LIVE ISSUE/ADVERTISING AND ETHICS: Why moral crusades may be good for business - Could companies balance an ethical stance with big bucks?

By BELINDA ARCHER,, Friday, 19 September 1997 12:00AM

Last week Campaign threw down the gauntlet to advertisers and agencies, claiming that they too should join the debate over press standards triggered by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Last week Campaign threw down the gauntlet to advertisers and

agencies, claiming that they too should join the debate over press

standards triggered by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

In a front-page opinion piece, Campaign challenged the industry to

demonstrate more of a moral or social responsibility, possibly by

considering boycotting publications whose standards of journalism could

be judged immoral or unethical in some way.

Such a laudable stance was, in fact, adopted last summer by Vauxhall,

when it pulled all advertising from the Daily Mirror after the tabloid’s

ugly series of anti-German stories during Euro 96, and earlier the same

year when Omega boycotted Vogue over its use of painfully thin


But, while the industry ponders the challenge and both the Institute of

Practitioners in Advertising and the Incorporated Society of British

Advertisers formulate their official responses, another question needs

to be addressed. Can taking such a stance be viable? Principles can cost

money and, in a world where maximum profitability is the Holy Grail, can

companies afford to indulge their lofty moral beliefs?

Steve Hilton, the former senior M&C Saatchi executive who controlled the

Conservative Party account, believes that it is the companies with

principles and consciences that will ultimately make the most money and

win the commercial battles of the future.

Hilton has just launched a consultancy with Giles Gibbons, another

former ex-M&C Saatchi staffer, called Good Business (Campaign, last

week). It aims to advise clients on the benefits of aligning themselves

with ethical causes, its platform is unashamedly commercial.

’Our starting point is to help companies make more money and be more

successful. By actually demonstrating how great those companies are,

through links with relevant social issues, rather than just saying how

great they are, they can truly benefit,’ he says.

These ’links’ could include top news chains supporting a drive to boost

literacy standards by sponsoring adult literacy classes or raising cash

to improve reading and writing education. Companies peddling health

products could sponsor health centres or offer vouchers for fitness

clubs; drinks giants could set up alcohol helplines or education

programmes on sensible drinking.

Ethical branding, as supposedly exemplified by the Body Shop, the

Co-operative Bank and CafeDirect, has proved to be financially

rewarding, and cause-related marketing has demonstrated that there are

cash benefits to be garnered from taking an ethical stance. The old ’buy

our product and we will give 20p to a charity’ price promise has proved

almost failsafe as a means of boosting sales and improving image.

But Hilton claims his consultancy offers a service that goes beyond the

existing specialisms. He has coined the phrase ’social marketing’

because he aims to link clients not with charities and ’good causes’,

but with very real social issues such as crime prevention or pollution

control. He adds that while many companies already give to charity to

show they have a ’nicer’ side, this is usually just a part of their

business which is dealt with by one department. ’We suggest it should

embrace their entire operations and they should have an active social

role. It could be an alternative to corporate advertising,’ he says.

As with the questionable responsibility of advertising in the post-Diana

debate over media ethics, however, this proposition is raising


Philip Circus, the legal affairs director for the IPA, does not believe

such a principled positioning could ultimately count for that much.

Circus admits he is cynical. ’Ethical considerations definitely have a

role, but I doubt whether they will become the main reason why someone

buys someone’s product. It’s also easy for companies to create a bogus

ethical platform.’

Paul Simons, the chief executive of TBWA Simons Palmer, says this is

just another area of niche marketing and is sceptical that companies

would go so far as to reinvent the way they operate.

Sholto Douglas-Home, the head of residential advertising at BT, welcomes

Hilton’s initiative, but also has reservations: ’I’m surprised no-one

has picked up on this before. It is an interesting area for many

clients, though I’m not sure it will make you money. That seems to

undermine its value.’

Other sceptics might suggest that consumers would be wary of any moral

crusading by commercial operations, dismissing them as money-spinning

ventures, although extensive qualitative research among focus groups for

Good Business has revealed that consumers are distrustful only if they

cannot see any commercial benefit for the company. ’If they can see the

company is making more money out of it, they can accept it. They are

only suspicious if they can’t see a link,’ Hilton says.

Many argue that the time is right for a more morally responsible

approach, irrespective of whether there is commercial gain to be had,

given all the talk of a kinder, more compassionate and charitable

Britain emerging after Diana’s death. Profits from principles should not

be an issue, they cry.

Whether this new mood will last remains to be seen, but there are those

who have their doubts and who will resolutely continue to concentrate on

the bottom line first and morals second, if not last

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