Here's an oxymoron for you—advertising ethics. But then, who needs ethics more?
The other day Northwestern's journalism school announced that it would henceforth be known as the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications—which, if you ask me, is a bit like calling the medical school the School of Diagnostics, Surgery, Applied Pharmaceuticals. Surely there's an umbrella term that would fit on a T-shirt. And might it simply be "journalism"?
My alma mater chooses to remain the University of Missouri School of Journalism, taking its lead from its founding (1908) dean, Walter Williams, a country editor who eventually became president of the entire university. However much Mizzou gilds the lily, its strength lies in its understanding that it is fundamentally a trade school, and Williams's archetypal student was the lad who would go back home and take over his father's daily. If he wasn't as adept at stirring up advertising as news, that daily would soon be out of business.
Like a lot of founders and visionaries, Walter Williams wrote a creed that in time would be sanctified and chiseled into granite. Among much else, it says this: "I believe that advertising, news and editorial columns should alike serve the best interests of readers; that a single standard of helpful truth and cleanness should prevail for all; that the supreme test of good journalism is the measure of its public service."
In other words, whatever distinguishes the publicist from the pundit from the reporter, all are journalists and none of the three has a license to lie. And perhaps in the small towns of Williams's day, where everyone knew everyone else, none of the three would think of it.
A couple of years ago, an interesting project got under way at the Mizzou J-school's research arm, the Reynolds Journalism Institute. The school partnered with the American Advertising Federation in an attempt to set down "Principles and Practices for Advertising"—an opposite bookend, if you will, to the various codes of ethics by which journalism's news side now measures itself.
Today the ad principles are pretty much written—not yet formally promulgated but posted on the Reynolds website and introduced by a preamble that asserts they're "based on the premise that all forms of communications, including advertising, should always do what is right for consumers, which in turn is right for business as well."
And isn't it pretty to think so!
The first principle is openly inspired by Williams's rustic idealism: it says, "Advertising, public relations, marketing communications, news, and editorial all share a common objective of truth and high ethical standards in serving the public." This assertion struck me as ridiculous. The objectives of the first three are selling, promoting, and justifying. Of course, those are sometimes the objectives of the fourth and fifth as well, but is that the kind of commonality we want to celebrate?
But let's come at this from a different direction. It's no longer enough for reporters to write a news story. It's no longer enough to write it, photograph it, make a video of it, and record an interview with the protagonists. Once that work is done, today's reporters are expected to Facebook it and tweet it, and if they've mastered half a dozen other social media so much the better. In other words, at the end of the day every reporter is now also a marketer, an advertiser, a self-promoter. And as an ethical person is ethical all day long, there must be guidelines.
Professor Margaret Duffy chairs the Mizzou J-school's "strategic communication faculty" and sits on the advisory council that's been writing the principles and practices. (Her background's in marketing; the council largely consists of business executives and marketers.) Journalism has never been a mere data dump, Duffy believes; journalism is persuasion and persuasion "is not inherently unethical." That said, a lot of "difficult and squishy stuff" needs to be sorted out, and the principles "give us an important starting place to have these discussions." However, "complex problems" can't be resolved with "simple rules."
Here are the other seven principles:
Advertising, public relations, and all marketing communications professionals have an obligation to exercise the highest personal ethics in the creation and dissemination of commercial information to consumers.
Advertisers should clearly distinguish advertising, public relations and corporate communications from news and editorial content and entertainment, both online and offline.
Advertisers should clearly disclose all material conditions, such as payment or receipt of a free product, affecting endorsements in social and traditional channels, as well as the identity of endorsers, all in the interest of full disclosure and transparency.
Advertisers should treat consumers fairly based on the nature of the audience to whom the ads are directed and the nature of the product or service advertised.
Advertisers should never compromise consumers' personal privacy in marketing communications, and their choices as to whether to participate in providing their information should be transparent and easily made.
Advertisers should follow federal, state and local advertising laws, and cooperate with industry self-regulatory programs for the resolution of advertising practices.
Advertisers and their agencies, and online and offline media, should discuss privately potential ethical concerns, and members of the team creating ads should be given permission to express internally their ethical concerns.
