by Michael Lynch
Advertisers should use their tremendous powers of persuasion ethically – before public outcry forces responsibility on them
I want to talk about how far advertisers should be able to go in trying to convince us how worthwhile their brand's lifestyle is and the kinds of stories they should or shouldn't be telling. I want to discuss ethics in the world of advertising – what messages are justifiable to promote and, more importantly, which messages should be condemned.
Take, for instance, this shirt sold by Urban Outfitters that simply reads, “Eat Less.” Although it isn't promoting a particular brand name or product, it is helping establish a story or lifestyle that Urban Outfitters wants to portray. Assuming young females do have these kinds of thoughts, is it ethically permissible to endorse that kind of thinking?
It is important that advertisers are to some degree held accountable for the messages they so intimately and overwhelmingly inject into our personal lives. I say “to some degree,” since advertisers are not wholly responsible for the decisions people make. Consumers should be educated enough to make good decisions on their own and think critically.
This particular shirt was quickly pulled off the shelves after an onslaught of negative press. Clearly there is a sizable demographic out there mindful of what messages advertisers are delivering and who cares enough to voice their opinions forcefully. But it shouldn’t have to come to this. Urban Outfitters should have known better – and probably do now, with their brand severely tarnished. Advertisers wield a lot of power, which they should use ethically, without having to be pressured by public outcry. As Spiderman once put it, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Let’s look at another example: the free children's toys included in McDonald's Happy Meals. Different municipalities have proposed banning the toys, including Santa Clara County in California. Ban advocates want to "prevent restaurants from preying on children's' love of toys" and "ban any toy handouts if they're part of high-calorie meals (like burgers and fries)." In response to such bans, Danya Proud, a McDonald’s spokesperson, claims, "[The ban is] not what our customers want, nor is it something they asked for. . . . Getting a toy with a kid's meal is just one part of a fun, family experience at McDonald's."
The problem lies in using a kid’s love of toys to promote unhealthy foods. Is it ethical for McDonalds to make this kind of association? I want to be clear that I'm not talking about legality. Unfortunately law and ethics don’t always go hand in hand. This leads to further questions about how far a government should intervene in the social lives of its citizens. Although I don't have a pat answer, I just want to point out that these kinds of issues often get overlooked and need to be addressed.
Going back to the differences between law and morality, I want to mention Canada's Code of Advertising Standards, which is designed "to help set and maintain standards of honesty, truth, accuracy, fairness and propriety in advertising." Notice, however, that ethics are not mentioned here. The primary objectives of these standards seem to be transparency and fairness; valuable, of course, but not of much help if the message being endorsed is ethically wrong.
The Advertising Standards do touch on ethics indirectly, especially when it comes to children. They state: "Advertising that is directed to children must not exploit their credulity, lack of experience or their sense of loyalty, and must not present information or illustrations that might result in their physical, emotional or moral harm." The Urban Outfitter's Eat Less shirt and the McDonald's Happy Meals toys seem exploitative and harmful by this definition. Unfortunately the Advertising Standards are merely guidelines.
My point is that it isn't enough to ensure that advertisers market their products truthfully and transparently. For the long-term health of their brands and the wider public, they need to always be asking themselves if they are doing the right thing.
Michael Lynch is a web developer currently working at Teehan+Lax, one of Toronto's burgeoning digital agencies. With only a few years of experience, Michael has worked at several small and medium sized shops where he has done work for such companies as RBC Royal Bank, The Discovery Channel, The Discovery Network, Bacardi, MSN and Bell Canada. Follow him at @michaelynch.