By Philippa Baines
Can you have an ethical career in advertising?
When I say advert, you say what?
Some might say annoying. Others might say evil. And some might say adblocker.
Probably few of the general public would say a force of good in this world. So why go into advertising, if you’re concerned about ethics?
I believe advertising can be used for making the world better, although it won’t be all sunshine and roses.
Recently, the UK’s advertising standards authority announced it’ll implement more regulations. There’s concern over the use of stereotypes in promotions that have negative impacts on society. For example, Protein World’s ‘Are you beach body ready?’, the infamous Pepsi fizzy drink Kendal protest and the Nivea’s ‘white is purity’ deodorant ad.
Sir John Hegarty refused to promote political parties and cigarettes, but what about other ‘evils’? Palm oil products that drive deforestation, tech that uses conflict minerals, restaurant chains that offer unhealthy processed foods. Not only this but charities and peacekeeping organisations do evil – clothes charities sending items to developing countries can destroy local industries, the WWF is accused of human rights abuses and UN soldiers have been identified in rape cases. Whilst superficially something can seem good, life being what it is, everything is more complicated. This is often missed out for the purpose of compelling storytelling.
So how can you, as an advertiser, maximize the good and legitimize what you’re doing. How can you look back at your career and think – my work made the world a better place?
Maybe this is just drivel coming out of the brain of a generation ‘X’er, obsessed with finding ‘purpose’ in their life. Sure, there’s the argument: it’s all really about survival, never mind ethics.
I just know I can’t live with myself if I think I’m promoting meaningless products and services. There’ll be others who will be able to live with themselves, I’m sure they’ll do very well. I don’t want to be like that though.
I recently did some work experience at an advertising company with a prospective client with a brief. They wanted to promote their country as a tourist destination to the UK market to increase visitor numbers. I knew a genocide happened there relatively recently. The question then beckons, is it ok to say to the general public that the destination was like a utopia/ heavenly destination, knowing how many people were butchered there? What to do.
I’m sure this won’t be the only dilemma facing me in my advertising career. Story telling is never about conveying ‘the’ truth, always ‘a’ truth.
The more I’ve grown up, the more I’ve come to realize that good and bad are degrees on a spectrum. Decision-making is sometimes confusing because of this, as everything is connected. Can I have an ethical career in advertising? The answer is probably as much as in any other industry. Can I try to maximize the positive impact of my work? Certainly, but I think it’s important I move forward knowing I’ll probably make a few mistakes and that it’s to be expected because I’m human.
A key trend in business is that more and more consumers care about where their products are coming from. It’s in a brand’s interest to not only grab people’s attention but also to have a positive reaction. If you operate or promote a message unethically, the DailyMail (or the like) will find the story and they’ll make a killing from oversight on corporate responsibility.
The demand for ethical marketing and advertising is growing. The future looks promising. In the meantime, I’ll have to accept my moral dilemmas and confusions as part of a learning curve. I hope the advertising industry will continue to discuss ethics, and value net ‘good’ over ‘bad’ – even though the answers might not be clear cut.