Duffy doesn't think news sides are decades ahead of ad sides in cleaning up their acts. "Journalism is under so much pressure," she says, "and so many of my friends who are journalists are struggling in terrible situations and so few journalists are left trying to cover important things—I'm not saying it's gotten more unethical, but corner-cutting is happening I guess I'd say." The wall between editorial and advertising was never so high advertisers could not throw money over it, Duffy points out, and the newsroom took that shower of silver for granted. Now it's gone. "We've always been in this together and always will be in this together," she says.
"Mass audiences are gone," Duffy observes. So news—and the advertising that underwrites it—must now look to small, discrete audiences that have to be persuaded to care. "Issues of straightforward factuality are just as complex in journalism as they are in advertising," she believes. In neither case will straightforward factuality alone do: the account chief and the news editor both need to present whatever message they have in ways the public finds palatable and interesting. "How can we make the important interesting?" Duffy wonders. "It's important that people know the difference between Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama. And that's a job for marketing, research, and persuasion, and knowing your audience."
When I read the statement of principles, I wondered how old notions of factuality can even be applied to modern advertising. Schlitz was once "the beer that made Milwaukee famous." It offered "real gusto in a great light beer" while insisting that "when you're out of Schlitz, you're out of beer." None of these boasts was meant or taken literally, and no statement of principles written by adults would rule them out. Yet they were models of specificity compared to Bud Light's current "Here we go!" How can any kind of ethical yardstick be held up against a campaign that cheerfully makes no claim at all about its product?
But Duffy's way ahead of me. "Volkswagen did this promotion," she begins. "What they did was take a subway stair next to an escalator and they transformed it into a set of piano keys that actually worked. The idea behind this promotion was 'Let's make doing the right thing fun—which is to take the stairs, not the escalator.' It was fun, people had fun with it. And Volkswagen took a video and it went viral."
But was Volkswagen ethical? An argument can be made, says Duffy, that the event VW staged and videotaped was advertising passing itself off as something else. "In some respects it was paid space and time, and it was intended to persuade people. Some people would say Volkswagen obscured the line between persuasion and—I don't know—fact? Should you put up a sign that says 'This is intended to promote Volkswagen cars'? Should you have a warning label? What I'm trying to illustrate is that our media landscape is becoming more fragmented and promotion and advertising is becoming more diffused. Is a flash mob an advertisement? It's a publicity stunt—which is a negative term right off the bat. Daniel Boorstin would cite it as a 'pseudoevent.' But it's a real event—it happens. It may not be spontaneous, but what newspapers do isn't spontaneous either."
And a lot of it isn't. It's carefully crafted with an eye to prizes, to circulation, and to assuring people they're reading a paper that sees the world the way they want it seen. Duffy wasn't knocking down the news side of journalism to raise up the dark side. She was charting the terrain in which all journalists have to operate. She told me she loves newspapers—she subscribes to five of them. And as a liberal resident of a liberal college town surrounded by rural Missouri, she believes the differences between Huckabee and Obama are profound and important to get across; but the public has to be persuaded that they exist and matter.
"If you want to be a doctrinaire kind of person," Duffy goes on, "you would say Volkswagen should point out that they were formed during Nazi Germany. Some folks claim advertising highlights some factors and downplays others. It definitely does. I would make the same argument about every journalism effort."
She didn't notice reporters looking for the dark side of Captain Chesley Sullenberger when he landed his plane in the Hudson River. And "I never hear about the upside of pedophilia and I'm OK with that," she tells me.
Duffy's contribution to the advisory council, I'm thinking now, was to float a lot of interesting ideas. She wants advertising to serve the public interest, but she clearly has no desire to impose the kind of full-disclosure doctrine that would ruin the magic of a musical subway entrance. I point out to her that the principles and practices she helped write call for advertising and marketing that we can "clearly distinguish." As to Volkswagen, isn't that language right on point?
"No," she says. "It's off point. I think that's very debatable."
Then how did it get into the statement of principles?
"It got in there because it was created by a committee," Duffy says.