[Podcast] Is there an ethical dilemma working in advertising?

Rachel Mercer
Oct 14 · 14 min read

Episode 4: A persistent question for anyone who understands the power that our position offers in a producer economy; where we have a role in and influence the wants and needs of others.

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Shann 0:00
Hi, everyone, welcome to the fourth episode of the Overthinkers. I am Shann.

Rachel 0:05
And I’m Rachel.

Shann 0:06
So today, Rachel, we’re gonna talk about a pretty big question is working in advertising an ethical dilemma for us?

Rachel 0:14
And I mean, I feel like this is a very difficult question. But my initial take is, is no, because I think one of my favorite metaphors is this idea is when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But if you decide to use it for other nefarious purposes, then then it certainly can be construed as being an evil thing. And I think nine times out of 10, when we are working on behalf of a client, we’re understanding that the thing that we’re advertising for, if it’s a hammer, for example, is going to be used for the right purpose or a good purpose. I think that society is also very fluid and, and changing all the time. And so I do think that there are ways that we can use the influence that we have on our clients to make them to be more ethical as organizations by bringing things like consumer insights and needs to them. I think Unilever is a great example of a corporation that is taking a lot of those things into account and trying to make things better through things like making sure all of their packaging is very sustainable, not wasting quite so much water in the creation of their products, all of those things. They understand that they have a global impact on that with their multi billion dollar brands. But I think when they first started and doing things like making band aids, and soaps and those sort of things, it started out originally very much as how do we make healthcare acts accessible to everyone? How do we make food easily accessible to everyone? How do we make it cheap and affordable? And all of those things started out not necessarily being bad, but cumulatively, that’s when it started adding up?

Shann 1:56
Well, it’s funny because I come from a very, very left leaning family and I grew up in an environment, you know, that raised me thinking about human beings much more than corporations. And you know, I was raised by anti vaccines anti Disney type of parents. And so it is still a bit frowned upon upon in my family, the fact that I work in advertising, they’re like “ok great”, so you’re kind of you know, “you’re working for the man now, you’re the one advertising all those bad things”. So I have struggled with that question a bit and I have come completely to terms with the fact that first of all, I am a capitalist, I believe in capitalism, I believe that there are ways for capitalism to be a great source of force of good and I think it’s it’s worked pretty well so far. I believe that advertising fulfills a very, very important role within society. I believe that there is a genuine place and importance in making sure that we that we we bring and connect businesses with consumers as much as possible that we let them understand what consumers want to adapt their products and their campaigns. And I don’t really see advertising as a manipulation. So for me, generally speaking, working for advertising is something that I’m more than happy to do. And I never get up in the morning thinking like, Oh, I’m working for the wrong kind of people. Of course, there’s any question is, you know, okay, great. We do have some power, if it was actually not powerful, we will not be paid to do it. So are we always working for the right people? I know that certainly, I have some lines in the sand, there are things that I do not want to advertise. But it does beg the question whether working for brand, a certain brand is ethical or not, don’t you think?

Rachel 3:36
I think it is dependent on two things. It depends very much on the brand, or the business that you’re trying to work on, as well as the problem that you’re being tasked with solving for them at an individual level. So I think I’ve certainly worked with individuals who have refused to work on businesses that the Koch brothers own which can certainly be a personal choice that you can make. I have had people that, you know, we’ve had pitches that we’ve turned down for retailers, because retailers sell guns. We’ve had, I personally have refused to work on things like private universities, like University of Phoenix, because I believe that those can be exploitative. But I think it comes down to some of your individual and personal choices. So for me, for example too I work on Verizon. Verizon has a poor history supporting net neutrality, for example, so I could easily have people in my family or people in my friend’s circles say that that’s a poor choice. But with the amount of influence that we have with the brand, like I work with their CMO, I work with their heads of value propositions and products, I work with their heads of experience. And most of the work that I do for them are actually to try and help them become a better, more human, well directed technology company, than they have historically been, rather. And those are the ways that I would like to use my influence and my expertise to be able to have some sort of positive impact along the way. Does that make sense?

Shann 5:12
No, it does. It definitely does. I think this is a there are two layers to it. We’ve seen in the news recently, agencies being either aploaded or bashed for working for certain groups and clients, especially government related clients in the U.S. And I can understand that some practitioners of marketing do not wish to work on certain things. Like you’ve just said, you know, there are clients or products where this is not something that you feel is good for society in the first place, and you do not want to support it. I have questioned myself in the past, because there are products that I will never buy for myself that I would refuse to eat or drink? Or if that’s the case, then how can I be trying to maximize their presence in the marketplace and getting more people to buy them? There would be something a bit weird about it. I think there’s definitely a level of, first of all, is it a personal preference? Or is it really something you want to impose into others? So because there are things I don’t like, like, I will not be drinking sugary drinks, for instance, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t think people should, there is complete right for them to have that choice. And it’s not up to me. So I can still play a role advertising this. Then there is a second layer is is the business I work for. Is it their decision to make whether we should be working on this client or not? Because I think it’s slightly dissociated, because we just said, you know, there is something quite personal in this. This is where I come from, this is my view of the world in front of some things and, and fine, I should not be advertising products that I boycott. You know, that’s just not going to be sustainable. But I as a business, we’re a team or group and there’s different points of view, and different people. Is it right to impose onto businesses to ask themselves the ethical question. Should should an agency be blamed for working for a client that is some people don’t like but others do? Like, where do you draw the line there?

