Ethics, honesty and advertising: time to set the record straight

Last week I was having a quiet lunch with with some backpackers in the lazy fishing village of Mamallapuram, India. The subject of our occup...

25 Nov 2008 2638 Views

Last week I was having a quiet lunch with with some backpackers in the lazy fishing village of Mamallapuram, India. The subject of our occupations came up. Turns out I was seated with a cook and a school teacher from Britain, an architecture student from Sweden, a conceptual artist from France and her boyfriend, a factory worker employed by Airbus to paint its planes.

“So what do you do?” the Frenchman asked me pleasantly  — Let me stop right here to say that after 25 years in this business I knew what was coming next. As much as I wanted to keep chatting about the heat, Deli-belly, and how Obama would save the world, I knew it was time to take my whoopin’. —  I put down my Kingfisher, straightened up in my seat, leaned forward, looked him in the eye and said,  “I work with marketing and advertising.”  Then I sat back.

Reality“Advertising!” he said, almost choking on his calamari, “I heet advertising!”  Strong words, I thought, for a man who makes his living painting forty-foot logos on airplanes. He went on to explain why. He
defined my work as the business of selling lies, manipulating children, violating public trust, degrading social norms, cheapening culture and perpetuating the global expansionist agenda of big business at the expense of honest folk (like him).

The thing is, he’s not alone in that perception. In addition to the other four backpackers, a recent Gallup poll shows that most Americans would also rate advertising practitioners among the least honest and ethical professionals on the planet. Its a sad commentary when you rate below lawyers and labor union leaders in terms of ethics and honesty.


So there I sat. My good name besmudged with the shameful grime of advertising and, no doubt, the blood of countless innocents around the globe. But I had time on my hands and so decided to rebut. I did so by explaining my company’s mission. It seemed to work on him, lets see how you fare.

It starts with supply and demand. We, the consumers, have demands. We expect companies to make products to fit those demands. Most companies try to do this. However, most miss the mark because they are out of touch with consumers. When that happens a company finds itself with a lot of product (supply) that doesn’t really fit any need in the market (demand). To get rid of the stuff they must then make demand fit supply. That, in essence, means manipulating people. There was a time when this approach defined marketing. It’s still done, but with the dawn of the internet it’s become harder for companies to get away with it.

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As self-righteous as this may sound, we don’t work like that. At least not intentionally. Our mission is to help companies reach a state we call Marketing Nirvana. If you want a formula for ethical branding, this is ours. It requires CEOs to align four simple things: reality, profile, perception and aspirations as defined above.

Do that and you have reached Marketing Nirvana: Where what your brand is (reality), is what you say it is (profile), which is how people perceive it (perception), which is how you were hoping they would perceive it (aspiration) because that will generate profit. This is an ideal state that is never actually reached, but one that ethical brands perpetually strive for.

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“And that is what we help our clients do at the The Duffy Agency.” I told my French detractor.  He pouted, cocked his head and said “Cool”. I’m not sure if he was convinced or if he was just signaling a stalemate where we both could step down from our respective soap boxes dignity intact.

Despite popular opinion, I’m proud of my profession and of the contribution my company makes to commerce and society. But it is clear to see that we (both client and agency-side) have a lot of work to do on our profession’s image. It begins with how we work and I believe the Marketing Nirvana approach is a step in the right direction. I also believe it is the most profitable way for companies to build long-term, sustainable brands. If it makes sense to you or if you think its just more marketing BS, I’d like to hear your opinion.

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Sean Duffy | @brandranter
Speaker, consultant & founder of Duffy Agency, the flipped digital agency that provides accelerated growth to aspiring international brands.