The Code of Ethics . . . If you’re a Fortune 500 company you probably have one and spend a few hours a quarter reviewing them and clicking an “I affirm” button on a computer screen. It seems like a waste of time to most people, if you work for a successful company one would hope that you have a decent personal set of ethics. In my opinion the codes of ethics in advertising and public relations exist to appease the consumer more than they exist to guide the practitioner. Why do I say this? Well, let’s take a look at the “Principles and Practices for Advertising Ethics,” the code of ethics released by the American Advertising Federation. The preamble of this document states that is was created due to “revelations of wrongdoing in particular industries and government programs resulting in an erosion of public confidence and trust in all our institutions.” Translation: people have been blowing the whistle on companies we represent and because of that we want to make sure we are acting ethical. The blame may be the fault of the company at the end of the day, not always the advertiser, because of this, it is part of our responsibility to use our judgment in what is reasonable and what is not when it comes to the ethics of an ad we create.
People like to play the whistleblower because it’s easier to file a lawsuit than it is to think for yourself these days. The AAF code of ethics stresses that it is important to avoid the deception of consumer, and was created out of reactions to consumers feeling they had been completely deceived by advertisements. To be honest I think a lot of this comes out of this modern day American sentiment for people to not want to think for themselves, and place the blame somewhere else.
All of the principles of the AAF code of ethics are centered around making it completely clear to a customer that they are being shown an advertisement. I think the industry does a pretty good job of doing that. Ads show up at specific times on television along with another block of advertisements, and in print and online the company logo is clearly defined. It’s made very clear to adult consumers that they are being advertised to, and if the product is shown in use they always noted that this is “a dramatization,” or that “results may vary.” Any adult with a brain can distinguish that the talking dust in a Swiffer commercial isn’t representative of what dust is really like.
This brings me to the fifth principle of the AAF Code, “advertisers should treat consumers fairly based on the nature of the audience.” To be honest I don’t think it’s fair to treat an adult like they have no brain and spoon feed every little bit of information about a product to them in 30 seconds or less. If that’s what they want us to do then we may as well hire Morgan Freeman to sit and read patent information instead of creating advertisements for our clients.
The entire point of an advertisement is to drive home a particular feature or benefit of the product being advertised. People often criticize Volvo for its campaign that showed one of their cars being rolled over by a monster truck and surviving. The FTC did come in an require that Volvo pull these ads after the public criticized them for not being 100 percent accurate.
My question to these people is: when are you going to be in a situation where a monster truck is going to run you over anyway? The point of the advertisement was to drive home the fact that they are safer than other cars, and it does drive home this fact The true fact of the matter is that you are probably safer in a Volvo than a similar car if a monster truck decides to roll over rush hour traffic.
Personally I think that this particular ad is an example of how AAF members still treat their consumers fairly based on the nature of the audience. If this ad was aired on children’s network it may not be fair, but it wasn’t. The day a 22-year-old man gets checked into an emergency room because his Volvo didn’t protect him from that jerk in the monster truck, is the day I will give that FTC lawsuit any merit.
The key to the AAF code of ethics is to be careful about what you say to your consumers, make sure that they know it is an ad, and let them make decisions on their own. Products may not always preform exactly as they appear in a ad, but the consumer has a brain and in the modern age we can research reviews of a product before they buy them. We no longer live in the 60’s where we have to rely simply on ads for product information. Ads illustrate the features in a creative visual way to make our lives a little easier, but they aren’t the end-all for sources of product information.
I think Chris Moore of Ogilvy put it best, “for a company trying to sell something, an ad is like getting a job interview with millions of people all at once. The ad wants to make a good first impression and really, really doesn't want to make people mad. But different people react differently.” The advertising code of ethics actually defends our right to make the best first impression for our clients. It was created as a response to this this outcry by the public that all advertisers are liars . . . We aren’t; we represent the first impression of the brands, so we have to leave out some of the nitty gritty. It’s like going on a first date-- are you really going to let your date know about your hamster collection on the first night?