‘Mad Men’(*) for a Sane Audience: Advertising Ethics in an Adman’s Eyes
by Hoang Tran Bao Quyen
My eyes fixed on the view outside the window through which beams of bright sunlight from a baking hot afternoon shone directly into my eyes, making it hard for me to see the person sitting in front of me, who’d just posed a question that I should respond in the next two or three seconds. I could hear buzzing sounds of people busying working on my left, and on my right, that of the air-conditioner. OK, time to provide the answer, and as much as I’d love to articulate a response opposing to the one I was about to give, I couldn’t. I said to him: ‘It has something to do with the brand.’
The person then proceeded to elaborate on the different images about he and I that were projected through our own choices of shoes – his, Jack Purcell, and mine, Chuck Taylor. This person is George Nguyen (**), the Managing Director of TBWA Vietnam (***), and the question he’d asked me before was ‘Why do you choose to wear the shoes you’re wearing?’ It wasn’t a proud thing to confess, but during my interview with him in TBWA Vietnam’s office, in which I was the interviewer and him the interviewee, this scene of his raising questions back to me happened a lot.
–>Can you tell the difference brand personalities between a pair of Jack Purcell and a pair of Chuck Taylor?
Now my dear readers, I’d like to pose the same question to you: Why do you choose to buy and wear the shoes that you have? Your answers vary, but my guess is they all more or less correlate with communicating your self-images to the world via the products or brands that you purchase. And advertising, indisputably, is one the major sources that shape your ideas about brands and products.
The world’s $490-billion industry (WPP 2011) has long been coming under constant social and economical criticisms centering around ethical themes such as invading consumers’ consciousness, provoking desires as well as promoting materialism, envy, anxiety, dissatisfaction, etc. (Fowles 1996). But for you and me, dear readers, we’re entering the industry not only as mere consumers but also as future admen/ad-women; the ethical issues we’re about to face aren’t solely confined within the message that we deliver to the consumers, but including the interplay of integrity between our agencies and our clients. In my opinion, knowing early where you stand personally on these issues will help you stay strong when influxes of ethical dilemmas coming at you in reality. Therefore, by presenting to you George Nguyen’s perspective on this matter, I hope his ideas can inspire you to determine your very own way.
In 1999, Naomi Klein, a Canadian award-winning journalist, published the book ‘No Logo’, in which the target of her criticism is none other than branding. In her influential book, she demonstrates the negative effects of the practice of branding on consumers, whose private minds and public space are voraciously invaded by branding activities and hence, leaving consumers no sense of freedom (Klein 1999). Needless to say, her ideas continue the long-held tradition of attacks on advertising by scholars from humanity and social sciences. These attacks are summed up in the three following statements by Jerry Kirkpatrick’s In Defense of Advertising (2007, p. 23):
- ‘Advertising coercively forces consumers to buy products they do not need or want.’
- ‘Advertising is offensive.’
- ‘Advertising is a tool of monopoly power.’
Regarding Naomi Klein and her book, George believes the author wrote that book for attention-seeking purpose and judging by her photograph, she clearly does pay attention to her image/appearance in public. Regarding the so-called accusations of advertising, he responded: ‘No one is that stupid to watch an ad on television and then runs out to buy that product immediately.’ From what I got in the interview, he has a very strong faith/belief in the rationality of the consumers. His ideas of countering the criticisms are very similar to the arguments that Kirkpatrick (200) set forth in his book in order to defend advertising and in some way, to defend the consumers: The criticisms in many ways deny the consumers of their intelligence, sensibility, and free will to ultimately choose what they want to do or buy.
If you visit the TBWA Worldwide website, you will encounter this philosophy of theirs:
Also, that advertising fabricates lies about products and gives them illusory values is in reality, a myth. George used the example of a woman put on her makeup and all to impress her male friend, ‘She becomes more beautiful thanks to makeup, but can we say she isn’t the same person?’ he said. ‘Advertising is about finding the best features of a product and presenting them to the consumers. We don’t force them to buy, we provide them with a means to choose between an iPhone and a Nokia when they need to buy a phone’. After all, how can you hope to sustain your business when you employ the method of cheating and lying to the consumers?
In his words, ethics is ‘treating people fairly and openly, and honesty in doing business’ and it should be the second-most- important thing in doing advertising – the first one is Having fun! Nonetheless, dear future ad practitioners, according to George, the reality of ethics in the business environment in Vietnam can be a shock to you and me. ‘It’s terrible’, so he told. Still, he believes in our young generation that we can make it better. If you happen to enter an agency with unethical practices that go against you conscience and values, his straightforward advice is you should quit.
My dear readers, I entered the TBWA Vietnam’s office with a tint of doubt about the nature of the industry I’m going to be a part of, after the conversation with George Nguyen, I left with a firm conviction about the brighter picture of advertising. My guess is because I’ve already believed in the idea of human’s free will and rationality; I was easily persuaded by his talks. In the end of the day, as George said, can you imagine how boring and grey the world would be without brands and other means to express our personalities? Would you rather have a variety of shoes with different attributes to wear or you want to be all the same as the person next to you? I’ll leave the answer to you.
(*) Mad Men: A famous television series about advertising that takes in the 1960s in America.
(**) For George Nguyen’s profile: Please visit this link: http://tbwa.com.vn/#lsi73188ci17686q
(***) About TBWA Vietnam: Please visit this link: http://tbwa.com.vn/#lsi10532ci3228q
Converse 2012, ‘Products’, image, Converse, viewed 11 May 2012, <http://www.converse.com/#/landing/shop>.
Fowles, J 1996, Advertising and Popular Culture, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks.
Kirkpatrick, J 2007, In Defense of Advertising: Arguments from Reason, Ethical Egoism and Laissez-Faire Capitalism, TLJ Books, California.
Klein, N 1999, No Logo, Picador, New York.
Naomi Klein, ‘No Logo’, image, Naomi Klein, viewed 11 May 2012, <http://www.naomiklein.org/no-logo>.
TBWA 2012, ‘Disruption + Media Arts’, image, TBWA Worldwide, viewed 11 May 2012, <http://tbwa.com/#lsi489ci50b0q>.
WPP 2011, ‘GroupM forecasts 2012 global ad spending to increase 6.4%’, WPP, viewed 11 May 2012, < http://www.wpp.com/wpp/press/press/default.htm?guid=%7B23ebd8df-51a5-4a1d-b139-576d711e77ac%7D>.