Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Advertising ethics

I've long been interested in advertising. At its best it can rival traditional arts for innovation and creativity. Sadly, most advertising is complete rubbish. Unoriginal, banal and crude. I suspect clients are as much responsible for this situation as are agencies.

Will more austere economic conditions lead to a more sophisticated approach? Not if the recent Witchery campaign by Naked is anything to go by. In summary, a made-up story of unrequited love is carried by the news media - a pretty girl is looking for a mystery man and has only a jacket from which to trace him... how Disney. Factor in the reach of YouTube and you've got an interesting story... were it not completely false.

All media is good media though right? No harm's done? This is real creative, it shouldn't be constrained by traditional values? This, at least, was the rationale put forward by Naked's Adam Ferrier... that was after Naked first denied they had anything to do with the campaign.

Ferrier argues that there was no deception (so let's for the moment forget their initial denial) because "The word deception implies an element of harm. This campaign hasn’t harmed anyone, not even close". I suspect the good standing of Witchery and Naked will be harmed so on this alone, he's hopefully wrong. But worse than this is his incredibly naive logic. If no harm occurs, no wrong has been done? Clearly ethics wasn't part of his education.

By Ferrier's logic then, a breach of law would be excusable if the breach caused no harm. Speeding through a School zone but you hit no kids: fine. Lying about the children overboard, they were already wet remember: fine. Telling the wife you're watching a band when you're really with your fantasy baseball buddies: fine.

The harmless lie. Famous through time. Forget what Kant said, there's modern restrictions that apply in this situation like, for instance, section 42 (1) of the 1987 Fair Trading Act. It's not only the consequences of an act that makes it harmful, it can be the simple commission. This is why we forbid dummy bids, restrict the use of credentials or insist on full disclosure. Reliance on the veracity of published information is critical to the stability of commerce and government. Partiality, deception and subterfuge are regulated not just because they may cause direct harm, but also because they erode confidence.

Ferrier's a fool. This is clear. Whether his foolishness is exceptional or endemic to the industry is unclear.

Update: Ferrier's got a blog through which he's expanded his published rationalisation. The language is a little opaque but the essential point is that "social media [presumably this means advertising] need to be judged, not on how well they abide by the so called rules of social media, but rather the effectiveness of the communications." I wonder what he means by "the rules"?


David Choat said...

I love that rationale! I could be broadened to a general principle (a la your mate Kant):

"activities need to be judged, not on how well they abide by the rules applying to those activities, but rather their effectiveness in achieving their aims."

Truly, a profound thinker!


backin15 said...

An advertising-specific (sorry social media) categoral imperative perhaps?

"Activities need to be judged, not on their concordance with commercial laws and codes, but rather client satisfaction, column inches, cash receipts and agency notoriety"

David Choat said...

Perhaps the "scatogorical imperative"?

backin15 said...


David Choat said...

Hang on - it's already taken:

backin15 said...

Bugger. Amusing but.