"Do you think that advertising is a moral activity?" I asked the 30 or so graduates at the seminar. There was a stony silence.
"What do you mean a moral activity?" asked one.
"Well, do you think advertising really does good for ordinary people, for men and women in the street?"
The graduates, who had all been working in advertising for two or three years, looked bewildered. "There's the Don't Drink and Drive campaign," someone said thoughtfully. "That does good."
"And the Give Blood ads," piped up another. "They're good too. And some charity stuff, I suppose."
That was about it. Nobody could think of any other aspects of advertising which were moral or which did any good for the general public, for men and women in the street. I was left profoundly depressed. Here were lively young people about to spend their lives working in a business which, as far as they were concerned, provides no real benefit to the public. With the exception of a few COI Communications and charity campaigns - a tiny percentage of total UK advertising - they could think of nothing morally good to say about their chosen career.
They aren't alone. Most of us who work in advertising have become quite adept at answering critics and beating off attacks. However, few of us are much good at turning the criticisms on their heads, and showing that advertising is a highly worthwhile, indeed moral, activity - a business that ordinary men and women in the street benefit from every day, in countless ways.
So let's have a go.
Advertising directly involves four groups: the advertisers who spend the money; the media who get the money; the consumers who are (or are not) influenced by the ads; and the agencies who create the ads, buy the media - and make it all happen.
Let's begin with the advertisers. Though there are still a few smart-arses around who claim that all advertising is a waste of money, they are a daft and dwindling minority. Innumerable econometric studies, from all around the world, have established beyond further argument that advertising works.
The IPA Effectiveness Awards led the way in 1980, and since then a plethora of case histories have confirmed the fact. Advertising may not always be profitable - it may not always cover its own costs - but in general it does what it sets out to do. It stimulates sales.
What does this mean for the man and woman on the street? It means employment.
No sales, no jobs. More sales, more jobs. Putting it like that is a wee bit simplistic - but it is fundamentally true. And everybody knows it.
And while not all advertising is highly successful, advertising that is highly successful generates sufficient profits to enable advertisers to invest for the future. They invest in research and development and in new capital projects.
Result - jobs now, jobs tomorrow.
So that is a major benefit to kick off with - advertising creates jobs.
Millions of them. Maybe this explains why there is no successful economy in the world where there is no advertising.
While talking of jobs, it is worth noting that according to the Government a third of people find their jobs through ads. This may not be part of the main debate about the morality of advertising - but it is a substantial benefit to society.
Let's turn to the media. Roughly 90 per cent of everything that advertisers spend goes to the media. How does that help ordinary people? Well, we all know it provides them with around two-thirds of their broadcast media for free, but the benefits go much wider and still deeper.
More than 3,000 consumer magazines are published in Britain. Each one is of interest to groups of readers, large or small. These magazines are heavily subsidised by advertising, so their readers - all those men and women in all those streets - buy them at a fraction of their production cost. And many readers of specialist magazines find the ads more interesting than the editorial.
Likewise the internet is heavily subsidised by advertising. People constantly use websites either without charge, or at a fraction of their set-up and running costs. That is a totally new public benefit.
Great stuff. But we haven't yet got to the most important media benefit of all. Advertising provides society with an open, independent and influential press. Without advertising, the price of newspapers would rocket. Then their circulations would plummet. Then the prices would rocket again.
The outcome? Our diverse and competitive local and national press would shrink and shrivel. Many newspapers would fold. Investigative journalism would just about disappear. A ridiculous thought? Not at all.
In 1712, politicians - who have never liked being criticised by the media - imposed a tax on every advertisement published. Their aim was deliberately to cut newspapers' advertising revenue, in order to make them more expensive and stop people reading them. The tax was steadily increased, and was not abandoned until 1853.
As intended, it held back the development of a free press in Britain by almost 150 years.
The British press may not be perfect, but if newspapers were both far more expensive and much smaller, the public would be far worse off. Another major public benefit down to advertising.
Now we come to the tricky part. Showing how advertisers and media benefit from advertising - and how these benefits pass on to the public - is relatively easy. But does advertising really help consumers? Or does it just manipulate them? Part of the problem here is that when it comes to consumers, to talk about "advertising" is misleading. Consumers do not respond to advertising - they respond to advertisements. And advertisements are extraordinarily diverse. So the benefits consumers gain from them are similarly diverse.
