High competence will always equal low public trust when it comes to ad execs, but ethical standards need to be a company measure

Building on Adam Ferrier's opinion piece published in Mumbrella last week, marketing consultant Rob Farmer says company-by-company, rather than industry consensus, is the only way to address the ethical questions Ferrier raised that go further than the law.

Perhaps foolishly, if people did avoid reading Adam Ferrier’s piece last week, ‘The ethics of advertising: Chances are you won’t read this,’ I’m going to build on it.

The premise was that behaviour-change ad folk don’t like dwelling on the ethics of their effects. (System 2 thinking really is avoided by everyone.) Gallup’s latest (US) public trust results are in and they’re not pretty for ad practitioners. The piece ended with a bit of branded content for Thinkerbell’s new ethics program. Fair enough. I think company-by-company is the way to address ethical questions that go further than the law.

Because measuring progress at the industry level with public trust surveys is pointless. The ad practitioner score is always going to be terrible. (Ad execs are also towards the bottom of the UK’s Veracity Index, and were rock bottom when first added in 2018.) The underlying reason, I believe, is the ‘loss aversion’ bias.

If the pain of losing is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining, then an ad exec’s core competency represents a powerful threat to acts of free will. People don’t like the idea of losing control to strangers trying to make them buy this, use that, or pay more for these. It’s something that happens to other people, not them.

The best ad execs, like the best salespeople of cars, homes etc, are experts you want in your corner as the vendor, because of the outsized effect they’re able to generate for vendors. As the buyer you don’t trust them, because of the outsized effect they’re able to generate for vendors.

I’m a big fan of ‘Should’ve gone to Specsavers.’ Its winning long-term use of a simple human truth has created world-class effectiveness. But let’s acknowledge that it’s possible for it to also be true that OPSM offers better quality optometry equipment and diagnoses. Master communications can neuter others’ advantages for customers.

Ad people tropes in movies and TV series don’t help; nor do the odd occasions the serving suggestion is detached from reality. While these character references escalate the narrative to “they’ll do anything to bend my will,” if eradicated we’re still left with “they’re paid to bend my will.” Imagining all ad execs to be Citroën-driving stoics doesn’t help.

So, ignore the public score. And channel the company’s positive ethical energy into the grey areas, and the interconnectedness of all customer experience.

The grey areas where advertising regulation either hasn’t yet ventured, or hasn’t gone far, could perhaps be segmented by potential negative impacts on society and the vulnerable. For example (not exhaustive): environmental health (e.g. fossil fuel, non-biodegradables); financial health (e.g. gambling, loan debt risks); physical health (e.g. alcohol, fast food, artificial ingredients, ‘dieting culture’); mental health (e.g. problematic representations in advertising, and increasingly – helped by the work of Jonathan Haidt and other scientists – smartphone and social media use in formative adolescence).

Where do you authentically stand on the grey areas, and how might it contribute to your differentiated appeal to the kind of talent you want to attract?

Embracing the interconnectedness of all customer experience is also a further force for good, because it minimises fiction. Seeing things how the customer experiences everything helps ensure that, while the story might have some highly memorable creative flourishes, it all stacks up in the end to end.


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