Ethics in Canadian Advertising – A Conversation with Dr. Alan Middleton – Part Three

This is the final chapter in our three-part series on Ethics in Canadian advertising. So far we have looked at the most crucial ethical issues advertisers in Canada face, examined ethical awareness in the industry and explored the dangers ignoring ethical considerations. Today we continue our discussion with Dr. Middleton on the role of an ethical framework in a client-agency relationship and how advertisers are adapting to Canada’s increasingly diverse populace:

Q: How important is an ethical framework to a client-agency relationship? What can we do to bring agencies and client expectations in line?

Very important because it is all about trust, ultimately. I have written material for the ACA and the ICA about client-agency relationships and there are things you can do to formalize relationships so that you share information, know what’s going on and you have agreed on strategy. There’s all that formal stuff but, ultimately, it all comes down to trust.

If you trust the client, they are involving you, telling you the truth, and if the client trusts you and you’re not manipulating the figures, and you really are putting some of your best talent to work for them, then that only helps the relationship. It does come back to trust. You have to ask yourself; “Do I trust what someone is telling me and what they are doing?” And in those types of environments, relationships are inevitably better. That’s not just my opinion. We know that in all supplier-customer relationships, where there’s high degree of earned trust, there tends to be more positive relations – whether it’s an accountant or a lawyer or a consultant or an ad agency.

For many years I was the senior account manager on a large soft drink company account and once, during a review, I actually said to the client “You know, you never give us any credit for getting the strategies right”. And he commented “Alan, that’s automatic for you guys!” There was a very high degree of trust. When you screw up – and I screwed up massively once – it cost $350,000. I phoned up the client and said “Come on, let me buy you a drink, it’s not going to be good news. We screwed up.”

Because I told them at the time they, and not the agency, assumed the cost and it was due to the transparency of the relationship. We did pay them back a year later by giving them the breakthrough campaign that drove them to brand leadership and I got promoted. (Chuckles_.

Q: Given the growing diversity of the Canadian population what onus is on advertisers to speak to Canada’s ethnic communities in their communications apart from the commercial advantages?

It’s not an onus. This is about intelligence. Ignoring _these trends_ is just plain stupid. I don’t just mean targeting the ethnic communities or recent immigrant communities, which is good business sense. Ignoring these communities means they are not recognizing them and not recognizing the diversity of the population. For the majority of the people living in major cities, it’s just unrealistic. It’s just not who we are.

AM asks: How long have you been in Toronto?

‘SK: This is my fifth year here

Back before you were in Toronto, there was a small start-up TV station which is now a big television station called CityTV. They were the first television station to have a clearly multi-ethnic background – both announcers and the people who were working in their newsroom. They were also the first news station to show people walking around rather than sitting behind desks. They were hiring reporters and commentators from diverse backgrounds and they were the first in Canada to do so. They taught the rest of the TV stations to jump on board.

But what is interesting is how much the media noticed what they were doing while the audience said (shrugs shoulders) “Yeah, so? That’s my road. I walk down the street and that’s what it looks like.” So there was no shock to the audience, the shock was to the media. I was brought up in the UK and can remember when the BBC started developing regional accents as opposed to BBC English. So yes, it’s controversial in some ways – we have racist areas in the country, I’m sad to say. They tend to be very narrow communities, though.

So yes, there are issues but for the majority of the country, there are not. If you scratch beneath the surface there is a bit of stereotyping that goes on but for most Canadians, the reality of multiculturalism is all around you. The fact that you show somebody from Jamaica as the father in an ad for just about to have a baby, doesn’t mean it’s only going to appeal only to Jamaicans. There’s the assumption that he’s just another human being and somebody else’s father. So we’re not in a perfect world for Canada despite all our beliefs but at least for most people _diversity_ is the reality of their world we’re in so it’s no big deal. It’s part of normalcy.

There was a brilliant ad – I wish I’d done it – a few years ago by my friend’s agency, for the Ontario government. I want you to imagine a television screen. On the left hand side of the screen is probably a Jamaican Canadian and on the right there’s a crawling super. And he’s looking at the camera. The super goes: “First crime committed at the age of 10, broke in, beat old woman up. Sent to juvenile prison. Next crime committed at the age of 15….” it keeps going like that “committed first murder at…” and you’re looking at this and you’re looking at this very tough Jamaican guy. Then super pauses and the bigger type appears; “This is Chief Inspector so and so who put this person in jail”. And it was brilliant because you realize, and it got me – I was brought up in a multi-ethnic area of London – my neighbours were Irish Jamaican – you name it. I’ve always prided myself on not being racist; not even thinking in those terms, but it got me.

Seeing that black face and seeing the super about the history of crime, I made the automatic assumption that it was that person. It just made me think at the end that this is a policeman who made the arrest not the person who had that record. And it was brilliant _because it made me go_ “Oh f#$%, where have I been? What about that sense of pride I have in my ability to think beyond stereotypes?”. And I hadn’t, there I was just confronted by one. It was brilliant.

Part of the way we survive in the world is through stereotypes because we don’t have time to do full analyses of everything and a lot of the time it works for us. Stereotyping is understandable, it’s not right, mind you, but it’s understandable. Only by working together and by community leaders taking responsibility for it will we be able to get rid of some of these nonsense stereotypes.

I used that example of the Jamaican police officer to make another point. Although it was paid for by the Canadian government it was a wonderful example of what communication can do to get people thinking about ethical issues. It would be nice if we saw a little more of that.

I hope you enjoyed this series on Ethics in Canadian advertising. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments and explore the links below for more resources:

The Canadian Code of Advertising Standards

• Media Awareness Network

• Canadian Marketing Association: Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice

• Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada