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Bill McDonough, EVP, Worldwide Account Director, Foote, Cone & Belding
March 7, 2001 from 3:00 - 4:00 p.m. Eastern

<bmcdonough> let me start by saying that ethics in advertising is not an oxymoron. The people who work in this business are very concerned about making sure that what we do is truthful, non-deceptive and ethical
<bmcdonough> any takers to my assertion
<bmcdonough> we have our own values to live up to
<bmcdonough> we have our own legal counsel to work with
<aboyle> What types of activities are practitioners engaging in to ensure ethics?
<bmcdonough> well, see the above two points and I'll continue
<bmcdonough> we also have a great number of legal precedents that are drawn from a collection of exceptions
<bmcdonough> by exceptions I mean that there have been problems and they have been aggressively pursued
<aboyle> Can you elaborate on these?
<bmcdonough> we have our own self regulatory mechanism
<bmcdonough> we have the courts
<bmcdonough> we have our own legal requirements
<aboyle> Are you referring to the NARB?
<bmcdonough> yes, the NARB and the children's unit of the NARB
<bmcdonough> Bob Ptofshy at the FTC always cites this a great example of self regulation
<bmcdonough> He was the Chairman until the new administration
<bmcdonough> we also have states attorney generals
<bmcdonough> they have become relentless in their pursuit of what I will call the exception
<jane_kirtley> But you're talking about legal enforcement. Law and ethics aren't necessarily synonymous.
<bmcdonough> often the exception is not anyone's premeditated fault
<bmcdonough> that's right
<bmcdonough> the ethic is about what is our motivation
<bmcdonough> we are motivated to sell in a truthful and non-deceptive way to legally market products
<aboyle> I agree that law and ethics are not synonymous. I'm writing a paper on advertising ethics (I'm a MA student at U of MD) and have not been able to find much about advertisers' views on the subject of ethics.
<bmcdonough> lets get right to it
<bmcdonough> are cigarettes ethical to advertise?
<bmcdonough> I say yes
<bmcdonough> it is legal to sell to 18+ year olds - right
<bmcdonough> if we agree to that fact, then it is ethical to advertise
<aboyle> Why do you say cigarettes are ethical to advertise - because the law says they are legal products? Doesn't this again blur the line between law and ethics?
<bmcdonough> I would be happy if it were not ethical to sell cigs
<bmcdonough> but they are
<jane_kirtley> I disagree. Just because you have the legal right to do something doesn't mean it is the right thing to do.
<bmcdonough> fair enough, but I agree that any legal to market product should be able to truthfully and non-deceptively be advertised
<bmcdonough> this difference of opinion is why ethics is so interesting a topic
<aboyle> Many academic critics of advertising say that advertisers have no greater social purpose. I don't necessarily agree with this, but am interested in your views.
<Jane_kirtley> I thought the discussion was about ethics, though. If ethics and law are the same, then you are allowing the courts to decide what is the right thing to do.
<bmcdonough> advertising is a commercial function
<bmcdonough> it can have some greater purpose, but its job is to sell
<aboyle> So, should advertisers only answer to the market and courts? If it can have a greater purpose, what would that be?
<bmcdonough> no the courts are only that; one of the arbiters of what people think is ethically right
<bmcdonough> we have our own standards as well--it's called the little voice inside of us
<bmcdonough> we know the difference between right and wrong and the people that I work with are very concerned about that difference
<Jane_kirtley> As an educator, how do I inculcate that "little voice" in my students? What are the issues young people in advertising don't 'see'?
<bmcdonough> advertisers answer to each other daily
<aboyle> One of the problems I've found for the industry is that the little voices aren't talking to each other often enough.
<bmcdonough> we have lots of discussions about the intent of the advertising and whether the ads fulfill or not.
<bmcdonough> we also make sure that we are doing it in a truthful and non deceptive way
<bmcdonough> you see, this standard of truthfulness is the all important starting point.
<bmcdonough> we also don't want to deceive
<bmcdonough> there is no gain to it
<bmcdonough> Volvo unwittingly deceived their consumers
<bmcdonough> they did a commercial that showed how strong and safe their cars were and rigged the cars to make the point
<bmcdonough> they rigged the cars to save money. a silly reason given the fallout of that event
<bmcdonough> the agency lost the business
<bmcdonough> BIG MISTAKE!!!
<aboyle> How much of the blame for such an action should be placed on the agency vs. the client? That is, how much does the client know?
<bmcdonough> the brand lost its trust with its consumers and they lost sales
<bmcdonough> there is no virtue in not being ethical
<bmcdonough> you lose on every front
<bmcdonough> there was nothing legal about any of that
<bmcdonough> everybody lost and it was, I believe, an innocent mistake
<aboyle> How was that innocent?
<bmcdonough> there is another great story about the agency that put marbles in the soup
<bmcdonough> if they hadn't, it would have been tomato soup, not vegetable soup
<bmcdonough> so they put marbles in the soup to make you realize there were vegetables there
<bmcdonough> the issue of intentions became the great issue
<bmcdonough> I've talked to the now deceased account guy on that photo shoot
<bmcdonough> he said that he'd do it again because he was trying to truthfully and nondeceptively tell the product and brand story
<bmcdonough> there are other cases where people in our business need to know that prior substantiation is necessary
<bmcdonough> most lay people don't know this
<bmcdonough> we HAVE TO KNOW BEFORE WE ADVERTISE that the facts we present are proven as true
<bmcdonough> that is a terrific ethical standard
<aboyle> How was that standard set?
<bmcdonough> the standard was a court case
<bmcdonough> we call it the Pfizer.
<bmcdonough> by the way, did you know that political advertising doesn't have the same standard?
<bmcdonough> they don't need to have prior substantiation for saying that Bob Dole will raise taxes
<bmcdonough> absolutely amazing
<aboyle> No, I didn't know that, but thanks for the reminder. I presume that we are talking about commercial advertising here - not political or social issues advertising?
<Jane_kirtley> There were attempts to enact "truth in political advertising" statutes in several states a few years ago, however.
<bmcdonough> it gets held up and tarred with the same brush
<bmcdonough> I also think that some of the best advertising that shows our ethical concern is seen in the public service work we do
<bmcdonough> most of this is done for free
<aboyle> This is true, but the criticisms of advertising most often point to commercial advertising - I think this hurts advertising considering the same techniques are used to promote "socially desirable" products and behaviors.
<bmcdonough>I don't follow
<aboyle> Well, critics often ignore the public service work and other efforts tied to social advertising. When they criticize, they use the term advertising to refer to commercial advertising and largely ignore these other facets.
<bmcdonough> advertising is selling--selling anything
<bmcdonough> selling candidates, giving blood or cigarettes
<bmcdonough> It's hardly ethical for critics to be selective
<bmcdonough> but you are right
<aboyle> I agree. I'm just pointing out a weakness in the criticisms.
<bmcdonough> they will single out the exceptions and not point out all of the great work that people talk about
<bmcdonough> and as an advertising person, I hear a lot about advertising that people like
<aboyle> What are some of these things?
<bmcdonough> sorry, what things
<aboyle> The things people like about advertising.
<bmcdonough> they like the way they become a part of our everyday vernacular
<aboyle> Such as slogans, etc.?
<bmcdonough> like the current Budweiser ads w. "Whassup."
<bmcdonough> sure, slogans
<bmcdonough> I love the selling line for Apple
<bmcdonough> the computer for the rest of us (c.1984)
<bmcdonough> Hallmark, when you care enough to send the very best
<aboyle> Many social critics - especially in the area of gender studies - point to this very phenomenon of infusion into the culture as harmful considering some of the messages our young people see.
<bmcdonough> think of what my teenagers and pre-teenagers see outside of advertising
<bmcdonough> advertising is tame
<bmcdonough> very tame
<bmcdonough> the rest of it isn't guided by the same standards or values that we are
<bmcdonough> the social commentators are sitting on the sidelines
<aboyle> Does that make it right to expose children to sexually explicit material or girls to relentless images of heroin chic models?
<bmcdonough> advertising is easy to criticize--try doing it with all of the various issues that we need to consider
<bmcdonough>I suspect it's fair it, but it may not be "right"
<bmcdonough> but it is what young people are looking for
<bmcdonough> advertising follows, it doesn't lead.
<aboyle> I agree that the social commentators are sitting on the sidelines, but too few advertisers are talking to the public about this. I'm interested to know how the products of discussions among advertisers about ethics get to the public? I think what you are doing here today is extremely admirable, but too few of your peers seem to be doing the same. I've found very little literature from a professional standpoint and meetings/conferences often exclude people
<bmcdonough> well, the AEF sure is trying
<bmcdonough> and we try through other forums
<bmcdonough> but the virtuous side is not nearly as interesting as the exceptional case
<aboyle> This is very true.