Rachel 7:17
I mean, I think it all goes to… I think it depends on who just manages the business. I think the question that we’re seeing in the headlines now is a little bit different. Because I think a governmental organization is different from a business that needs to sell its products at the end of the day, and I think you could arguably say that any business that needs to sell products is inherently harmful in some capacity. So like whether you’re manufacturing alcohol or candy bars, or

Shann 7:47
There’s a dark side to everything,

Rachel 7:49
There’s a dark side to everything, even Sportswear, right? You can imagine that there’s…

Shann 7:54
I think, to take something even more striking, if you think of solar power. There’s a huge dark side to the solar power industry in terms of waste management and so on. But still, nobody would kind of go bat an eye about going to advertise it. Yeah. Um, so there, there is clearly a long, everything you can think is great, has also sometimes some darker sides.

Rachel 8:18
Yeah, absolutely. And so I think, as we start to… when you go back to the question about can or should businesses be expected to manage that I thought one way that it was put quite well, recently, as Carl Johnson’s is the global CEO of Anomaly. And he was saying they initially turned down pitching the Diet Coke business in the New York office, but the LA office managing director was like, “I don’t have problem, a I love Diet Coke, I will absolutely drink Diet Coke every day. And I don’t have a problem with that.” So I think as long as the leadership and that office is specifically aligned to it being an important part of their business, or something that they’re ethically comfortable with, I think that’s really the most critical factor.

Shann 9:05
I think we can all agree that at the end of the day, as long as an employee, someone has a choice not to work on it. It’s fair for a business to work on whatever they they see fit in a way.

Rachel 9:16
Yeah, absolutely. And I think employees also do have choice. Within reason. Like, if you have a, if you have a company like R/GA, where a significant proportion of our revenue is pulled in by two clients in our New York office, if you’re like, I would like to work on neither of those two clients, then it makes it a little bit more difficult.

Shann 9:37
I mean, if at some point, there is no fit between you and the company, then it’s your decision to not stay there, I believe. It’s it’s it’s not the company’s fault. At the end of the day. The thing as well, as you just talked about the Diet Coke example. And I think it’s really interesting to see these two offices kind of working with one or the other, to some extent, if you take a step further, it’s the consumer’s choice to know what they want to consume. The fact that the product is advertised doesn’t mean it is imposed on to them. And providing that level of choice is important. And so, to me, there is definitely an aspect of “Who am I to tell others what they should be consuming?” in the first place. So I think the Diet Coke example is a perfect example. Because it’s just, there’s people who want, people who don’t want but if I was even the guy who doesn’t want to drink Diet Coke, why should I block people from actually wanting to. Why should I block people from wanting to have an SUV car? Why should I block people, there’s a wider debate that is not just left to the fact that we run or don’t run advertising. And those are usually very well served by wider discussions and topics. You can even see situations where an agency could work for both sides of the coin. Like, isn’t it more interesting to recognize there are differences and there’s different point of us, and therefore, there’s nothing much that should stop us from advertising one or the other in a way. And I think a great example is, you know, Ogilvy, who are being blamed for working with CBP on one hand, which I, you know, do we agree or not is another question. But on the other produce campaigns, like the Air Mexico Mexican DNA campaign. And so you have to kind of ask yourself, you know, isn’t there a place for?.. Is it in a way benefiting twice from the system? I don’t think in this case, it exactly is but in in general, there is definitely a chance for the agency world and your business world to represent the variety of points of view because not everything has to fit exactly with the way we want to give our life.

Rachel 11:36
I mean, I, I have stronger opinions about the work for the CBP at the end of the day. But I do think to the question that’s coming in, especially from, I would want to say like Gen Z, or even younger now is, they are feeling a far greater responsibility to the fact that they’re inheriting a planet or a society that’s a lot more broken than they ever expected. And so I think there’s a level of idealism or even just urgency that’s coming from them around the fact that like, we just we don’t have time to worry about selling people SUVs anymore. We don’t have time to worry about like whether or not you should buy Diet Coke or Coke Red. I think they’re much more concerned in a lot of their questions of to us as advertisers now is like, why aren’t you doing something more extreme to take a stance against that? And I think here, you and I are just we’ve been part of the system for so long, that it is because we have accepted that as the reality.

Shann 12:43
Do you really believe consumers are asking more now than they did before?

Rachel 12:48
that consumers are?

Shann 12:49
Yeah, I’m not seeing that expectation. I’ve definitely seen surveys where people claim that yes they pay more attention to it, but I have not seen much behaviors that validates it.

