Note: The following speech was written by Chris Moore
of Ogilvy & Mather to help liven up what can be a bland topic. While
it has been edited by the AEF and contains basic information about topics
we have found to be of interest to students, you will want to use your
own words and examples where possible.
I'm here to talk about ethics in advertising.
No, this isn't going to be "The shortest lecture ever given."
People in advertising spend a lot of their time dealing with ethical choices,
and those choices are almost never black and white. They're subtle, shades-of-gray
choices, juicy enough for a Philosophy major.
Let's start with the truth. Telling the truth seems like a pretty basic
ethical standard. The world's best example of truth in advertising may
be a tiny "Help Wanted" ad that appeared in the London papers
"Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages,
bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe
return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success. Ernest Shackleton."
Englishmen being what they are, the ad drew an overwhelming response.
And Shackleton's Polar expedition turned out to be far, far worse than
his bleak copy promised - a rare case of an advertisement over-delivering
on its claims.
Now let's look at a more subtle shade of truth in this infamous Volvo
commercial. In a real-life monster truck show, the Volvo was the only
car left uncrushed - a great idea for a commercial! But to make the ad,
the film company needed to shoot several takes. So they reinforced the
beams inside the car to stand repeated squashing. When this came out in
the press, Volvo was pilloried and their ad agency got fired, ultimately
going out of business. Did it serve them right? Or was it a bum rap? No
question the demo was rigged. But what it showed was the truth: if a monster
truck runs over you once, you're safer in the Volvo.
An ethical brainteaser we deal with every day is: "What can you
legitimately simulate to illustrate the truth?" Before you answer
"nothing!", ask yourself if a Higher Purpose would be served
if Pampers and Kotex commercials showed the real thing instead of that
fake blue water.
Ads for reputable companies almost never lie. They have to be able to
prove what they say to their own corporate counsel, the ad agency's lawyers,
the network's approval committees and to any number of regulating bodies
like the FDA and the FTC. With at least five different government agencies
looking over our shoulder, the cost of being caught cheating is simply
too high. In addition, the individuals inside a company want to be able
to look at themselves in the mirror. Some like to think of business people
as belonging to some other species, but remember that most of them are
you a few years from now.
So we tell the truth -- but not always the Whole Truth. Like lawyers,
our job is to put our clients in the best light. When you go on a job
interview or a first date, you don't assume a false identity - but you
probably don't make a full disclosure either. Chances are you keep your
lactose intolerance and foot odor issues in the background, and save your
Federation Starfleet uniform for later in the relationship - if there
IS a later.
For a company trying to sell something, an ad is like getting a job interview
with millions of people all at once. The ad wants to make a good first
impression and really, really doesn't want to make people mad. But different
people react differently.
During the 2000 Super Bowl, millions of people saw the following commercial
for Christopher Reeve walking again.
Some of us saw an uplifting message of hope. Some saw a cynical company
manipulating people's hope to make a buck. Still others - many of them
with disabilities - saw an ad that gave false hope. What did you see?
It's an axiom in advertising that when you do something bold, it's likely
to polarize your audience. And big events like the Super Bowl or the Olympics
make advertisers bolder.
You can tell the ad agency really enjoyed creating the horror movie spoof
with an Olympic runner. This Nike commercial ran during the 2000 Olympics.
But this commercial received over 2,000 complaints. Nike heard them and
killed the spot and unlike Freddie Kruger, this ad stayed dead!
A lot of people question the ethics of selling consumers things they
don't need - which presupposes that we shouldn't have the things we don't
need but want anyway. We don't need 90% of the stuff in our apartments.
We don't need artwork, among other things. Neanderthals didn't need cave
paintings, but they sure brighten up a grotto. Why did so many of us bring
bottled water - that we paid for - into this meeting room today, when
carrying a canteen of tap water is so much more
Advertising, like human beings, lives where Reason meets Desire. Years
ago, The Coca-Cola Company invented a better product. No consumer product
had ever been so thoroughly tested with so many consumers. This new Coke
was provably much better. But consumers not only didn't buy it, they demonstrated
against it. Because a lot of what they loved about "real" Coke
wasn't inside the bottle. It was the idea of Coke and their experiences
with it and how those experiences were connected to so much of what we
imagine life in America should be like. Advertising isn't just about the
things we buy. It's about how we feel about things, including ourselves.
