The First and Final Questions

February 9, 2016 / Features

By James Mitchell

Have you ever had the dull ache that advertising is a bit wrong?

As a Planner, it’s hard to describe what you do to anyone who doesn’t know advertising - it either sounds like a difficult job, or a ridiculous one. The discussion came up again when I went home for Christmas. This year, my favourite description is, ‘planners ask lots of questions about a problem, until you understand it enough to solve it.’

It’s natural to get caught up in the questions, just as it’s natural for a copywriter to sweat the placement of a comma, or a grader to search for that mythical warm blue. But Christmas was strange - a proper ten days away from work, experiencing advertising not as a producer but as a consumer, you’re forced to look again at the process you’re part of. All year people like me are caught up in how to target sharper, use data better, play on an audience’s needs with a more niggling touch. All these questions to be asked. Once in a while, we get a rare glimpse of the only question that really matters: but should we?

Advertise, I mean. Discover and nurture desires, stalk people with our messages. Have you ever had the dull ache that says you might be being a bit wrong? I have. And as a planner, it’s tempting to kill two birds with one stone, and fold the responsibility question into the effectiveness question: if you could prove that people’s level of trust and ‘likingness’ of a brand were linked to a brand’s success, then you’d have sound fiscal reasons to fight the good fight with a brand, and as a brand, you’d be able to be a saint with the blessing of your CFO. Sadly, modern marketing theory doesn’t back it up - while studies like The Long And Short Of It (2012) emphasise the power of emotional advertising, the extensive work of Byron Sharp in How Brands Grow (2010) claims that’s only powerful in the way it creates memories - not because it causes affection. And scandals? Brands like VW are being briefly punished for their misdeeds but ultimately let off the hook by a public who, to be fair to them, have much better things to be angry about.

Which is all problematic, because it leaves us with the question: why NOT be bad, then? Why not advertise however we want, for whomever we can find to pay us? The only answer I can give is: go home for Christmas and try to talk about what you do - all of advertising, not just the cog that is your part - with a straight face, with your head up. If you find that you can’t, then it’s time to reaffirm your beliefs around the industry. What it is, what it should be.

The morality question is so good at not being thought of. But my brother’s halfway through an advertising course; it looks like he’ll become a strategist. And there was a five-month overlap where I simultaneously wrote posters for the Gatwick Airport expansion campaign, and lyrics for the Green Party Election broadcast. You gotta wonder sometimes - where do you draw the line?

I went to the ASA codes of conduct, and the DMA guidelines, but they felt too much like a checklist. It was possible to imagine an advert that ticked every regulatory box that was still patronising, insipid and regressive - and boring. These codes are important, but they’re focused on individual pieces of the puzzle. They’re not ideals we can take on personally, then share in common. Just like any good brand idea, we need something with less detail but more substance, something open-ended enough to be accessible for everyone who earns advertising money. Something you could swear by on day one, and judge your actions against on day one thousand. We need our very own sacred vows.

What would you put into them? The Hippocratic Oath, that famous code of best practice that medical professionals worldwide swear by, is brilliant because it covers not just what not to do, but why that matters (with great power comes great responsibility). Crucially, like any good advert, it mentions what’s in it for the user - the warm glow of doing right, the sense of comradeship that comes with holding values in common. So we’ll nick that, for a start.

But to me, the two big topics you’d want to address with your vows are how to advertise, and who to advertise for. We have a nice shorthand for the how - legal, decent, honest and truthful. But these need to be sharpened by an understanding of who our message will reach, and what something like decency means to that person. “Beach Body Ready?” is an unfair challenge to put in front of an unsuspecting public - it’s not right to prey on a weakness people don’t know they have:

...but you can see how it wouldn’t look out of place inside a Gymbox. Though knowing Gymbox, they’d pull such a message off with more wit and less brutality. It comes down to remembering your audience is made up of people, and asking yourself whether you’d be comfortable selling to a person you knew from that audience. Because, make no mistake - they’ll see what you make.

Who to advertise for? That’s a little trickier, and comes down to which businesses you think should be in business. What I do know is that we’re often too guilty of divorcing ourselves from the process with the thought, ‘just doing my job’. Directors can create a cosy dissonance by imagining that they’re not really selling a product, they’re just making a short film that happens to revolve around lip gloss for the under-5s. Same with planning: you can focus on the intellectual problem, and the consequences of solving it slip away. So we need a greater ownership of the entire process we sit in, we need to know what we do. In a perfect world, we’ll take that ownership further: when products aren’t good enough, we’ll stand together as an industry and tell our clients to make them better, in a better way.

So: would you sell like that to a person you knew? And would you be as comfortable making that product as you are advertising it? Like any morality, both these questions are personal. But I think we need a code that people can take personally, whoever they are. You might also complain that these aren’t answers, these are just more questions.

Well, just doing my job.


James Mitchell is a Senior Planner at mcgarrybowen, and short fiction author. Find him at @jamescmitchell.

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