In Defense of What We Do

Advertising Is Not Evil

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Maureen Hall Maureen Hall
This past weekend I was with some friends that I had not seen in a while. We made small talk about the weather, our kids going back to school and how work was going. The latter quickly caused the conversation to turn from lighter fare to their questioning me on the importance of advertising to society, or in their words, "How could you spend your life perpetuating unhealthy consumerism?"

Gulp. Trying not to put up my fists in defensiveness, I started out to prove why advertising was not detrimental to existence. My first response was that advertising illustrates our capitalist society, i.e. the American Dream, and stimulates our economy, which helps everyone.

I reminded them that before any of their favorite newspapers and magazines can print a single word of truth and practice their First Amendment right, they have to fill paid advertising space. If not, my friends would really find their subscription rates outrageous and therefore wouldn't read and be challenged. And as humans, we love to be challenged, entertained and informed. When done right, ads can do more than sell a product, they can tell a story. Just look at those highlight reels that spotlight generations gone by. They always consist of toothpaste, toy and fast food commercials; seemingly unimportant at the time, now those ads are like tiny time capsules, showing us how the status quo was challenged and values were reflected in a 30 second spot.

They rebuffed my arguments, complaining that advertising has seeped into every aspect of life. It's persuaded people to believe in unrealistic body imagines or worse, spend money on things they don't need. And although they have a point -- Americans see about 3,000 messages a day -- I still believe that today's advertising offers people a choice as to what to think vs. the propaganda of yesterday. I'm pretty sure detergent companies back in the 60s didn't care what housewives had to say. But now, thanks to technology and the consumer's desire to connect with brands, someone is talking about detergent in a chat room this very second -- and you better believe that the detergent people are taking notes.

Product advertising is like spreading cards in front of someone and saying, "pick one," except instead of 52 versions of the same look and feel, agencies try to make their assigned card stand for something bigger than the rest in the proverbial deck. It's not a trick, but we know that if we do our job well, advertising can educate people about product benefits and societal issues, it can change brand perceptions and build emotional connections to people, not just widgets. Case in point? Liberty Mutual's "Why Responsibility" campaign.

They still didn't look convinced, so I confessed that while not all advertising is good, none of it is intrinsically evil. But I do think ads should be aesthetically pleasing, inspiring and at the very least, add something to public consciousness. But I, as a small agency owner, cannot control advertisers that "do it wrong" anymore than I can take credit for other agencies that do it right. I can only control my agency's core tenants of ethics, which are: integrity, intensity, ideas and impact. When all these elements are in synergy, I know that the impact we have on society is for the betterment of the human spirit, not just something people have to put up with.
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