That's what makes it interesting.
Speaking of feelings, 80% of Americans say they feel better about companies
that are aligned with social issues. Two thirds of us say we'd be inclined
to switch to a brand that we identify with a good cause. It's why American
Express put on the Tribeca Film Festival in lower Manhattan to help bring
people back to the area after September 11th. Wal-Mart focuses on community
efforts of their associates and stores. General Mills' "Spoonfuls
of Hope" campaign features Lance Armstrong promoting cancer research.
Johnson & Johnson - always at the top of polls as a socially responsible
company -- has been running a campaign to help promote nursing as a career:
Does the extra business and good will these companies stand to gain compromise
the good that the causes do? What are the ethics of enlightened self-interest?
Not long ago a major advertiser donated a quarter-million dollars in food
aid to Bosnians in the wake of the war there. By all accounts, the aid
did a lot of good. Later, the company spent over a million dollars to
advertise their good deed to American audiences. What decision would you
Ronald Reagan once appeared in ads touting the health benefits of a cigarette
brand. Times have changed. Now the space in which tobacco can be promoted
in any form is growing more restricted every day. And tobacco isn't the
only legal - and potentially lethal - product that poses ethical, not
to mention public policy questions for us.
Ad agencies and individual advertising people make their own decisions
about categories like tobacco and guns. Many say, "No, thanks"
to working on certain businesses. But would you turn down the Kraft Macaroni
and Cheese assignment because another division of the same corporation
makes Marlboros? That's a tougher question.
There are hundreds of beer commercials on the air, but not one of them
shows somebody actually drinking the beer. Does that make them more ethical?
And although there's the same amount of the same chemical in a can of
Bud and a shot of Jack Daniels, you don't see hard liquor advertised on
television. In the case of alcohol, advertisers themselves have made these
"ethical" choices. But do they make rational sense? The Mothers
Against Drunk Driving (MADD) probably don't make the same distinction
between beer and bourbon that advertisers do.
Incidentally, advertising people working for free because they believe
in the cause create MADD's ads. Ad folk like to work pro bono for nonprofits
and good causes. Public service campaigns, including anti-smoking messages,
got over $1.5 billion dollars in free media last year. Altogether, they'd
be the fifth largest advertiser.
The ethical issue isn't the alcohol in the product, it's the brand name
on the bottle (Smirnoff Ice). When I say the word "Smirnoff",
what do you think of? - you're not alone. A rival company says this commercial
is misleading you because there's no vodka in Smirnoff Ice. It's a malt
beverage. Does the name "Smirnoff" mean "vodka" or
is it just a name? Many of you are in the target audience. Are you being
fooled here? And if you thought Smirnoff Ice contained vodka, did you
also think it contained ice? You don't have to take time from your studies
to decide this case. As we speak, it's being examined by the ATF (Federal
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms).
I assume these are not unfamiliar to you. Should they be advertised? Most
networks won't accept condom ads because they might offend certain audiences.
Even where condom ads are okay, there are ethical choices to make about
what kind of product demonstration is appropriate. And in what context?
One example of context is that people in condom ads usually wear wedding
rings. Because even though the biggest market probably lies outside the
Marital Bed, the truth about where all those condoms are really going
raises some touchy issues. If you were the Creative Director on the Trojans
account, is that an ethical issue? Do you show the real truth and take
Society imposes context on advertising ethics all the time - especially
in advertising that involves children. Here's a commercial for children's
shampoo. On behalf of Society, can you see what's wrong with this message?
The problem isn't something in the spot - it's what's missing. There
is no adult supervision shown around the swimming pool. The Children's
Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of the Better Business Bureau (BBB), which
also monitors kid's programming, requires that adults be shown supervising
children when products or activities could be risky. So L'Oreal changed
the commercial to model good parental behavior. Score one for Society.