<bmcdonough> the same as other areas that get covered
<bmcdonough> I'll say this
<bmcdonough> I like to defend advertising for its ethic
<bmcdonough> I think our case is very strong
<Jane_kirtley> What values should we as educators be inculcating in students? What don't they "get" concerning ethics as they go into advertising?
<bmcdonough> we work hard at it
<bmcdonough> that this is a job that challenges you daily to make tough calls that put your own scruples to the test
<bmcdonough> its exciting to have to deal with so many situations that are "judgment calls"
<bmcdonough> this is certainly part of what we get paid for
<aboyle> Any suggestions for other forums where I might find some more practitioners' views on the subject? I think Jane's questions speaks to this - while AEF's efforts are certainly pointing us in the right direction, there certainly isn't a coherent, standardized method of teaching future advertisers. As such, ethics are often overlooked in education.
<bmcdonough> young people should know that there are a lot of things that go into the judgment about the preparation of advertising
<bmcdonough> that's why the AEF sends ambassadors to campuses
<bmcdonough> when I go I've done community forums
<bmcdonough> and college course presentations
<bmcdonough> we try to reach as many as we can
<bmcdonough>I have a talk I give called the deceptive power of advertising
<bmcdonough> it is deceptive because it makes the case for how ads are the engine to our economy
<bmcdonough> think of the innovation that noone would know about w/o ads
<bmcdonough> is that ethical for all that creativity to go unnoticed?
<bmcdonough> w/o us, nnone would know
<aboyle> No, advertising certainly plays an important information function in society.
<bmcdonough> but it is the information we choose to give!
<bmcdonough> it is not perfect information
<bmcdonough> we live in a market of "buyer beware"
<bmcdonough> consumers have a responsibility too
<bmcdonough> this is not one sided
<bmcdonough> I've lectured this point to my children's 4th grade classes
<bmcdonough> (when they were in 4th grade)
<aboyle> Unfortunately - and this is not advertising's "fault" - many consumers are apathetic and are not engaged. Should advertisers take this into account or is the responsibility back on society in general to better educate consumer-citizens?
<bmcdonough> some old FTC guys wanted advertising to use complete information
<bmcdonough> it can't be done
<bmcdonough> we only have :30
<aboyle> But it would be tediously boring...
<bmcdonough> we have to work very hard to find the most compelling thing to say
<bmcdonough> very boring and that would be the end of that agency
<bmcdonough> in the best sense, we are driven to get advertising that is talked about
<bmcdonough> talked about for the right reason
<bmcdonough> think about Federal Express, people loved that old advertising
<bmcdonough> or countless other campaigns
<bmcdonough> do you remember the old MasterLock commercial
<bmcdonough> the bullet goes through it and it stays locked
<aboyle> The need for this drive, as I understand it, is to get through the clutter. Because advertising is so pervasive and arguably influential on social development, what social responsibility do advertisers have to present "moral" messages?
<bmcdonough> How does that promote the NRA message?
<bmcdonough> is that ethical
<bmcdonough> some anti gun people would be outraged by that spot
<aboyle> I'm not familiar with that ad.
<bmcdonough> I'm anti NRA and I think that is a great spot
<bmcdonough> it ran once a year on the super bowl
<bmcdonough> that's it
<bmcdonough> one time a year
<bmcdonough> they have not run it for the past two to three years
<bmcdonough> the super bowl has gotten too expensive
<bmcdonough> my hands are getting tired
<bmcdonough> any more questions? This is fun
<Jane_kirtley> Thank you.
<bmcdonough> you're welcome
<aboyle> Thank you very much for taking the time to do this - I hope more practitioners do the same - it will go a long way to stifle the criticisms.
<bmcdonough> I agree and we're trying
<moderator> If you have any further comments about ethics that you would like to share, you can post them to the aef.com Bulletin Boards.
<aboyle> Thanks Bill - this has been very helpful. Any advice for a confused master's student about what to do while entering the field?
<bmcdonough> come in showing an amazing passion for advertising
<bmcdonough> what you think are behind the ads
<bmcdonough> write all of the agencies
<bmcdonough> we are always looking for good people
<bmcdonough> many offer summer internships
<aboyle> Thanks again.
<moderator> Thanks for joining us. Please check back for further discussions

 

 

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