I'm here to talk about ethics in advertising.
And 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. Because ads are made of choices: What to show ... and what
not to show. What to say ... and how to say it. Who to put in the ad
... and who not to.
When comic Paula Poundstone talks about terrible ads, she gets laughs
by reminding us that "There was a first draft!" Even the worst
stuff we see is stuff that people have thought about.
I'm not here to explain bad taste in advertising. I couldn't possibly
be here that long. My New Hampshire visa would expire. So I'll just
tell you something about the ethical questions that make our jobs on
"Madison Avenue" more interesting.
Let's start with Truth in Advertising. Telling the truth seems like
a pretty basic ethical standard. But as any Philosophy major can tell
you, there's Truth ... and then there's Truth.
Once upon a time, at one of those monster truck rallies, the giant
trucks squashed all the cars except for a Volvo. Volvo's ad agency thought
this would be 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 assaults by the monster truck. When
this came out in the press, Volvo was pilloried and the ad agency got
fired, ultimately going out of business. Did that serve them right?
Or was it a bum rap? In real life, a Volvo would stand up to one squashing
by a monster truck. No question the TV demo was rigged. But what it
showed was the truth.
Which raises the question: 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.
Sometimes there's a difference between the pure truth and the useful
I travel a lot and it used to make me crazy that the flights were always
late. Now they're mostly on time and airline ads boast about how "We're
#1 in on-time performance." Did they buy faster planes? No, they
re-printed the schedules to show longer flight times. So the schedules
lie about how much time you're in the air - but they tell the truth
about how long it takes to get where you're going.
If your destination is Disney World, you'll see helpful electronic
signs that post waiting times for the rides. We trust these signs (and
we trust the Disney brand) because the line always moves a little faster
than the sign says it will. 15% faster, to be exact. So the sign lies.
But by lying, it builds trust. Go figure.
Something marketers are beginning to realize is that how a brand actually
behaves counts more than what they say. This is good news. Advertising
copywriters used to have a monopoly on telling a brand's story. Now,
thanks to the Internet, the most influential voices in advertising are
yours: You hear about a product, the first thing you do is go online
and see what your peers are saying about it.
Advertisers know this. Ads for reputable companies almost never lie.
The cost of being caught out is simply too high. It can take years to
undo the damage. Also, the people inside the company want to be able
to look at themselves in the mirror. We often think of business people
as belonging to some other, vaguely malevolent species, but remember
that most of them are you in a few years.
So we tell the truth - but not always the whole truth. We want to put
our clients in the best light. McDonalds doesn't advertise the calorie
count for Big Macs, but they make it easy to find out. Most people don't
want to know. On the other hand, drug makers have to to spell out side-effects
because the information can mean life or death.
How much of the truth we owe to others is an ethical question. In practice,
the answer depends on who they are and what's at stake.
On my way here, I saw fliers around campus promoting activities that
would shock a lot of Americans - and are probably illegal in a few of
the states where I have clients. Obviously, advertising practices are
relative. But knowing that what's good fun in Hanover, New Hampshire,
is indictable in Lubbock, Texas, is not a very useful moral compass.
Any of you who are Pre-Law know the courts have the same problem in
defining obscenity. "Community standards" are the yardstick.
So here's a pop quiz: Is the world better served by an advertiser that
universally acts according to its own corporate conscience...? Or an
advertiser that unfailingly respects the social mores of its audiences?
For a company trying to sell something, a TV commercial is like having
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.
Here are a couple of ads that make some of my peers mad. But we're
not the target audience. You are. So how do you feel about these ads?
Click image to view tv commercials
"Bad boy" beer commercials aren't working like they used
to. Your demographic is now turning to drinks with a more refined image
than "Kiss me, I'm drunk."
But what's up with the guy siccing his dog on a woman to rip her pants
off? Is this an ironic tribute to how men love their jeans? Or is it
mysogyny? That would be out of character for Levi-Strauss, one of the
most socially responsible companies on the planet. They took care to
show that she's okay with what happened. Does that help? Or does
that make it worse?
Here's another jeans ad, from the French company Girbaud. Women like
this one. But it was banned in France and Italy because it looked too
much like this: DaVinci's Last Supper.
Some advertisers try to be outrageous. A hip-hop brand needs Street
Cred. Youth brands know that dismayed parents are their best advertisement.
What the FCUK brand really stands for is "Your mom would hate this."
The brands we respond to most are a little bit like clubs, where only
"we" get it, (whoever "we" are). Shared experiences
and inside jokes make us feel like insiders. But does the advertiser
have an ethical responsibility to the larger community: to outsiders
who might see the ad by mistake and find it hurtful?
Most of us in this room, and in business, would say Yes ... to a degree.
"To a degree" sounds like a hedge, but it's reality. An ad
that shows parents putting presents under the tree on Christmas Eve
will upset some people who think it's outing Santa Clause, and others
who don't celebrate Christmas. On average, 15% of people will find something
objectionable in any ad, no matter what it shows. So everything we do
in advertising is a judgment call. And we know going in that we're going
to fall at least 15% short of what moral philosophers like Geoffrey
Klempner at Oxford tell us that true Ethics demand.
