Ethical Advertising

I’m a copywriter. That means I love ads, and I love advertising.

An interesting, well-written ad can tell a great story about a company’s value (and values). It can help people who really need solutions find those solutions.

It can also be a rather dark force. It can promote values that go way beyond perfume, shoes, or whatever it is it’s trying to sell.

I recently saw some ads that disturbed me. I decided not to name names, because I don’t think that the people who created this advertising are bad people. They are people trying to do a job, who are attempting to appeal to specific demographics, and who are making decisions based on their understanding of those demographics. Also, at least one of the ads was older, and I’m sure the company has already dealt with outcry over it. No need to fan old flames.

These ads depicted the violent murder and apparent sexual assault of a woman, both times to sell some kind of fashion product. One was aimed at women (what about being murdered is supposed to make women want to buy the product I’m not sure), and one was aimed at men (what about being portrayed as being a violent murderer is supposed to appeal to men, I’m not sure). But it raised a lot of questions for me, questions about ethics, advertising, and my responsibility as someone who writes copy for a living. (Note there wasn’t much copy in either ad, just the name of the product. Pictures told the story here. But I’m still responsible for telling stories).

I cannot imagine any scenario in which a violent crime is necessary to sell a product. There are lines that shouldn’t be crossed.

I know that there are arguments which say that this kind of advertising really reflects what people already want and what people already think. But does that mean we should honor those thoughts and actions by continuing to strengthen them, to glorify them, and to portray them as sexy and desirable? To, in fact, treat them as if they are marks of a successful, well-lived life?

I can’t believe that it does. I believe that there are plenty of people who share very different values. They might just want to hear and see advertising that promotes people treating each other well, coming together, and walking hand in hand with one another.

I’ve seen ads like this, for successful companies, so they obviously work. I’ll have to dig up some examples for another blog post, but a visceral visual image is popping into my mind…a mother and child, walking hand in hand in a field of flowers, a Dad smiling at them and spinning them around. I believe it was for laundry soap.

Or how about my favorite ad ever right now:

I love this ad for a number of reasons. First:

  • Dad is doing the laundry, possibly a SAHD…and he’s still portrayed as a very masculine dude. Or at least he comes across as masculine to me.
  • Dad talks about doing the laundry matter-of-factly, without a hitch. Comes across as intelligent and interesting.
  • Dad is not portrayed as a Bumbling Father Type, a negative male stereotype.
  • Daughter is clearly an active tomboy with plenty of agency, in spite of her favorite princess dress, avoiding negative female stereotypes.
  • The relationship between Dad and daughter is positive and warming.
  • The actual benefit of using the product is portrayed — it drives me crazy when I can’t figure out what the benefit is supposed to be when watching an advertisement.

Maybe it’s just that laundry soap is a more wholesome thing to buy than fashion products. I don’t know.

Or maybe the writers of the Tide ad know that they have power in our society, and have decided to use those powers for good while simultaneously writing a damn good ad.

I think that all ads for all products could reliably do the same. That we could be responsible about the messages we put out without being insulting to anybody, or downright evil to anybody.

Crime is no joke. Violent crime is not a thing people should want. Why would we feel okay about creating or fostering a desire for it?

Ethical advertising is possible. We who write advertisements have the power to choose a more positive, conscious stance as we practice our crafts. That’s certainly how I intend to keep practicing mine.

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