If Ad Industry Doesn't Have Debate on Ethics, It's Doomed to Repeat Its Mistakes

Why Now Is the Time for Frank Talk

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Rance Crain
Rance Crain
Maybe you have to live in a society with longstanding repressive traditions to give much thought to the social and ethical implications of advertising.

When I visited Russia several years ago, I learned consumers there are influenced by two great traditions: the czars of the 18th century and communism. Both the czars and the communists operated under the assumption that "your confusion is my victory," and so yes is no and black is white. "The evil is not a bad product, but advertising that gives the opportunity to choose bad things," a Russian educator said.

Because advertising in Russia is a relatively new force, and most consumers regard it with the same disbelief as communism, there is much more discussion about its place in society.

I came back from Russia thinking about how we should emulate the Russians in this regard. I said at the time: "There's too much advertising that borders on misleading and even unethical, and as my old boss Stan Cohen says, these excesses could lead to the coming of a new Ralph Nader." I wrote this back in 2007 before our near financial collapse.

Yet none of the ethical considerations of blatantly excessive sales pitches were discussed during or after the housing meltdown. The sad truth is that many financial marketers didn't want prospective home buyers and mortgage holders to understand the downside of the transactions -- that interest rates can go up without notice, that buyers were taking on too much debt, that housing prices don't always go up.

What obligation did advertisers have in pointing out the realities of the marketplace? And what obligations did individual practitioners have to themselves to bring any doubts they may have had to their superiors? And then, if their doubts rang on deaf ears, to walk away from their job of disseminating misleading information?

That's why I believe it's high time for the ad industry to formalize the process of ethical debate and discussion -- to bring up issues that many people in the business would rather not talk about.

It's important for ad people to feel comfortable talking about the ethics of their own behavior, but it's evident that many were not doing so when the American Advertising Federation and the University of Missouri announced the formation of the Institute for Advertising Ethics.

We received a dozen or so mostly skeptical comments when we broke the news. "A total waste of money and a feel-good 'look at what we're doing to police ourselves' exercise in futility," said one commentator. "All we need to know about ethics we probably learned from our mother," he added (the writer signed his name Rob ).

What concerns me is that we seem resigned to making the same mistakes over and over again. Does anybody really think that increased regulatory scrutiny will prevent the next financial debacle or oil spill? What we need is a frank discussion of the ethical issues involved, even if some people think such conversations are "naïve" (as one of our readers said).

Wally Snyder, executive director of the institute, pointed out that there are sound business reasons for putting advertising ethics front and center. In research conducted by students of Missouri's Reynolds Journalism School, consumers said they'd be more likely to buy products if the company marketing it were ethical. "Honest advertising" was the top-ranked attribute that would make a company ethical, consumers surveyed indicated.

But maybe more important in the long run, a heightened sense of ethics will help give courage to people questioning whether they're doing the right thing. The student research directed at ad practitioners disclosed that they'd be more inclined to voice their concerns if they were given "permission" to speak up by their superiors.

Listen, we're in a first-class mess in this country, with people thinking that nothing works and nothing can be done about it. One small step is to start a discussion about doing the right thing, and I'm very glad that the advertising industry is leading the way.

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