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, campaignlive.co.uk, 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
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
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk
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