Editorial: Are morals affordable in an economic downturn?

The ad industry's moral compass has always been an imperfect navigational aid.

And if you accept Andrew Cracknell's argument on page 28, it's becoming ever more unreliable. It's not that the agency establishment doesn't accept that power and responsibility go hand in hand. Not least because it would be commercial suicide for any advertiser to blatantly overstep moral boundaries.

Nevertheless, agreement on what is and isn't principled behaviour by agencies becomes harder to define. In less sophisticated times, many had firm rules about not accepting tobacco or political accounts. David Ogilvy's famous 60s dictum about never running an ad you would not want your own family to see seemed a good creed by which to live.

While there will always be cases where the moral issue at stake is black or white, adland is now having to confront cases where doing the right thing is far from clear-cut.

And it's possible agencies will find themselves increasingly caught in the crossfire of an ethical battle in which the high moral ground is hard to locate. For example, to what extent should an agency satisfy itself about a client's green credentials before it agrees to promote them?

Also, what is and what isn't harmful to the environment may depend on where in the world you live. Not buying Kenyan runner beans to cut back on food miles may seem like principled behaviour in Hampstead. Impoverished Kenyan vegetable-growers are unlikely to agree.

What's beyond question is that the harsh economic climate will test agencies' morality to the limit. Word is that many are already battling to win the experiential and field marketing brief for the tobacco manufacturer Gallaher.

A principle isn't a principle until it costs you money, Bill Bernbach famously observed. It remains to be seen how many agencies will emerge from the turbulence with both their balance sheets and their morals in good shape.

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