Ethics and advertising. The two words don't immediately sit
together like Morecambe and Wise, Saatchi & Saatchi or rhubarb and
custard. In fact, to say "I work in advertising" is, for some,
tantamount to admitting to running over small animals, diddling old
ladies out of their change and even contributing to world poverty and
the rise of the corporate body.
Until now, perhaps. Consumers - who now care more than ever about where
their money goes, the sourcing of products and where advertisers invest
for maximum change - are changing the behaviour not just of the
advertisers trying to sell their goods and services, but of advertising
Transparency is filtering down through balance sheets, annual reports,
mission statements and corporate action. Ads are reflecting the very
real need for companies to tell consumers what they are doing to become
more responsible. And some advertising agencies are beginning to pride
themselves on adopting similarly ethical business practices to get in
tune with these growing consumer concerns.
It's easy to see why advertisers are waking up to the need to present a
more responsible face. MORI figures claim a third of consumers are
"seriously" concerned about ethical issues. Over the past two years,
more than half of the British public has bought a product or recommended
a company on the basis of its reputation.
A survey by Business in the Community found that 86 per cent of
consumers have a more positive image of a company they see is working
towards making the world a better place. In a world where advertisers
sell a dream, for consumers to discover it's actually a nightmare, with
slave labour and bribery taking starring roles, is a situation which no
client can afford to confront.
Get caught out and your reputation plummets along with your share
Just look at the trials of the oil giant Shell, blasted for the 1995
Brent Spar stand-off with Greenpeace and being linked with the deaths of
environmental activists in Nigeria. Or Nike and the Gap for using child
labour to manufacture their products, McDonald's for its pedantic
handling of the McLibel case, which led to a long, much publicised trial
over claims that the company operated unethically, and more recently
Unilever, which was forced to publicly deny paying bribes to suppliers
abroad during a BBC news programme.
More and more advertisers are turning to their ad agencies to help craft
a more benign, ethical public face. Shell rallied with self-imposed
audits and ad campaigns which sought to picture it as a company with
ethics at its heart. BP forked out £7 million in design agency
costs alone to rebrand itself as Beyond Petroleum with a sunflower logo
and green and yellow colouring, and the UK agency Doner Cardwell Hawkins
has just been hired to make Philip Morris acceptable to consumers
And in zealously helping companies to reposition themselves as caring
contributors to society, more agencies are taking ethical issues on
board in the way they work with their clients. J. Walter Thompson was
the agency behind the reinvention of Shell. Raoul Pinnell, the
vice-president of brand communication at Shell International, thinks
agencies would benefit by steering themselves away from a solely
When JWT launched Shell's campaign to resurrect its image, one agency
staffer with a reputation for good strategic planning was deployed to
work solely on PR projects to run alongside the ad campaigns. What's
more, it was the agency's initiative to work outside its normal
parameters which helped it win the global account. "We went from using
35 agencies to just one globally in order to get a cohesive message,"
Pinnell says. "And JWT's understanding of what we needed to do meant the
message was right."
Some agencies, it seems, are keen to tap the business challenge that
"difficult" advertisers can offer, claiming their responsibilities lie
in finding the best solution to any client marketing, whether they are
ethics-focused or not. While some might say they are cashing in, they
argue that they are merely fulfilling a purpose. CDP handles ads for
several clients in markets currently under fire from the ethics police,
such as Gallagher and British Nuclear Fuels. The managing director,
Simon Myers, says the agency looks at clients individually, and does not
believe in blanket bans without considering the brief: "Each client
comes with a different agenda. If they are potentially contentious, then
it increases the challenge for us."
The creative director at Doner Cardwell Hawkins, Paul Cardwell, says he
had to fight his corner when it came to accepting the business from
Philip Morris, but has no doubt that not taking on a brief to help a
company which manufacturers legal, but unethical products is "naive and
"If an agency's going to fling its hands up in horror at, say, a
cigarette manufacturer, they must then look at other accounts which
could also be seen as 'unethical'. What about children's brands,
alcohol, luxury goods? Soon you'd have no clients left," he says.
But Jane Fiona Cumming, a director at Article 13, a consultancy which
specialises in advising clients on ethical strategy, says that more and
more agencies need to adopt an ethical standpoint. "Just like clients,
if they take an ethical stance, they need to really believe in their
strategy. Potential clients and consumers who see their ads will see
straight through what we call a 'greenwash'."
Article 13 has worked with Gerber Foods and Roche Pharmaceuticals, among
other global blue-chips, advising them on how to take an ethical
"We encourage them to think about their business in ten to 15 years'
time in order for them to grasp the ramifications of making ethics part
of their business plan. It can improve their bottom line if they adopt
ethical issues. such as supplier traceability, the way they treat staff
and where they invest their money as part of their strategy, rather than
as a bolt-on issue," she stresses.
"And agencies mustn't think of themselves as being any different from
their clients if they want to operate on a more ethical basis. It means
asking what the agency believes in, what values it holds and whether it
is prepared to make a stand on the kinds of accounts it takes on," she
Several agencies already have self-imposed bans on working with clients
who have been caught out over ethical or environmental issues. Abbott
Mead Vickers BBDO and Leagas Delaney have principles not to work on
cigarette brands. Why? "Because of the link with tobacco and smoking,"
AMV's managing director, Cilla Snowball, says. "We believe tobacco
advertising encourages smoking." The agency has held the Department of
Health's anti-smoking account for 17 years. AMV also has reservations
about other forms of advertising - founder David Abbott is famous for
his disdain for TBWA/London's work for fcuk.