Truly Ethical living, with a capital E, requires more than honesty,
fairness, decency, and even right action. It requires owning 100% of
the responsibility for any consequences of what we do, intended or not.
Klempner says this is an impossible standard for a marketplace, and
barely within reach for individuals. Try as we might, "collateral
damage" happens all the time. If you've ever accidentally hit Reply-to-All
on an email, you've found this out.
Going back to the "club" idea, if you were recruiting for
a club, the first thing you'd do in an ad is signal your audience: Rugby
players! Singers! Gays and Lesbians! Advertisers do the same thing for
the same reasons. We want our ads to say "this message is for YOU."
Naturally, we don't put the real you in the ads. The real you is your
campus ID and your driver's license photo. We've seen it. That's why
we do casting.
Casting decisions can pose ethical choices. Who you put in an ad sends
a message. Do beauty and fashion ads reflect the aspirations of American
girls? Or do they distort those aspirations by creating an unattainable
and objectified standards?
It takes a brave advertiser to swim against the cultural tide. Dove
did it and caused a sensation.
Dove is succeeding by challenging convential ideas of beauty that advertising
helped to create. Does this make Dove:
C) Smart, or ...
D) All of the above
That was the easy question. They get harder. Here's an image from a
newspaper ad showing a group of business people.
Do you see anything objectionable here? Probably not. These people
could be the Dartmouth IT department on dress-up day. But let's say
you owned the Dell company and you knew for a fact that you'd sell more
computers in Latin America if you showed the boss as a dark-haired man
... changed the Asian woman to a blond who was bringing him coffee ...
and didn't show the black woman at all. Would you change your ad for
Social norms and ethnicity are tripwires wherever you go. Here's an
ad from Microsoft that neutralizes the issue by putting dinosaur heads
The Internet changes everything. If you are interested in making ethical
choices part of your career, get into interactive marketing. The online
world is like the Wild West, where social conventions and even the Law
haven't been settled yet. How many of you have used file-sharing sites?
File-sharing is just one of the technologies that's turning intellectual
property law inside out. Not to mention raising ethical issues. [When
I download Dave Matthews for free, I feel like Robin Hood. But I wouldn't
dream of shoplifting the same music from a store.]
The internet challenges the ethics of advertisers more than mass media
like television because it is more democratic and more private. Only
big companies can afford million-dollar ads; and it's hard to get away
with much when 10 million people are watching you on TV. In a very real
way, the audience serves as the Conscience of the marketer. But a website
or a podcast or Howard Stern on satellite radio is free to reflect or
incite the passions of a much narrower community.
On the web, an oil company can present itself as an environmentalist
to Sierra Club members while calling for roll-backs in regulations among
chamber of commerce members. That's duplicitous, right? But we do the
same thing when we send out different resumés or post different
dating profiles online.
Cigarette advertising was banned from broadcast media before you were
born. In 1998, most other forms of tobacco advertising were eliminated.
But Marlboro's marketing has never been more successful. Banning traditional
advertising forced them online, and into into viral marketing techniques
that other industries are just beginning to figure out.
The one-to-one world of the Web is very different than the one-to-many
world of broadcast advertising. The Internet is ethically agnostic.
Which makes your ethics more important. In your careers, you will have
to tools to communicate as you wish. You will have to be the conscience
of your organizations.
Tobacco isn't the only potentially lethal product that poses ethical,
not to mention public policy questions for communicators. Ad agencies
and individual advertising people make their own decisions about categories
like tobacco, guns, and political campaigns. 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
company makes Marlboros?
Speaking of Mac and Cheese, is food advertising ethical? Are ads making
Americans overweight, or do we do that to ourselves? Not long ago, America's
biggest food comapny - Kraft - decided to stop advertising high-fat
products to children. The American Psychological Association says that
advertising aimed at young children is inherently exploitative. And,
with childhood obesity a growing concern, Kraft made a decision that
addressed both issues. Good for them! We want corporations to do the
right thing. And when they do it, they want us to know.
80% of Americans say they feel better about companies that are aligned
with social causes. That's one of the reasons American Express started
the Tribeca Film Festival to bring people back to lower Manhattan after
September 11. It's why Johnson+Johnson, always at the top of the polls
as a Responsible Company, runs ads promoting Nursing as a career. Does
the fact that nurses order so many medical supplies diminish the value
of what J+J is doing in its uplifting ads?
Before Hurricane Katrina, Wal-Mart was having image problems. But they
had 45 truckloads of relief supplies in position before Katrina made
landfall, and delivered a lot more after. They also dispatched PR people
with those trucks so the world would know about their good deeds.
Does the extra business and good will these companies stand to gain
somehow lessen the good that is actually done?
