from the journalists who cover our business. We need their clear-eyed critiques when we stumble into the gutter - even if we don't agree.

"De gustibus non est disputandum." About taste we cannot argue. But as Bill Bernbach said, "All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level."

The choice is ours to make.


Keith Reinhard, Agency. Fall 2001

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