But Are You Happy?

I have this friend who works in advertising, and every once in a while he gets all up in his own existential thing and laments that his work is not anything to make the world a better place. Of course he is entirely right -- and probably should start to use his talents to help some local causes or at least spend a night a week at a homeless shelter. Not that this will make his work any more important, but at least he can then rationalize that the abilities he has developed over the years can ALSO be used to improve the world.

Who among us has not had exactly the same feelings -- that we spend 12 hours a day doing nothing more than trying to get people to buy stuff they probably don't want or need? That we are a fundamental cog in the consumerist economy, doing more to help fast food and beer sellers than assuring the world we leave our kids is a better place?

The knee-jerk reaction is that the industry contributes talent and media mightily to a range of worthy causes that benefit from the attention drawn to them by PSAs or customized  campaigns donated by agencies or individuals. Nearly every tech start-up I know deploys staffers to teach, participate in local community projects that improve their cities, work in soup kitchens, or participate in fund runs that raise money for various charities. Occasionally the feds will empanel a group of senior execs from advertising to give advice on how to move the public, for which they are not compensated.

The Ad Council was created to marshal the talents of the ad and media industries to promote charities or causes that need public attention. They made Smokey the Bear famous, and reminded the wartime public that "Loose Lips Sink Ships." Thousands from the industry have contributed their talents to these good causes over the years.

And yet.

While you could satisfactorily argue that no other industry has had a more profound impact for good than media and advertising, since they have reached millions with memorable messages that caused people to open their pocketbooks, sign up as volunteers or at least have a conversation about a problem they might not otherwise have had, you cannot spend your days huckstering and not feel a pang of remorse.

Some former ad folks launched a campaign overseas to try and embarrass current workers into going into more substantive work. "The advertising industry has a profound impact on our values and what we consider important in life," one of its leaders said. "The skills of thousands of creative people are needed not to sell us more stuff, but to overcome the multiple social crises of our times, such as climate change, social inequality and child poverty. We want to start a conversation with those working in advertising about how we move beyond consumption and economic growth."

Some have argued (with only middling success, I would say) that advertising is not about the most creative way of selling snow to the Eskimos, but rather about communicating to consumers the favorable attributes of something they might one day buy. About deals or sales that can make that item less costly. About why you should vote for this candidate or that one. And that if it uses eye-catching imagery in print or online, or a dramatic or humorous video on TV, then that is just simply professionalism at its best.

Read the mission statement for nearly every ad-tech company or agency, and it is all about the art of "communicating." Sometimes "persuasion" leaks in, but more often it's about the ability to move product with the least amount of friction.

So what do you tell your kids when they ask what you do for a living? How do you feel about being part of this industry? The comments box is open.
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