In the 1990s, a big company 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 here in America. How many of you agree that's
pushing it? Splendid. Here's the essay question: As the president of
that company, write a set of specific guidelines that will encourage
enlightened self-interest ... and prevent cynical opportunism. This
isn't academic. Some of you will run companies. Part of your job will
be translating your beliefs into policy.
Since we're talking about advertising, let's take a break for a word
from our sponsor. As an industry, ad people strive to practice enlightened
self-interest every day. So we've created a host of gatekeepers that
steer companies towards truth and fairness, and sometimes step in as
enforcers. The Children's Advertising Review Unit, for example, polices
messages aimed at kids. They stopped or changed the ads in 134 out of
the 144 cases they saw in 2003.
Advertisers regulate themselves for the same reasons that campus organizations
do: Better we do it ourselves than have the Administration do it for
Outside the U.S., governments exercise far more control over ads than
ours does. Here, the First Amendment grants advertisers much of the
freedom to express themselves that we enjoy as individuals. But not
all. Just ask Nike.
They were accused in the press of allowing Asian subcontractors to
operate sweatshops. Since good people like us don't want to buy sneakers
made by serfs, Nike launched a PR campaign to tell its side of the story.
A California activist brought suit, on the grounds that Nike's side
of the story was false advertising - and not corporate free speech.
In arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, the Bush administration
and the American Civil Liberties Union both backed Nike. But the Court
refused to rule. [Probably because they were so stunned to see the ACLU
and the Bush administration on the same side!] So stay tuned ...
What are the ethics of advertising in Stealth Mode? Product placement
is another area where
advertising conventions are morphing out from under traditional norms.
In a movie chase scene, the hero and the bad guy are driving cars. In
the theater, we have no way of knowing whether the director chose those
cars because they fulfilled his artistic vision - or because Ford made
a deal with the producer. The difference between something that's just
a prop and product promotion is getting murkier all the time. Two of
America's most popular TV shows, The Apprentice and Queer Eye for the
Straight Guy are wall-to-wall product placement.
Product placement happens in real life, too. If you go out to a club
tonight, you might see some particularly good-looking people using a
new kind of cell, or maybe they'll be ordering an exotic drink you've
never heard of. If you're curious, they'll let you try their phone and
tell you about the drink. And you are curious, because, let's face it,
these people are hot. They're the 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: Are you an actor? 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, but what viewers saw on TV
was the truth. With the cell phone, the demonstration is the absolute
truth, but the scene in the club is pure theater.
There's one more thing I know you want me to talk about. If you believe
subliminal advertising exists, you don't anymore, 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.
The only people, it seems, who don't believe in subliminal advertising
are the advertisers. Procter & Gamble is the world's biggest advertiser.
Far from trying to make their messages invisible, they're trying to
make their brands tangible to consumers through special events and touring
exhibits like this giant tube of Crest. It's about as subliminal as
Psychologists say we believe in subliminal advertising because we'd rather
think we're being
manipulated than that we make irrational decisions. Deep down, we can't
believe that our Nikes are really $50 better than K-Mart sneakers. How
else to explain why we like them except that we've been brainswashed?
How many of you think advertising makes people buy things they don't
need? You're absolutely correct. Brands live where Reason meets Desire.
Most of us don't need 90% of the stuff in our apartment. We don't need
art, among other things. We don't need Halloween or scented soap or
What Klempner calls the "scaffolding of human culture" is
made of unnecessary things. That was true for millenia before the first
ad, and will still be true after you all have Tivo and never see another
commercial again. Freud had a lot to say about "object love"
and Klempner gives Apple as a modern example. People love MacIntosh
and iPod for more than their function. When Apple ran ads explaining
all the rational reasons for switching to Macs, the ads bombed. They
missed what consumers really love about Macs.
This wouldn't be a talk about ethics without a Moral, and here it comes.
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. Change the word "advertising"
to "communication" and the ethical questions come home to
roost. Instead of being about big business, the same questions are about
How much of the truth do you owe someone you're trying to impress?
If you're trying to impress different people, do you tell different
If you knew that your web page would offend Catholics or contribute
to child obesity, even if only a few of them saw your page ... would
you change it?
A brand is just a bigger "you" or "me". And, just
like us, it's looking to connect with people. And that involves all
kinds of decisions. Most of them are little decisions, but they add
up, for good or for ill.
Unless you're planning to join a criminal organization, your employer
won't set out to act unethically. No one's going to ask you to come
over to the Dark Side. Almost always, bad ads or unethical corporate
behavior are the result of a thousand little individual choices that
add up. As Ogilvy & Mather CEO Shelley Lazarus likes to say: "Sheep
don't decide to wander off, they go astray one little nibble at a time."
For blindingly smart, curious people like you, advertising and marketing
can be an endlessly interesting field for your gifts. But as technology
gives us the means to interact ever more individually with consumers,
the ethics of those interactions become ever more personal. It's not
about the herd, anymore, and you are not a sheep. It's about you. And
the choices you make. Now, more than ever, Ethics is personal.
Thank you very much.
Chris Moore, Brains For Rent
Copyright © 2006. All rights reserved.