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

In part two of this series we continue our conversation with Dr. Middleton, who was recently named the winner of the Association of Canadian Advertisers (ACA) Gold Medal Award for his outstanding contributions to the field of marketing. We examine the ethical compliance among advertisers and agencies in Canada, as well as the dangers of and probable causes for not having an ethical framework:

Q: How would you characterize ethical awareness and compliance in the Canadian media industry?

“With respect to advertisers and agencies, ethical awareness in the Canadian media industry is limited. We _Schulich Executive Education Centre_ actually run a training program aimed at clients doing marketing and communications. We have a full day on it taught by John Della Costa who has a book on ethics and advertising put out by the Association of Canadian Advertisers (ACA) on ethical practices in advertising.

I would say, except for the extreme examples, the ethos of the industry is such that most people don’t even think about it. You will get some groups who think about environmental issues as it affects doing advertising. I was at an ad agency when it was still legal to do cigarette promotion. We were offered a cigarette account and I said “I’m not going to make a decision – I’m going to leave it open to my staff”, who didn’t let it go through the gates and so we didn’t accept it. But those are extreme examples.

I think people in the industry tend not to think through the consequences or the implications of what they are accepting to do. “I know that it’s not true but it’s only exaggeration, its only hyperbole” are typical excuses that you will hear. I would say there is a low sensitivity, except in quite major issues.”

Q: What do you think are the reasons for that?

“There are two reasons. Firstly, people aren’t trained in ethical decisions. It’s not that they are trained to avoid it; it’s that they are not trained to identify it. So, with regard to people’s acuity in understanding how far they should really go in dealing with a vulnerable audience, you know that people are not trained to think in those terms.

The second reason is that people get caught up in their jobs. Especially in an agency point of view, because you’re serving your client and they’re paying your bills. Because of that, there’s a tendency to say “Oh, it must be okay”. There was one famous example – it wasn’t unethical – it wasn’t even a lie. It’s what I got caught up in years ago when my agency was asked by a major and reputable paper products company to create advertising for a new diaper that was as good at wetness for babies as Pampers, or so we were told.

We looked at the product and it looked okay, so we did the ad and the client approved. But we didn’t pass it by the regulatory authorities because we were running consumer research and getting really bad responses: not from people about the ads per se, but from people who had tried the product and who said the product was not as good as we claimed in the advertising.

This was before the internet, so the rumour was going around slowly. We phoned up the client and informed him that we were getting all these unfavourable responses about the product and the brand manager said “Look, I’ve got the test results here and we’re equal to Pampers! What do we do?”.

We continued to get more complaints throughout Vancouver so, as the senior account guy, I flew up to there, (I knew the president quite well), and he said “Well, why don’t you go down to the factory and talk to the people on the floor”. So I did, and I asked the foreman; “Are you pleased with the product?”

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“Well have got test results that show this product to be as good as Pampers, and you must notice the quality of the material”, and he started laughing.“We can’t afford to make that,” he tells me.”We cut all the material back to a more affordable measure four months ago.”

He let me take some finished product back to the labs and we found that they had changed it on the production line without telling anybody. They stripped away all the incremental costs that gave an equal wetness protection to babies as the competition. It was now an inferior product. Nobody knew.”

Q: What are the pitfalls of ignoring ethics when planning media?

“You’ve got some obvious ones, so let’s start with those. You’re going to get sued. Your competitor, who thinks you’re doing things unethically, making misleading statements, conveying behaviours that are unethical, will go off on you, provided you have a direct competitor.

If you don’t have a direct competitor, maybe a lobby group or an NGO who draws your attention will sue you. The oil sands are a perfect example of that.

Secondly, if it’s a statement about expectation of performance of the product or service you must remember that the consumer is not stupid. To quote David Ogilvy’s famous phrase, “The consumer is not stupid, she is your mother”.

It’s a reminder to have respect for the consumer. Mostly, over time, you control anybody once or twice – that’s without saying- but if you’re making a statement about something that’s not deliverable or is clearly against social attitudes and social ethics, they will catch you eventually.

The subtle risk of ignoring this facet is that it rewards behaviours in an organization that may continue on and get exaggerated over time. A few years ago we had perfect examples of that in the financial world. These behaviours set a precedent and set you on a slippery slope. If you adopt that kind of attitude, you develop a culture of low ethics or, even more directly, of lying and, it can build. You will get caught. That’s probably the most dangerous one.

There is also an effect on people over time. Corruption is a perfect example where you get used to it. An attitude of “How far can I go without getting caught?” totally distorts demand and control in any legal system and shows a lack of ethical thinking. It’s kind of like a death of a thousand cuts. It gnaws at you.”

In the final part of this series we will investigate the role of an ethical framework in a client-agency relationship and the onus on advertisers to cater to Canada’s increasingly diverse populace. Stay tuned for more!