The IPA is unashamedly on the fence when it comes to ethical standards
and has no code of conduct for member agencies on the issue, but a set
of bylaws work to make sure the industry conducts itself "honestly and
legally". The organisation's official stance is that it has no role to
seek to influence the ethical viewpoint of its members, but exists to
offer advice on best practice and act in a spokesman role.
The Leagas Delaney chairman and IPA president, Bruce Haines, claims it
is difficult for a trade organisation to dictate to its members. "The
top 200 agencies belong to the IPA. Their views on ethics and corporate
citizenship vary widely - it's up to the management of each one to
determine whether or not they want to make policy, not us."
Internal ethics within agencies are similarly skirted, although Haines
says: "We do ask that agencies remain open-minded and fair when it comes
to working on certain accounts, and respect the views of those who might
find working on accounts like tobacco."
HHCL & Partners, on the other hand, has a different approach. The agency
has no restrictions on the accounts it works on, apart from tobacco, but
claims that the advertising itself has a duty to foster what it calls
"responsible desire". But what about all those Tango ads (bullying
themes in ads for a brand aimed at children)? The HHCL partner Richard
Huntingdon admits the strategy of "building responsible desire" is a new
one for the agency, and points to its recent work for the AA, an account
it has just resigned ahead of a review of the business.
"We resisted the temptation to use the 'fear factor' in the creative
work for an insurance service," he says. "It's manipulative and
unnecessary, as well as being creatively outdated." He says the same of
the agency's work for Iceland, which asked consumers to think about the
origin and content of the food they bought in a very direct way.
He claims more and more clients are looking for ways to turn ethical
issues into marketing issues. "It's not rocket science - just look at
the way The Body Shop positioned itself right from the start," he says.
"In the long term, clients are building it into their strategies, as a
tool for growth. That's something to capitalise on, and emulate."
The HHCL partner and founder, Steve Henry, claims the strategy fits in
personal aspirations about how an agency should work. "Of course it's
personal. And while it's not about racking up new business, it is
something we're talking to existing clients about. Brands are about
trust, and part of that is making sure the brand has integrity."
HHCL, which claims to be the only UK advertising agency to have been
independently audited on the strength of its own ethical stance, also
claims the ad industry is woefully behind other sectors in the way it
handles ethical issues as businesses, never mind the clients
Everyone in the industry knows umpteen stories about accounts moving
when key staff leave agencies, clients with histories of agency
relationships moving accounts without pitches and agencies shamelessly
raiding each other's personnel departments. But without concrete
research, the ethical stance and habits of those running adland remains
In spite of the very real opportunities available to agencies that want
to mirror client activity, the advertising market remains way behind in
the ethical stakes. "Selling is not a clean, tidy, wholesome activity,"
Cardwell says. "But what we can do is reflect more upon what consumers
want to feel when they buy a product.
"There was a time when people felt great about buying a big,
gas-guzzling car because it made them feel like they'd arrived. Now,
most of us would plump for a smaller, greener model because it makes us
feel better. Advertising, and the way companies choose to represent
themselves, has to reflect that."
Henry is uncertain about how ethics will shift the way agencies work:
"As a business strategy, it's something we are developing seriously. The
real interest lies in what our competitors do. Haines, however, is more
straightforward: "Advertising agencies and the people who run them are
not social workers. We are there to work with clients for the best
possible outcome for their brands."
Agency: HHCL & Partners
Problem: Consumers, faced with confusing messages and government policy
on the issue of genetically modified foods, need guidance and
Brief: Make Iceland the chosen retailer for foods free from genetically
modified ingredients and educate consumers baffled by conflicting advice
from the media and the Government. The campaign grasped on Iceland's
relatively small market share within the supermarket sector with the aim
of propelling it into the minds of consumers using an ethical issue such
as GM foods.
The TV, press and poster ads used child-like characters to drum home not
just the message that Iceland was anti-GM, but that it also took a hard
line on additives and other contentious food issues.
The campaign backfired when Iceland attempted to position itself as the
leading organic retailer, taking on Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury's -
supermarkets that were already established in consumers' minds.
Agency: J. Walter Thompson
Problem: Shell, reeling from the PR disaster of the 1995 Brent Spar
stand-off with Greenpeace, sustained another blow when it emerged that
it was associated with the execution of eight environmental activists
who opposed the company's plans to look for oil in Nigeria, one of its
key trading territories.
Brief: Make Shell a company with ethics at its heart and stop consumer
hostility. As well as an extensive and ruthless self-auditing programme,
the client bought a campaign which sought to speak to key
decision-makers by dominating press such as Time magazine and National
Geographic. The associated television spots featured company employees
describing their everyday roles, accompanied by footage of them in
action. Only at the ends of the ads was the identity of the client
Client: Philip Morris
Agency: Doner Cardwell Hawkins
Problem: As the world, and particularly US consumers, perceive tobacco
manufacturers with increasing scepticism, Philip Morris needed to
develop and focus on its ethical policies in a bid to make it
acceptable. Its Kraft food subsidiary was also being affected by poor
press, as consumers made the connection between tobacco and some of its
key brands, such as Dairylea and Philadelphia. It has already begun work
by teaming up with Japan Tobacco International and British American
Tobacco to launch an ad campaign designed to dissuade the young from
Brief: Position Philip Morris as a more socially responsible company
across the full span of its global conglomerate. The company won't be
drawn on the content of the campaign, but the ads will aim to
demonstrate the work that it is doing to improve its reputation.