What Is Your Advertising 'Line In The Sand'?

In our legal system, everyone accused of a crime is considered “innocent until proven guilty,” and every defendant is entitled to legal representation to the extent of having a court-appointed public defender, if necessary. Some defendants are accused of crimes so horrible many wonder, “Who would possibly defend them?” The answer is that if you honor and respect the law, you must honor and respect the right to legal representation no matter how heinous the crime. Even the universally despised have inalienable rights.

Which brings us to advertising.

Is there any product, service, invention, idea, ethos, etc. that you consider too objectionable to lend your talents to? Is there an advertising “line in the sand” you would not cross?

I have seen many colleagues exercise this right over the years. At one agency, several people would not work on a tobacco account because they found cigarettes “morally objectionable.” At another agency, some wouldn’t work on beer or spirits accounts because they “didn’t want to promote the over-consumption of alcohol.” 



One individual even quit his agency job because the shop landed a pharmaceutical account. He said his religion was vehemently opposed to the psychiatric profession and psychiatric medications. I’ve even heard of people who wouldn’t work on certain fast-food accounts because these restaurants “were making kids fat.” 

I don’t really agree with the majority of these viewpoints.  Just as a defendant is entitled to legal representation, products that are legal have the right to be advertised. 

I don’t believe the beer commercials my team made led to alcohol abuse. Or fast-food restaurants are “making kids fat.” The advertising simply helped make a brand memorable.

Advertising people cannot make anyone do anything they aren’t pre-inclined to do. Nor is our industry responsible for their choice to live in ignorance when abundant information is now readily and cheaply obtained. If you’re suing a fast food restaurant because you weren’t aware that feeding it to your kids in excess would cause them to gain weight, you better have proof you’re living in a cave.

I also believe that if you are going to assume the moral high ground and not work on a specific piece of business because it does not ethically suit you, then you should also choose to not be paid by that agency and client. The ultimate form of hypocrisy is cashing the check while deriding the check writer. At least the guy who wouldn’t work on the pharma account had the integrity to quit the agency when his beliefs were violated. I can respect that decision even if I don’t agree with his advertising line in the sand.

There are very few, if any, products I wouldn’t work on, whether or not I used them or agreed with their benefits. Much like a public defender, I’d make their arguments and choose to let the intelligence and integrity of the jury (in this case, the consumer) decide.

With one exception: I would never under any circumstances work on a political ad campaign for any candidate.Ever.

It’s not just that political ad campaigns tend to be full of horrible mud-slinging accusations by one candidate impugning another. It’s not even the message that’s awful, it’s the “product" I find objectionable. All of the products.

A defendant has a right to be defended but he/she must also “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” And while products and services that we work on are under increasingly strict guidelines to ensure their claims are truthful and not illegal, politicians are under no such obligations. In fact, they routinely change their positions once the votes are counted or are at risk of falling short. Politicians lie. Politicians shape-shift. Like the scorpion who stung the frog that had just saved his life, it’s simply in their nature.

When George Clooney discussed his cynical political movie, “The Ides of March,” he said, “It’s been my experience that pretty much every one of these guys, somewhere along the way, will disappoint you.” I can understand this. Like the American public, I’ve grown distrustful of all candidates running for office and am more cynical of the political process in general. I find it increasingly hard to be persuaded by any politicians claiming their policies are “what we need.” It’s also very difficult to believe in any of them.

That’s my advertising “line in the sand” (which is not necessarily the line in the sand for my colleagues or employer). I simply run from those who choose to run.

3 comments about "What Is Your Advertising 'Line In The Sand'?".
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  1. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, July 10, 2015 at 8:44 a.m.

    Having worked on a political campaign once, I refuse to call the work output "advertising." Advertising is held to a much higher standard of accuracy and veracity. Any claims we make have to be true and provable. Political work has no such standards. If we made advertising in that fashion, we'd get fired at a minimum and possibly go to jail.

    That's why I call the work output of political campaigns "announcements." They are not advertising. To call politcal work "advertising" brings our whole industry under that dark cloud.

    I agree with your stance on lines in the sand. One of my biggest career regrets was not leaving an agency I worked at because they took on a tobacco account. Notice though I said "leave the agency," not "quit." Which means I would have found another job first. I still need a paycheck.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, July 10, 2015 at 12:11 p.m.

    Advertising: to inform and influence for purposes of belief-purchase.

  3. Timothy Meyer from U. of Wis. Green Bay, July 10, 2015 at 5:53 p.m.

    How advertising works hasn't changed. I connects BRANDS, not product categories, with those who either are in the product category or are predisposed to enter or participate more regularly. Most advertising for existing products and services is aimed at current member of the category and hopes to primarily keep current customers, and, to a much lesser extent, attract new users to your brand. For example, if Miller/Coors brand Miller Lite loses only one-tenth of existing market share (e.g., a drop from 3.9% of total beer market to 3.8%, the loss in sales revenues is about $60 million. This is but one common example of where ad campaigns are geared to maintain market share. Weed presents an interesting case. It tells you, absent traditional ad or marketing campaigns, what really energizes the marketplace for marijuana:  peers (best friends, existing groups, or those groups to which a person may want to belong) will predispose trial and use.

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