Rachel 12:58
Yeah, well, I don’t think any individual it’s like, thinking that they can have an individual impact on anything is relatively low, or given the choice between an expensive natural product or the organic produce and regular produce, they’re still not going to be able to make that purchasing power with their dollars. I think I’m more suggesting that young people in our industry, I think, expect and want more out of us in terms of taking a stronger stance against things like selling SUVs, because they’re continuing to damage the planet. But I don’t think because I think we mentioned this a little bit in the previous episode, because our business is so broken, we’re being expected to do so much more for less. Agencies are consolidating everywhere, the business is in this very precarious place, we haven’t really felt like we’re in a position to make another choice. So I’d like I actually don’t know if you and I could have done this episode and come up with any other answer to the question, because I imagine that you being 15 years in and me being 12 years in, have both accepted the reality of where we are. Not to be really nihilistic about this all thing I’m so sorry.

Shann 14:17
I actually think, you know, what, I, because I felt the same when I was young, and I don’t think it’s necessarily new, I don’t think it’s necessary that would be become, yeah, nihilistic about it. I actually, it’s gonna sound a bit arrogant, I think there’s a little bit of wisdom that comes with age about the fact that the world is not as black and white as you portray it to be. And I’ve definitely become softer about some of the views that I have, there’s things I care deeply about, and I would fight for, but there’s less of them than they used to be. I had more of a black and white view of the world 15, 20 years ago than I do now. Also, because I’ve had the chance to meet and interact with so many different people who sometimes have showed me that your know, “ it’s not that simple”, my friend. And to the point of Diet Coke again, you know, like, it’s not that simple. I think there’s there’s plenty of reasons for these products to exist in these corporations to be able to do a good job. And so yeah, I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem. I do, however, believe and probably that’s the last part of the question, that is definitely not just a question for advertising. There is a wider question about working for certain companies in general. And there are some that you might not want to work for. So I don’t think it’s really just a marketing question. The CFO could be asking himself the same question and so on, right?

Rachel 15:42
Yeah, absolutely. And I think we all make those choices. When we pick and choose where we want to work or where we apply to and the type of work we decide we want to do. I think if we’re all a little bit more idealistic, we would all be teachers or do the Peace Corps or do Greenpeace or something like that?

Shann 16:01
I considered it. Yeah, I looked at a job at Greenpeace at some point!

Rachel 16:05
Did you ever take a job purely based on an idealistic view of the job?

Shann 16:12
No, but I started my career working for movie marketing. And one of the things I liked about it was that ethically speaking, for me, there was very little dilemma working there. I’ve definitely encountered more dilemmas in the last few years, where I became much more varied and worked on certain things. I’m still not, I’m not going to stop it from happening. But I’m still not sure that getting China to buy SUVs is a very, very, very smart thing to do right now, even though the consumer demand is there, there’s clearly a problem. But, working in movies there was this part of me, which always felt like you know what worst case they are going to go see a shit movie. That’s all. There is nothing really kind of bad about it. And it’s quite pleasant, and it actually touches people’s lives. So there was for me, like there was a freedom from dilemma I would say, when I started. More than a choice to work on something that was going to be ethically purposeful.

Rachel 17:08
Do you think that the government should play a role in regulating things that shouldn’t should not be advertised and from an ethical perspective, because for example, the only thing that we’ve really seen that curbed in, is a cigarette advertising as an example. And we see some extreme regulation and things like pharmaceuticals. But do you believe that there’s any other categories?

Shann 17:31
Well, first of all, I definitely agree that government should regulate some of this. You cannot, on the one hand, say, marketing is impactful, and on the other say, well, everything should be able to advertise. No, there are things where I believe it’s just not necessarily right, because you might twist things in a way that should not be managed by a consumer having Top of Mind awareness of certain products. So for me there, there are definitely things that should not be advertised. It doesn’t solve the problem when it’s not advertised. I don’t think so. I think we’re deluding ourselves if we think that the problem is the advertising, it is not very often it’s a much deeper problem. But it does help I think, to put some, some regulations in place. And the other reason I actually like regulation is that regulation is a great way to level the playing field across brands and competitors. It creates, it takes away competitive advantages in a way. And so kind of telling to the entire category, you cannot advertise anymore, is not necessarily going to kill the category. Advertising very often is a competitive edge. It’s not a necessity. But if nobody in your category can advertise, the fact you can’t either doesn’t put you at a huge disadvantage. You’re just playing the same game. So I think regulation is good for that. Generally speaking, I just don’t think banning advertising is the solution. And I just wish people would understand that it’s, there’s something deeper at play, if there’s a problem with a product and that’s advertising is basically a cheap scapegoat for trying to solve it. And it’s a false solution.

Rachel 19:07
Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. All right. Well, I think that’s it for the next episode. And we’ll see you guys next time.

Shann 19:14
Thank you guys. Bye bye.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

The Overthinkers

Ramblings from marketing strategists in the trenches. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts and Soundcloud!

Rachel Mercer

Written by

Executive Strategy Director at R/GA NY. Previously in London, LA & Boulder. I believe writing makes you a better thinker; this is where I develop my thinking.

The Overthinkers

Ramblings from marketing strategists in the trenches. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts and Soundcloud!

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