Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Ethical Advertising

At first glance, it might seem like an oxymoron, or even a sham. On one hand you have an industry hell-bent on persuading consumers to buy things they don’t need by prying into their insecurities, reinforcing oppressive stereotypes and pouring gasoline on the fires of capitalism. On the other, you have an industry with a sudden new desire to make the world a better place.

Where these values intersect is the latest boom in the advertising world: ethical advertising. Targeted at Conscious Consumers, ethical advertising taps into the residual idealism and guilt of Boomers who have rediscovered their romantic 60s idealism lost or temporarily replaced by vapid consumerism, only to see the light again in their twilight years. Pair this with nagging thoughts of mortality, the afterlife and a fear of coming back as a cockroach, and you have a bolstering opportunity.

The Earth is on a doomsday clock as well and it is only a matter of time, as Clinton himself has stated, before Manhattan is knee-deep in water. And time is running out. The effects of global warming will be prevalent even in our generation. Our natural resources are running out and the population crisis is driving the planet to the breaking point. This built in sense of urgency is a marketer’s dream come true: For a limited time only, while supplies last.

On second glance, ethical advertising is as opportunistic as any other niche specialization. To the capitalist, the targets are just another market, with another set of special interests, and another set of unique insecurities, and they are ripe to be separated from their cash.

While Conscious Consumers, as they are known, make up the majority of this target market, the reality is that they are now more capable to make a difference than ever before. Their children are now self-sufficient and they have succeeded at proving themselves “successful” to their parents’ generation. This leaves them with a lot of time and resources to put to good use.

At third glance, ethical advertising is evil! It is selling off the values and virtues of a passionate group of advocates and activists and doing more harm than good by allowing Big Business to slough off the stringent guidelines and moral gauntlets of the watchdogs.

Take green-washing, where companies pay lip service to sustainability and pat themselves on the back for token, highly publicized concessions. Oil and mining companies will applaud themselves for a reforestation initiative to put them back in a favourable light while soft drinks and candy have jumped on the organic and herbal bandwagon long ago. There is a brilliant ad put out by Duracell that claims that the GPS systems used in Brazil for conducting sustainability projects contain Duracell batteries, so therefore these toxic, high unsustainable and corrosive piles of metal are actually helping with the greenhouse problem.

Introducing Sustainability Advertising. Sustainability Advertising is out to improve the way in which we interact with the world. It exists to bring awareness the public of wasteful and dangerous practices, and introduces healthier, and saner alternatives. A good example of this is water bottles. Once word was out that water bottles were filling our landfills at an alarming rate, the public demanded an alternative. Alternatives are expensive to large bottling plants such as Coca-Cola’s Dasani, but they are available, and if the public wants water bottles that are made of corn products that can bio-degrade in a few months, then the public shall have water bottles made of corn products that can bio-degrade in a few months.

It is an awareness issue. A good way to spread awareness is the news. A better way is through advertising.

But advertising, and global warning, is expensive. So you need a company to foot the bill, and to do that you need a consumer base to buy the products, use the services and receive the message.

What separates what Big Business is referring to as ‘ethical advertising’ and the real deal is principles. While most advertising uses any means necessary to break through the clutter, principled ethical advertising opts for positivism.

For example, recent ads made by the Ad Council have used the metaphor of an oncoming train to get the attention of the public. Regardless of the message, the result is the same, increased anxiety and insecurity in the viewers that can only be alleviated by adhering to the cause. It is the same poison-remedy model they would use to sell cigarettes.

Ethical advertising agencies such as Creative Wonders, and informative blogs on the matter such as Sustainability Advertising tackle the issues pertaining to ethical advertising, and attempt to ensure that ethical advertising remains consistent with good business practice and that it is not corrupted and used as an additional capitalistic entity.


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