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November 1, 2013
Creative, or Exploitative?
 
Since we wrote the post on prankvertising, we have been sensitive to information and advertising that singles out or takes advantage of certain audiences for the sake of advertising its good or service. Whether you think singling out or taking advantage of a particular audience for the sake of advertising is ethical is up for debate.

But there certainly is a spectrum.

First, on prankvertising. Those ads feature bewildering customers who have no idea what is going on. Though the harm done is minimal, it does stand to reason that a percentage of those bystanders may not think highly of the brand doing it. Now the ads that add shock to the pranks, like the Heineken "true friends" ad, when friends were called to bail their friends out of a sketchy high-stakes poker match, seem even more extreme.

Is the attention worth putting those people in seemingly precarious circumstances? We guess it depends.

A certain Freakonomics article made us raise this question of creative versus exploitative. Why? Because a reader wrote in about advertisers using homeless people to push their products, and wondered why the business world didn't do it more often. Oddly enough, the Freakonomics writer pointed out Bumvertising, a site created by a college kid in 2005 that used homeless people for ads.

While the economic theories that were mentioned were fascinating, the moral clauses that were brought up pose many issues.

The perception of advertising is swinging more on the negative; must it really use homeless people? In our opinion, even if it's more economically efficient, it is terrible public relations. No one will herald your company as a "job creator" for giving a homeless person fifty bucks a day because they park out by a semi-popular intersection.

Here's the question: if we were on a marketing team or working for an agency, and the question came to implementing either prankvertising or bumvertising, or some tactic along those lines, would we do it?

That's hard to say. We would like to think that we work for the client, but we would turn away from jobs or tactics that would mess with our conscience. But what exactly do you consider to be exploitative? We're not too sure.

We are not here to present a definitive answer. Like the Freakonomics blog stated, perhaps it is just a question more people should ask.

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Dwayne W. Waite Jr. is partner and principal at JDW: The Charlotte Agency, a marketing and advertising shop in Charlotte, NC. He enjoys consumer behavior, economics, and football.
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