Posted July 27, 2010 10:57 am by with 4 comments

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Advertising suffers from a reputation problem. Here at Marketing Pilgrim we are very interested in online reputation management but even the best social media monitoring tools can’t help some industries. Of course, when you spend years simply ignoring how poorly you are viewed by the public in general, it doesn’t help. This is how the advertising industry has put together its stellar reputation that it is now trying to control a bit with the help of the oldest journalism school in the country, The University of Missouri School of Journalism.

The Huffington Report says

Industry leaders are teaming up with the nation’s oldest journalism school to launch the Institute for Advertising Ethics. Among the research center’s goals is to improve the public image of a business that spent $125 billion last year but isn’t exactly known for its bedrock principles and unwavering scruples.

Whether it’s the duplicitous exploits of fictional television character Don Draper or the latest penalties levied by the Federal Trade Commission, the ad industry struggles to put its best face forward. A 2007 Gallup survey ranked advertisers among the least trustworthy professionals – barely beating out lobbyists and car salesmen.

It’s funny in some ways but actually quite pathetic in many others that the advertising industry has sunk to this level. I would be interested to see that survey conducted today to see if there has been any movement either up or down. I suspect it’s either about the same or even worse but that’s just a guess.

So why this desire to self-police?

“Because it is persuasion, advertising is viewed in a questionable way by a lot of people,” said Margaret Duffy, a former ad executive who now teaches at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and is helping to organize the ethics institute.

But even though the industry’s fundamental purpose is to convince shoppers to buy a product they may not actually need, such persuasion can be done in an “ethical and tasteful” way, she added.

Honestly, if this is the attitude of one of the founders of the institute I can only imagine what’s going to come out of it as it develops. Maybe there will be a guide called “How to Make People Buy Things They Don’t Want but Still Feel Good About Your Profession” or how about “Top Ten Ways to Screw Someone Without Them Feeling It”.

Sorry I seem a bit negative on this one but when an industry built on spin starts to spin ethics then it’s hard to figure out what is spin and what is, well, something else.

This group though is convinced that there is good to be done. The leader of the institute is visiting professor, Wally Snyder, who is a former FTC (Federal Trade Commission) lawyer and American Advertising Federation president. He realizes that he has a tough road ahead with such reputation luminaries as lawyers and members of Congress having higher trust scores than advertisers according to Gallup. That’s pretty impressive, huh?!

But if the industry is thinking any way like this following agency owner then all we can say is “Best of luck, Wally!”

Mark Fleisher, owner of a small advertising agency in central Pennsylvania near Harrisburg, says the industry doesn’t need to be reminded of the importance of ethical behavior. It just needs to increase the honesty quotient.

“The industry has become more ethical because the clients have become smarter,” he said. “Agencies are still going to pull whatever they need to (clinch a deal). And those agencies will run roughshod over the honest ones. That’s been going on for years.”

Increase the honesty quotient? Industry has become more ethical because clients have become smarter? I’m not even sure how to respond to those kinds of assessments. Let’s put it this way, if the institute is generating revenue there looks to be plenty of job security in the future.

Of course, there will be the ‘big boys’ running the show with board members from Procter & Gamble, Omnicom Group, WPP and Ketchum but as Jim Edwards, a former Adweek managing editor puts it

“History does not suggest that these things catch on very well,” he said. “There’s a structural problem in the advertising business. The entire industry is engaged in a race to the bottom. Whoever can do it the cheapest and the fastest wins.”

I realize I have taken the cynical approach to this kind of endeavor. What are your thoughts? Is it possible to self-police the ad industry like this group and the Interactive Advertising Bureau are suggesting?

Let’s hear your take.

  • “Industry has become more ethical because clients have become smarter?”

    I picked up on that as well. To me, ethical behavior cannot be this utilitarian–it has to be engaged in for its own sake or out of truly thinking about others, not out of fearing them or the repercussions of non-ethical behavior.

    This stinks of bad, desperate PR. Whether advertising’s “image problem” is inherent to what it does, and whether it’s inescapable–that I don’t know.

  • “The industry’s fundamental purpose is to convince shoppers to buy a product they may not actually need.”

    There’s a political, philosophical, and societal agenda behind this claim – and “need” is a loaded term. Do you really need underarm deodorant? A candy bar? A dishwasher? A mobile phone? I would venture to guess the folks who claim advertisers are trying to dupe the public essentially think many of the goods and services being marketed aren’t actual ‘needs’.

    Secondly, marketers who spend their money trying to convince shoppers to buy a product they don’t need will fail miserably. Thus most marketing communications is focused on changing behavior/brand preference, not convincing people buy a product they have no need for.

    People may draw the conclusion that advertisers want to do otherwise. I can do without seeing another ad for tampons or motorized scooters, but this is an outcome of inefficient targeting, not a ploy to get me to buy/use their tampons. Advertisers have no desire to waste money engaging people who don’t have a need or intent to buy the product/service they are marketing.

  • I am pleased the Associated Press chose to quote my thoughts on ethics in the Advertising Industry. As I read the responses from readers, I realize there are two different topics of ethics being discussed. The first being the truth in advertising such as advertising messages that are not quite true or misleading and the other being the relationship between advertising agencies and their clients. My remarks were about the latter. In this tight economy, clients are scrutinizing overinflated charges and the agencies relationship with media. No longer can an agency charge an arm and leg for a drag and click. Clients are also questioning the media buys and how the agency justifies the rates. The Mad Men episode on Sunday night alluded to their second floor as to make them sound like a bigger agency. In competing for an account if my agency is honest about what we are capable of doing for our clients but our competition is lying their heads off we feel the playing field is not even. So I welcome an ethics committee but have little hope they will change bad practitioners but maybe these decisions will call them out. I would like to suggest to the ethics committee that they try to educate clients as to how to choose an agency.

    Mark Fleisher,

  • adjunky

    Hi Frank. I just came across this old blog of yours and see you found the misquote a student reporter made from an interview he did with me about a comment I left on the Adage Daily website three years ago announcing the launch of the AAF Institute on Ethics. I will copy my exact comment to that article below, including misspellings and poor grammer.

    “When I first saw this story Monday morning, the first thing I thought of
    was what has changed. Ethics have always been an issue in the Ad
    Industry. It’s obvious what has changed. The economy!

    Because of the economy, advertisers are scrutinizing all of their
    expenses more than ever. One of the most begrudging expenses is
    advertising. As a result, all of the scrutiny the industry is under is
    exposing a lot of dishonesty that was never seen before.

    It is hard to imagine how the Institute for Ethics would change
    anything. To think if they set guidelines, all of a sudden everyone will
    follow them is naive.

    The solution I suggest is for the practitioners in our industry to hold
    each other accountable. As the professionals we would like to be known
    as, we have always been very careful about knocking each other. This has
    been the only code of ethics I have ever heard in our industry. I’ll
    watch your back and you watch mine.

    It’s time to start calling out the dishonesty practitioners and the only
    sure wya to do that is to police ourselves.”

    If you remember the article, the stated reason for creating this Institute was to improve the image of the industry with the consumers. The student from the University of Missouri by the way, who interviewed me twisted my words and perpetrated exactly what the industry claims it is trying to stop. What I was trying to say, perhaps not so eloquently is the problem in the industry is not mistrust with the consumer, it is mistrust with the clients it serves. But again, they were trying to spin the story. I am sorry if you are offended by my disdain for the lack of honesty that I believe exists in the industry. But I believe the Institutes stated objective is red herring.

    Take Care, Mark