Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

An account director writes: Dear Jeremy, I'm torn between two jobs at two rival agencies and can't seem to make up my mind.

The responsibilities, remuneration and benefits for each job are almost identical. I get on with all those staff I've met at both agencies, and both offer brilliant accounts upon which to work. Short of tossing a coin, I can't decide where to go. I appreciate this is a good dilemma in which to find oneself, but any ideas as to how to extricate myself from it?

A: Take a good friend out to lunch. It should be someone in the same line of business as you and someone that you not only like but also respect professionally. Explain your dilemma and intimate that you'd be more than happy to recommend your friend for the job you finally decide to decline. Then, in the greatest possible detail, analyse the competing attractions of the two agencies. After a couple of hours, ask your friend, absolutely honestly, all other things being equal, which of these two highly attractive job offers they think you should accept. Despite being your friend, and an honourable person, it will be his or her inevitable instinct to recommend you to go for the job which he or she rates as the slightly less attractive. You'll now know exactly what to do.

Don't feel guilty about this. Life being life, you'll still regret not having taken the other one and will be deeply envious of your friend for the rest of time.

Q: Are advertising and ethics mutually exclusive?

A: Are you familiar with synecdoche? Or perhaps metonymy? I thought not. They get a lot of people into trouble - and you're one of them. When you ask people if they'd fancy a cup, that's synecdoche. When you rage about the overweening power of Downing Street or the Oval Office, that's synecdoche - or perhaps metonymy. They're figures of speech and they mean the use of the container to represent the thing contained.

Though you talk about cups or the Oval Office, everybody knows you mean tea or George W Bush. There's no confusion. But there is when people talk about television. Or in your case, advertising. Both are merely containers - yet the words are constantly used to represent the things they contain. As Jeremy Paxman said in his MacTaggart Lecture last month, "... is television inherently dishonest? Of course it's not. The question is like asking do cars kill people? It rather depends who is driving."

Both television and advertising - like the telephone system - are neutral, inanimate, brainless means of communication. To accuse television of being inherently dishonest or advertising of being inherently unethical is to fail to make a distinction between the telephone system and telephone conversations. As with cars, the only possible culprits are the drivers.

(Despite having made this crucial distinction, Paxman himself went on to blur it. For example: "... the defining problem of contemporary television is trust: can you believe what you see on television, does television treat people fairly, is it healthy for society?" "What you see on television" is fine: it's the thing contained. But "does television treat people fairly, is it healthy for society?" crosses the line he's already identified.)

Blackmailers and back-street abortionists may make telephone calls but that doesn't make telephony inherently criminal. Dishonest people may make dishonest programmes, but that doesn't make television inherently dishonest. In just the same way, unethical people may make unethical ads but that doesn't make advertising and ethics mutually exclusive. It depends on who's driving.

I expect you think this is all irrelevant, pedantic stuff. Or you would if you hadn't already stopped reading. In fact, it's already important and will certainly get more so. For 100 years or so, advertisements have been widely employed to stimulate growth - to encourage consumer consumption.

Confuse the container with the thing contained and it's easy to believe that advertising (by inference, all advertising) encourages the heedless depletion of irreplaceable resources. Quite soon, the way things are going, consumption will become deeply unfashionable; and so, therefore, through association, might advertising.

In real life, of course, advertisements will be badly needed to educate, to inform, and to persuade us to adopt less suicidal ways of life. It would be sad - and quite unnecessary - if our entirely neutral and potentially benign trade were to be brought to its knees by something called synecdoche.

Or perhaps metonymy.

- "Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4683. Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.