Morals and ethics often exist in several shades of grey. Having worked for, started and run agencies for Euro RSCG and WPP in the nineties and noughties we have often believed advertising view ‘Ethics’ is as a county in South East England. But as we motor on into the twenties, ethical advertising and branding is big business which makes it something of a dichotomy and paradox. This does not always sit well with brand consumers, especially the important millennials.
According to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) in the United states the ethics of advertising includes focusing on the truth, providing evidence for claims and disclosing all affiliations in advertising. The ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) in the UK has a similar approach.
This is a lot easier today, when global companies have much more transparent and rigorous reporting lines. We well remember getting involved with the damage limitation for Cadbury Schweppes, who we were working for in 2001, when it became apparent that by importing 90% of their Cocoa from plantations in Ghana, they were seen to be actively supporting and promoting forced child labour. Even today many globally-recognised clothing brands still struggle to ensure that no child labour is involved in their supply chains, while extolling the virtues of childhood and freedom in their advertising.
So, what does this all mean for regulators both sides of the Atlantic?
Focus on the Truth
Above all, ethical advertising needs to focus on the truth. The FTC enforces truth-in-advertising laws, which dictate that advertisements must be truthful and not misleading, and cannot be unfair. This applies to any advertisement regardless of where it appears, be it television, radio, print, online, billboard or other locations. When dealing with advertisements for food, drugs, alcohol and tobacco, in addition to children’s products, the FTC pays special attention and monitors industry best practices. The ASA in the UK has a very similar standards in regulating advertising.
Provide Substantiated Evidence
Related closely to the truth, ethical advertising must ensure that any claims are substantiated by scientific evidence when possible. When dealing with health products, over-the-counter medications and dietary supplements, it’s especially important to provide solid backing for any claims or testimonials. The evidence needs to be objective. Consumers spend billions of pounds and dollars in this area each year, so it’s imperative to meet ethical guidelines when advertising these kinds of products or services.
Disclose All Affiliations
While advertising laws apply online as well, new issues arise as new technology is developed. The FTC regulates any disclosures be made in online ads as close to the claim as possible. For example, if an online ad makes a claim that can be misleading or deceptive, then certain qualifying information must be disclosed — otherwise, the ad is no longer considered truthful. The FTC insists that any affiliations within the ad or promotion be clear and conspicuous. If a blogger, for example, is writing about a fitness product which they are being paid by the company to promote, they must then disclose their affiliation with the company and let the audience know that they are being paid to write that post.
However, Digital marketing has bought about much in terms of tracking users which is far from ethical and very intrusive. How can you protect consumers from this?
So much ad tech has been built to track users. Following them across the web, from site to site, showing the same ads and gathering data about them. Then retailers sell your purchase data to try and attribute sales to advertising. This has given rise to an industry which creates fake ad-clicks and other scams, which leads the ad industry to track you even more intrusively to know more about you. The current advertising industry is in a vicious downward spiral.
At DVC Consultants, we understand the massive downsides of the current advertising industry. This includes malware, slow site performance, and huge databases of your personal data being sold to the highest bidder.
The trend in advertising is to have larger and larger ads. They should run before your content, they should take over the page, the bigger, weirder, or flashier the better.
To ensure ethical standards are upheld, we suggest that companies should do the following.
- don’t store personal information about consumers.
- only keep track of views and clicks.
- don’t build a profile of consumers personalities to sell ads against.
- only show high quality ads from companies that are of interest to developer
Advertising agencies are however often owned by big groups answerable to shareholders so profit cannot be a dirty word. As can be seen by the rise and growth of the ethical investment industry profit and ethics can be happy bed fellows.
Twenty years ago, while running an agency for WPP we published some rather prescient research into how companies would embrace sustainability, transparency, growing stakeholder bases and digital transformation in the future. Called “Naturist and Veiled; Corporate Behaviour for the next millennium, it gained considerable traction in the press and TV. It predicted the rise and importance of social media, the sharing economy and the importance of digital transformation and E commerce. It also predicted the importance consumers would put in ethical behaviour in making decisions on a brand.
Companies who got their brand positioning right in terms of sustainability, transparency and ethical behaviour have inherited the earth since then and those that did not have fallen by the wayside.
As we approach our work in creating disruptor and challenger brands, we keep these behaviours and values to the fore.
Quentin Anderson, Co-Founder and Chairman DVC Consultants
DVC Consultants is a market leader in transformative consulting. It creates and consults to disruptor, disrupted and challenger brands. It is clear that brands and their owning companies have no room for complacency, and need constantly to evolve, or risk becoming extinct. DVC Consultants has therefore developed LOAF (Leadership and Organisation in Anarchic Flux) as a proprietary consulting process for supporting our clients in being disruptors and challengers, rather than being on the receiving end of companies more innovative. Challenger and Disruptor brands succeed because they emerge from developments not properly observed by market incumbents. LOAF works because it builds on DVC’s expertise and experience in an eclectic and wide range of sectors and disciplines, including branding, economics, politics, government affairs consultancy and new technologies.