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January 2, 2010
In Ad We Trust

Should “advertising practitioners” really care about honesty and ethics?

Last month, Gallup released its annual “Honesty and Ethics of Professions” poll. This is the poll where nurses usually come out on top and car salespeople come out on the bottom. It’s usually kind of a pointless poll, and this year seems to be no exception.

But every year, just for fun it seems, they throw “advertising practitioners” into the poll. So here’s the result for us ad people:

 “How would you rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in this field?”

            Very high/high           11%

            Average                      46%

            Low/very low              38%

            No opinion                    5%

First off, I always wonder what survey respondents think of when they hear the phrase “advertising practitioners.” Because when you scroll down the list of professions, I’d bet most people have had a positive experience with someone almost every profession. Lots of people have a doctor, or know a teacher, or met some nurses they think are honest. Hell, I bet most people know at least one lawyer they’ll trust. But how many people even actually know an “advertising practitioner?”

So it seems to me that most people taking the poll wouldn’t know anyone in advertising, and consequently don’t think much of them. There is good news for ad people: “Advertising practitioners” finished ahead of Senators, insurance salesmen, stockbrokers, Congresspeople, HMO managers, and you guessed it, car salespeople.

Frankly, this survey doesn’t bother me all that much. Just as it doesn’t bother me when my uncle asks, “So what jingles and slogans have you come up with lately?” as if that’s all I do.

But in a small way, it’s a shame: Most people in advertising want to feel that on some level, they’re doing some worthwhile work. Most of us aren’t out to deceive people on a grand scale. I think of the fact that most of the co-workers I’ve ever had in the advertising business were smart, hard-working, decent people. Besides, McCann’s slogan for years was “Truth Well Told,” and what could be so wrong with that?!?

I always wonder if there could ever be a way we’d get these poll numbers up. Well, no matter how well-intentioned anyone in advertising is, or how good some advertising can be, our profession is always judged by the worst among us – the bait-and-switch markerters, ludicrously condescending commercials, spam e-mails, and so on.

Plus, I’m not sure current marketing trends will help the cause. While lots of people don’t care much for advertising, they generally know it when they see it, and that’s part of the bargain they make for having their TV and other media content somewhat subsidized.

However, the tactics are changing fast. Ad students and young creatives are constantly being told to “do something that doesn’t look like an ad.” And that may actually be a problem. We have the technology to target people more individually, plus the creative ability to disguise marketing in the form of social networking, gaming and entertainment. It holds both promise and peril.

The reality is advertising won’t become more trustworthy if the growth in the industry comes in savvier, more interactive but ultimately more Big Brother-ish ways. Just look at the experiments where advertisers use information garnered about people from their Facebook, Twitter or other social media outlets to market stuff they may be interested in. Sometimes it works well and yes, it’s welcomed when it for a brand that’s well-liked. But there’s a fine line between customization and creepiness – and you can count on unscrupulous marketers to cross that line with glee.

If we continue to see more stealth marketing techniques, especially in places and at times people aren’t expecting it, consumers will feel duped. It’ll be easy for them to foment outrage at an easy target advertising and marketing. And then they’ll seek protections in the form of laws passed by Congresspeople and Senators – who, by the way, are ranked lower than advertising practitioners in the Gallup poll.

And that's the last thing we need these days. Trust me.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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