Can Advertising Ever Be Ethical?

July 2019

The advertising industry commands $563billion a year globally and continues to flex an influence over everything from pasta to politics – half of which is now digital. The industry, which has never had more money flowing through its veins, is now also going through identity, creativity and ethical crises.

What is the role of advertising in the face of problems like climate change? Gender equality? The rich/poor divide? As Google, Facebook and Amazon gobble up ad dollars, causing more reliance on clicks and metrics, will advertising get more or less ethical? 


Is advertising even working anymore?

While Cannes pumped out a lot of new lions this year, many seemed to be unhappy with the calibre and the state of the industry. A study from the IPA questioning the effectiveness of creative work didn’t help matters either. The report argued that short-term work is rendering creativity and awards meaningless. Tracey Follows, Founder of Futuremade, a strategic foresight consultancy, isn’t convinced;

I think it would be interesting to look more deeply into the case studies in the data bank. Are they confined to a specific type of ad agency? Are they written in a way that is now less reflective of modern-day media? In a world of Snapchat and TikTok, long term brand building feels less relevant than spontaneity and immediacy. How much are these latest findings a reflection of a changing media landscape where short-term and long-term might no longer be the right categorisation. Perhaps personalised versus public brand comms or immersive versus assistive media experiences will become more relevant in time.”

Follows has a good point, we live in a fast-paced, content-rich, time-poor world and what worked in the 80s, when people had fewer channels, choices and calls on their attention, is simply not realistic in today’s society. Could we go back to that again? Perhaps, but brands will have to come up with killer campaigns and work with frenemies if they don’t want to spend the earth on getting those messages to us.

The mood of the 80s, 90s and even 00s each had different tones and different success strategies. But as the system is fragmenting and ad blockers are being baked into browsers, the ad industry has never had to work harder to stay relevant and make an impact.


Perhaps there’s a better way

Another glimmer of hope comes from Good-Loop, an ethical advertising startup that’s not only turning a tidy profit already but also physically doing good for the planet. Founder Amy Williams believes making advertising more ethical is a question of metrics; “The key to making advertising more ethical is understanding and acknowledging that in order for it to be scalable, ‘purpose’ has to move the needle on important metrics such as engagement, recall and brand uplift. As we always say at Good-Loop, we’re not in the business of doing good purely for the sake of doing good. We are proudly one of a new breed of ‘Zebra’ companies: openly both black and white – for profit and for purpose at the same time.”

Williams isn’t all talk either. The company is delivering metrics that clients want to hear; “A recent campaign with KitKat, where every time someone chose to engage with their advert, a donation was unlocked to fund sustainable cocoa farming initiatives, drove a 13% uplift in brand perception and a 20% uplift in purchase intent. It’s about helping people, ‘walking the walk’ and selling products.”


Advertising can be ethical

It is not, by design, an evil empire here only to sell us things we don’t need (although that is part of the industry). Different elements act on best intentions but you cannot, as they say, polish a turd and expect everyone to bow down forever. The future is anything but certain. Active pushes are aiming to curb advertising in whole cities and commuters can now use specially polarised glasses to block out all screens. 

Creatives, designers and clients need to make better decisions, choices and educate themselves on stereotypes, societal make-up, trends to change (and challenge) narratives. Perhaps this means turning down work – something that can almost feel and appear a sacrilegious act these days but if the industry is to get better, senior bodies have to help younger generations get tougher with clients and make it easier to make bolder decisions.

Paul Armstrong runs HERE/FORTH, an emerging technology advisory, is the author of ‘Disruptive Technologies’ and regularly writes about technology and society for Forbes, Reuters and Cool Hunting. He is also the creator of TBD the conference which attendees described as ‘TED… without the bullsh!t’.