EDITORIAL: Advertising needs moral conscience

It would be churlish not to wish well on the agency being launched by Max Burt, Loz Simpson and Jonathon Hall and their plan to work for selected "good cause" advertisers for free, give part of the profits to charity and bar their doors to proven polluters or exploiters of children.

But it's equally easy to see that this high-minded philosophy may be a difficult sell. Launching a start-up is always tricky - even more so if you're launching into the teeth of a howling recession when clients are risk-averse.

Nevertheless, the arrival of an agency such as Eighty Twenty asks serious questions of an industry still perceived by many outsiders as parasitic and self-serving. Can ad people continue to salve their social consciences just by sending charity Christmas cards? Does the industry need to do more to put back what it takes?

A few years ago there would have been no debate. Agencies existed to make money and social consciences were a matter for individuals. Today, however, the economic climate has changed almost beyond recognition. The industry must now recognise that social and commercial behaviour have become inextricably linked. Its collective conduct must reflect what its clients have been forced to acknowledge - that consumers now base many buying decisions not just on quality and value for money but how big brand owners conduct themselves. No commercial organisation can neglect ethics - look what happened to Nike when a BBC Panorama named it in an expose of child labour in a Cambodian sweatshop.

There's no single reason for this. Maybe the new millennium has made people take stock of society and its values. Maybe it is because media scrutiny of corporate behaviour is no longer confined to The Guardian.

Maybe government organisations forced to become commercial to compete, businesses that behave like charities and charities that operate like commercial entities have blurred the lines. Now, heavyweight investors are just as likely as green activists to ask questions about companies' ethical and environmental performances.

But it would be a grave mistake for agencies or clients to believe that ethical credentials can be acquired as easily as a set of new clothes.

A patently phony ethical marketing initiative will always be seen for the cynical ploy that it is. Above all, it's important not to overdo things.

Consumers don't want goodness forced on them. Nor do they regard companies that make profit as obscene - as long as they show basic decency and honesty as well.

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