Another commercial for Aim toothpaste showed a child who went to the bathroom
in a museum to brush her teeth. Good hygiene or not, it had to be taken
off the air when teachers complained that they'd never, ever, let a child
leave the group unattended.
Advertisers spend most of their waking hours trying to anticipate what
their audiences will want and how they'll react. We try our best, but
sometimes we miss.
Information is ethically neutral. In an academic setting like this, we
welcome more information because the marketplace of ideas enables individuals
to form their own judgments - which brings us to advertising about prescription
drugs. Not long ago, only a doctor could tell you about a new medicine.
You probably never heard of it before you walked in; you didn't know if
it was the only one in the world or one of dozens that did pretty much
the same thing. Now advertisers spend millions of dollars telling you
about their medicines. Advertising puts more information in people's hands.
Studies show that drug ads raise awareness of some conditions so more
people seek treatment. And they know more about their options before seeing
the doctor. That's good, right?
But of course the drug companies don't advertise their cheapest products.
They promote the big moneymakers. There's more information out there,
but it comes with a heavy dose of Point-of-View. Sometimes there are two
points of view in the same commercial. The FDA requires that, if you promote
the benefits of your medicine, you must also reveal any significant risks
or side effects. So we have them to thank for the now legendary disclaimer
for a weight-loss drug. The medicine worked miracles, but the company
was also obliged to mention it's unpleasant side effects, with the result
that the drug turned into a national joke! Does more information elevate
the national dialogue?
What are the ethics of advertising that doesn't look like advertising?
In a movie chase scene, the hero and the bad guy are going to need some
kind of car to drive. In the theatre we have no way of knowing whether
the director chose those cars because they fulfilled his artistic vision
- or because the car manufacturer made a deal with the producer. The car
people get exciting exposure for their brand and she saves a nice piece
of change on her production budget. Audiences like realism in movies.
Made-up brands break the spell because they're obvious fakes. But the
difference between something that's just a prop and something that's a
product promotion is getting murkier all the time, on TV shows as well
This kind of "product placement" happens in real life, too.
If you go out to a club tonight, you might see some particularly good-looking
young people using a new kind of cell phone. It lets them shoot pictures
of people to their friends across the room: "Here's a cute guy -
want to come and meet him?" Fun stuff like that. If you're curious,
maybe they've taken your picture and they'll be happy to show you the
phone and let you try it. The phone is very cool. And the people are what
advertisers call "aspirational" because they're way cooler than
you are. They're people you want to be. They're also actors and this is
a gig for them. Their job is creating the impression that using this phone
is The Next Trend. If you ask them directly if they are actors, they won't
lie. But if you don't ask, they won't tell. This is the reverse of the
Volvo story. Volvo's demonstration was rigged, no question, but what viewers
saw on TV was the truth. With this cell phone, the demonstration is the
absolute truth, but the scene in the club is pure theater.
(Note: This new "guerrilla" marketing campaign for Sony Ericsson
has received a great deal of negative publicity already for being deceptive
in its approach.)
There's one more thing I know you want me to talk about. If you believe
subliminal advertising exists, you don't any more because I embedded a
convincing subliminal denial in this talk. In case you missed it, subliminal
advertising is one of those "urban legends." Try this experiment.
Take a photograph of a glass of ice water or the beverage of your choice
and make a fake ad out of it. Then invite people in your Psych department
to find the subliminal messages in your ad. They won't disappoint you.
If a bunch of students can create subliminal messages, imagine what the
pros on Madison Avenue can do.
This wouldn't be a talk about ethics in advertising without a word from
our sponsor and here it comes.
80% of American companies have a written Code of Ethics. And probably
100% of you do too, if you gave it some thought and wrote it down. Ethics
happen, or don't, in our relationships with others. Advertisers are in
the business of communicating with thousands, even millions, of "others"
all the time. That gives us thousands or millions of chances to practice
what we believe every day. And try to get it right.
Ogilvy & Mather
Copyright © 2004 AEF. All rights reserved.