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

A common misconception about ‘ethical’ behaviour is that it means giving back to the community, being environmentally friendly or transparent. While all of this may be true, ethics is not so much about acting in a certain way but rather being aware of all options and carefully choosing how to proceed. What might seem like ethical behaviour to one individual might be completely ludicrous to another. A great example of this is the trolley problem, which has puzzled people since 1967.

Ethical diversity is compounded in large organizations where different departments may work under various ethical guidelines or worse – none whatsoever! A diversity of religious, political and social backgrounds also amplifies this noise and sends inconsistent signals to customers. For advertising and media agencies, an ethical dilemma might be an opportunity to stand out and shine or disappoint a client and break their trust.

So what issues do Canadian advertisers and media agencies face today and how can we best prepare for them? I sat down with Dr. Alan Middleton, the esteemed Professor of Marketing at the Schulich School of Business at York University to discuss the way forward for advertisers in the multicultural ethical jungle that is advertising in Canada. This 3-part series answers some of these questions and raises some more interesting ones. I hope you enjoy!

Q: What are the most crucial ethical issues advertisers in Canada face today?


(Laughs, sighs)

“In no particular order:

Truth telling is always an issue in this era when marketers spent most of their time talking about product performance and functional delivery of the product. Obviously, now that era is gone, but some of the issues remain. In a lot of categories such as alcohol, health and beauty, food and beverage, if you are using traditional broadcast media you must get your claims cleared by various levels of government prior to airing. In non-broadcast media, and new media in particular, there is no such clearance so the only check on truth telling is the legal system and the assumption that it will very rarely be a consumer group registering a complaint. Consumer groups only ever occasionally take advertisers to the various regulatory authorities. Mostly, it is an aggressive competitor who is looking and what you are saying and determining whether or not it is exaggerated or untrue.

One of the issues in social media is just that – where is the check on the truth? The good news is that we know from various studies that people don’t believe the stuff they see on social media unless it is repeated 4 or 5 times and comes from 4 or 5 different sources. So the basic, raw intelligence of most consumers is a mitigating factor but it still is an issue as the responsibility ultimately lies with the advertiser and the agency to say how much of an exaggeration is useable or acceptable.


Second area of ethical dilemma – changing social attitudes, involves things like the use of women as sexual figures, and the use of ethnically diverse actors and artists. The whole area changes based on social morals as we determine what is acceptable over time.

Some years ago I was involved with a wonderful woman who was talking about use of ethnic diversity and she convinced Proctor & Gamble to test the same commercial shot in two different ways. One, which was how they had originally planned it, was basically using all white women. And the other, as is more evident in the streets of Toronto – a more multi-racial group. And then, they tested it.


They didn’t ask specifically about the racial profile – they just asked a series of general questions. One of the things that arose with the commercial using all white women was that somehow to people it looked out of date, compared to the commercial using the blended approach. So consumers may not be saying specifically, “do this, don’t do that” – but they are saying “that’s not the reality I live in”. This is very encouraging.


The question is: how much is overt sexuality or sexual discrimination? And that’s always been an interesting front to battle because we’re now in an era where both male and female figures are used for their physical attributes. I mean, the best example (fortunately with a great deal of humour) was Old Spice – absolutely using sexuality but using it in a fashion that is both positive and very humorous.


I don’t think anyone minded that point of view. Now if he’d been serious – firstly it wouldn’t have been as effective and secondly, you have to ask – would it have been offensive? You’re probably going to get a proportion of your target group who think that it’s unethical because it’s using people for their physical characteristics rather than as whole people. So you have to make up your mind when it comes to ethnicity, gender and those kinds of areas: are you in keeping with the morals of the time?


A third area is who you advertise for. Right now there’s an aggressive campaign going on for the Alberta oil sands. In the past, when it was legal, you had discussions like “Cigarettes are legal, is it legal to advertise cigarettes?” If it’s legal, should you be doing it? So there is an ethical consideration of the kinds of products and services that are advertised and how they are advertised.


Let’s say you’re in charge of social media and you set up some company called “Teen Fun”. And on Teen Fun’s website you just happen to show some teens smoking on their way to a club. Is that ethical or not? It’s an interesting issue – the product is legal, the advertising is not yet banned in social media (and it would be very difficult for the government to do that) but everybody knows it is bad advertising in all traditional media. Is it ethical to do that or not?

One could argue both sides to that question. While it’s a legal product – why not? But do you really feel good about encouraging young people to take up smoking? I wouldn’t feel so good about that. It’s the sensitivity and the ethical issue around what you encourage people to do.


So how ethically conscious must an advertiser and their agency be to adapt to changes in social mores? 10 years ago this wasn’t really a problem but now we’re getting a bit more protectionist and asking questions.


The fourth one is the most difficult one. We all know that people respond to marketing communications in a way that isn’t always a linear fashion compared to what all the messages and communications say. It’s called the stimulus-response rule and it’s why most good communicators know that it doesn’t matter what you’re saying – it matters what response you stimulate in somebody else.


So what happens if you consciously structure a message to be misunderstood in your favour? So you’re not lying in your communications – you’re setting up a series of visuals that you’ve tested it in a way that it’s going to achieve an appropriate misleading response. You can defend it with the regulatory authorities – “I’m not saying anything untrue here”. The government still thinks you should judge marketing communications by what’s in the script as opposed to how people like you respond to it. It’s very tricky since skilled communicators are good at deliberately setting up a message to be misunderstood.


Recognizing that social media is an influencer medium, how ethical is it to start rumours that are untrue?

I introduce my marketing communications classes to my students every year by saying “If any of you put internet sources as backup for fact, you will fail”, because the internet is the biggest rumour mill in the world without suitable support and backup. And unfortunately, with the loss in credibility of authority figures, there is a tendency of rumours about things to go around.


I’ll give you two examples in the pre-world wide web world:


In the 1950s the leading brand of beer in Quebec was Dow. Dow had a rather unfortunate incident in its production and one of its workers died. Regrettably the employee was alcoholic and was drinking far too much beer and so he died on the job. The word got around in bars, in part encouraged by their competitors, that drinking Dow beer is not very good for you because somebody at the plant died.

Now, whether that would have had a permanent effect is interesting, but Dow totally mishandled it and they took a film crew to the site and showed a batch of beer being dumped and put it on the newsreel. The instant response was that everybody thought the rumour was true. Dow beer no longer exists. It essentially killed the brand.


There’s another Quebec incident involving a brand of cigarettes, in the days when cigarette advertising was allowed. Their competitors passed around a rumour that the filter in the brand contained silicon; it was true, by the way, but an insignificant quantity. But the very rumour they were was spreading around that it contained silicon resonated with a bunch of news going around about how silicon was bad for you, and the brand of cigarettes died.

We know increasingly that peer groups are more trusted so, if you get 3-4 groups of people saying it – even if the rumour is totally untrue – you get false information across. A public relations agent or an advertiser or someone engaged in social media can put this false information around with no control over it. And unless you can find out where it originated, and sue them through the law – which of course is very difficult to track in social media, and more difficult to get a prosecution – the damages would probably be done.

The evidentiary example of that is to look at political candidates in the US when they get stuck with a particular reputation whether or not it may be true. Think about the recent episode surrounding Obama’s birthplace. In that case, you know the Obama people had huge evidentiary proof to put it out – but it was still a major distraction for a while and that’s a very easy thing to do.”

In part two of this series we examine ethical awareness and compliance in the Canadian media industry. Stay tuned!