Ethical Advertising

I’m in a movie theatre, waiting for a film to start. My friends and I tend to watch blockbusters because we’re easily entertained. With the world slowly burning down around us, it’s nice to spend a couple of hours every weekend pretending that tech billionaires would invest their money into armoured flight suits and personally attempt to save the world. The first few ads are familiar, and again make me extremely curious about Desi Dhaba’s advertising strategy. How does a smallish restaurant on Flinders Street always seem to pop up on the cinema ads at Hoyts Melbourne Central? Are they just buying ad space in one cinema? Distressed space? How much is their budget? While secretly praying that whoever wrote the copy for the ad would never find matching socks forever more, a slick new ad pops on. It’s about “clean” coal.


There is, in case you haven’t realized, no such thing as “clean” coal. I could go on an hours-long rant about this, but to sum it up in a way that involves less invective:

The best of the new breed of plants can reduce emissions by up to 40 per cent compared to some older-style coal-fired power stations, according to the International Energy Agency. But to call this “clean coal” is misleading. The new generation plants are less damaging to the environment, but they are not clean.

Even the best of the high-efficiency, low-emission plants emit far more carbon into the atmosphere than gas-fired power stations. Coal, by nature, is not clean. Aside from releasing CO2, which contributes to global warming, burning coal releases sooty particulates that can cause cancer and respiratory problems, sulphur and nitrogen, which contribute to acid rain, and other toxic chemicals.

Advertising, I like to think, gets a bad rap. There’s good work that gets done. Ads that can help drive change in ways both large or incremental. Often, though, there’s also stuff like this.

Nothing Is Real Anyway

Everything you see in an ad is fake. Cats unerringly choosing a certain brand of catfood? The other bowls probably had a layer of petroleum on it or something. That happy family you see on screen? Probably not remotely related. That delicious shot of fried chicken falling through the air? Possibly CG. That huge, stacked, fluffy McDonalds burger? Stuffed with tissues and pins and glazed. Not convinced? There’s tons of vids out there about the tricks of the trade, like so:

Everything’s more glamorous after post-production. Advertising is the art of pushing a better, more idealised world to a customer in the hope that they’d part with some money for whatever our client’s selling. With this in mind, does it matter whether the ad is presenting a set of alternative facts? The whole ad itself is technically an alternative fact, isn’t it? We like to think so. We think there’s a difference between a little lie — like a raw chicken painted to look like a roast chicken — and a big lie, aka that coal is a fuel source that doesn’t damage the environment.

Define the Thing

What is ethical advertising, you might ask. Just ads that don’t lie? If all ads lie in some way, what is an acceptable non-truth? I would say that ethical advertising:

  • Is effective: aka it meets its key objectives and has decent ROI
  • Doesn’t involve much moral compromise in concept
  • Doesn’t have a fundamental message that is untrue
  • Doesn’t create, perpetuate, or encourage harmful situations or outcomes
  • Doesn’t break the law

Basically, to sum it up, ethical advertising does the thing that Google used to have as their brand message: it does no evil.

Ethical Advertising for Profit

It’s easy to make ethical advertising when you work for something like a nonprofit, you’d say. What if you’re shilling a fast food burger? You can’t exactly write the truth into the ad. Everyone knows that McDonald’s burgers don’t look as good in real life as they do in an ad. To what extent can you stretch reality without it being unethical?

Clients do increasingly care about messaging in advertising and branding. Putting political advertising aside, which is a whole ‘nother kettle of terrible fish, you’ve probably already seen the occasional backlash against brands coming from both sides of the political spectrum whenever there’s a particularly egregious lie or message. There was the pushback against the body-shaming “Bikini Ready” ads by Protein World in 2015, for example. Or the recent, laughable pushback against positive masculinity ads by Gillette. Overall, however, clients are more willing to support brands that push social conscience or environmental responsibility. Via the Guardian:

The numbers add up. Neilsen’s global retail analysis shows increased sales for brands with sustainability claims on packaging or active marketing of CSR efforts. What’s more, 55% of global online consumers across 60 countries say they are willing to pay more for products and services provided by companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact. On top of this, The 2015 Brand Footprint report published by Kantar Worldpanel shows that brands with a social conscience grew in popularity, Dove among them.

It’s not a stretch of the imagination to see where the wind is blowing: towards more socially conscious, “authentic” advertising. The messaging is far more likely to stick in the right way if it’s true. It’ll also attract positive attention to the brand, which would enforce existing customer loyalty and maybe even reach new customers.

Sex, Money, Puppies

Several years ago I attended a talk where a brand guru said that there are three things that easily sell: sex, money, puppies. Maybe not all at once. There are indications that this isn’t necessarily entirely true:

A classic study conducted by Baker and Churchill in 1977 found that advertising models’ physical attractiveness increased viewers’ attention as well as their positive evaluations of the ads. But at the same time, it found that sexual content in ads did not affect respondents’ deeper cognitions, thus rendering physical attraction ineffective in gaining the target market’s acceptance of the advertising message.

Similarly, Parker and Furnham in 2007 realized that sexual ad content had no effect on viewers’ abilities to recall details of television commercials. The study also found that women recalled ads without sexual content better than they did sexualized ads.

A more recent study conducted in July at Ohio State University discovered an even more conflicting effect. Violent and sexual content in ads again succeeded in grabbing attention, but it also overshadowed other important aspects of the marketing effort, including the product being promoted. As a result, the researchers concluded that sex and violence in ads actually impeded product memory and lessened purchase intentions.

Sexualised advertising that objectifies people doesn’t work, so why is it still ubiquitous? Because of mistaken assumptions that it sells. We should all take a closer look at what we think we know, even as we figure out what we think we understand about the campaigns we create and their consequences. Curious and need a chat? Get in touch. In the meantime, bring on the puppy ads.

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