Let’s get ethical

I recently came across an awards book from 1997. With every ad, the creatives seemed to say: look what bad boys we are! 20 years later, the message in Cannes is the opposite: look what good boys we are! Why this remarkable change?

Critics say advertising brainwashes people into buying too many expensive luxuries. If only clients had this much faith in the power of ads! In reality, agencies struggle to make one ketchup brand slightly more popular than the others. And expensive Veblen goods are usually not advertised by agencies. But everyone’s entitled to their opinion. No problem.

Unless this is your opinion and you work in advertising. Then you’ll have to invent a creative story to justify your inconsistency. Of course, you can trust advertising people to do just that. The result is advertising that doesn’t sell a product, but an idea. The idea is that advertising makes the world better. And the target audience is the ad industry itself.

In a recent column, Tom de Bruyne writes: “Can the creativity we develop in the marketing communications industry, in the end lead to a better world? I think we are fooling ourselves and this shows we’re completely blind to what we do.” He asks if instead of creative idealists, we’re not (in the words of comedian Bill Hicks) ‘Satan’s little helpers’.

I propose a third way of looking at it. Lawyers defend the innocent and guilty. Doctors cure babies and gangsters. I’ve yet to meet a cab driver who only takes good people to the airport*. From accountants to architects and dentists, society finds it perfectly acceptable that professionals work for whoever hires them. Why should advertising be any different?

Maybe it’s the art school background of many of today’s creative directors. They were trained to make the mindless masses Stop and Think. Which also explains why their ads rarely make people Go and Do. And maybe we have lost our working class roots. Some privileged ad school grads find ‘just’ working for a living distasteful. (Gee, I wonder why so little of their advertising resonates with regular people!)

Don’t get me wrong. Creativity can do good. Brilliant creative people invented an incubator that can be fixed in any African auto repair shop. There’s also a creative hero who makes free prostheses for children. If that’s you, I salute you. But most of us are simply professionals for hire. Not the good guys in any story, not the bad guys either. Probably not even a major character, if we’re honest. But we get to make a living by being creative and figuring out what makes people tick. And that’s more than good enough for me.

* Then again, he wouldn’t take an evil mind manipulator like me!