Economists have long justified advertising as a source of information.
And they are right, of course. The public obtains loads of important information from advertisements.
First, prices. Today many of the largest advertisers are retailers and the great majority of retail advertisements promote low prices. Not only is this information helpful, it drives prices down. Dixons may not win shedloads of creative awards, but their group spends more than £80 million each year telling the public where they can shop at the lowest possible prices. Their competitors retaliate and prices fall. For the public, that sounds like a pretty good deal to me.
At the same time, the quality of goods and services is constantly being improved, however slightly, and consumers benefit by learning about these improvements from advertisements. Moreover - and better still - this frequently forces competitors to respond by making quality improvements of their own. It is a continuous process. As with price-based advertising, this stimulates competition, and the public reaps the rewards.
The public learns about new products in a multitude of ways, but none is faster or simpler than advertising. And there are endless occasions when consumers are searching for something - a present maybe, or a new car, or a holiday, or an ointment to treat their spots - and advertisements tell them what is on offer. It is all good, helpful, information.
However, this still begs one big question: how does the public benefit from ads for things they already know about, and which provide little or no hard information? This, after all, defines a great swathe of brand advertising, from Heineken to Heinz, from Kellogg to Kit Kat, from Persil to Perrier. So do people really benefit from advertisements which provide them with almost no new information at all?
Yes, they do, in at least a couple of ways. First, marketplaces are not static. Babies are born, people die. There are new people coming into markets all the time, and they want to know about the products on offer.
Second, memories fail. Everyone needs to be reminded of brands they think they know about. Awareness studies constantly show how quickly people forget about a brand once its advertising stops.
Then, getting back to the graduates at the seminar, there are specific kinds of advertising which incontestably help society. Most of COI's campaigns, charity advertising, political and pressure group advertisements bring worthwhile causes to the public's attention. These sectors have burgeoned lately, but are not the basic reason for being proud of working advertising, though they rightly give pride to those who work on them.
Finally, while doing all those things, many advertisements succeed in being amusing, clever, witty and occasionally beautiful. That is what the creative agencies principally contribute. And the entire process is run exceptionally cost-effectively. That is principally what the media agencies contribute.
Advertising today must be seen in the context of a world of immense product variety and choice. In economies where there is no choice, consumers have no need for advertisements. However, in Britain, the average large supermarket offers shoppers about 40,000 different lines, there are some 2,000 new models of car available and an uncountable number of consumer durables, fashions, entertainments, holidays, investments - the list goes on and on. People need to be able to sort their choices quickly and simply. Advertisements help them select the things they want and those they don't, without them spending forever on the task - and without going crazy!
Naturally you can question whether the public, or society, really needs so wide a range of choices. In reality, this is what Naomi Klein and the No Logo brigade are advocating - a simpler world, with little choice, and somebody (the Government? The UN? Which?) deciding what products should be produced. This is not an approach many of the public would welcome.
The public loves choice, but it needs help in choosing. That is what advertisements do.
None of this will refute the arguments of those who are against particular advertising sectors. People who want to ban tobacco, booze or advertising to children will not be persuaded they are wrong simply because advertising is generally an exceptionally beneficial thing. But their specific arguments, whether you agree with them or not, should not effect the broad case for advertising.
Is advertising a moral activity? It creates employment, now and in the future; it provides the public with numerous free and inexpensive media; it supports an independent press; it supplies people with a great deal of information; it pushes prices down and quality up; it keeps the public aware of all the brands available; it helps them select what they want from the vast range of choices modern economies offer. And it does all this pretty entertainingly, and cost-effectively.
If that doesn't constitute a worthwhile way to earn a living, I'm a dump bin. Advertising is a great business to work in - and it's fun. Hold your heads high!
'While not all advertising is highly successful, advertising that is highly successful generates sufficient profits to enable advertisers to invest for the future. They invest in research and development and in new capital projects. Result - jobs now, jobs tomorrow'
'Our diverse and competitive local and national press would shrink and shrivel. Many newspapers would fold. Investigative journalism would just about disappear. A ridiculous thought? Not at all'
'People need to be able to sort their choices quickly and simply. Advertisements help them select the things they want and those they don't, without them spending forever on the task - and without going crazy'.