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.