Contest ethics need checkup

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The easy course would be to make light of the latest "ghost ad" scandal to hit the world of advertising contests. It would be the wrong course, encouraging the anything-goes cynicism that lurks around the edges of even the biggest and most prestigious competitions, including the glamorous International Advertising Festival in Cannes.

The kind of cheating that took place at the Australian unit of Lowe Lintas & Partners Worldwide, and perhaps other agencies, drags down the agency business. It gives credence to a corrosive notion about agencies: that some create ads to win awards rather than sell products.

So senior Lowe managers may have done the agency business a service by their handling of the news that their Australian office had won a Cannes Bronze Lion for an ad, rejected by its client, that never actually ran. The managers did not powder over things. They investigated and found a second Lowe Australia Bronze Lion winner was also a ghost ad that never ran. Both Bronze Lions were returned to Cannes festival organizers, something apparently never done before. Lowe issued a public apology for "indefensible" conduct and vowed an internal crackdown. The creative director of Lowe's Australian unit resigned.

There is nothing wrong with advertising contests. They are an opportunity for ad community members to hold up for examination what they consider to be their best work. They give creatives and the agencies that employ them a chance to build reputations.

However, it's clear agency contest ethics need a tuneup, and contest rules, and the sanctions for breaking them, need toughening. Without that, the whole carnival of competitions can start to lose the value it has for honoring exemplary work. Lowe now knows how painful it is to fix things only after you get caught.

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