Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ethics and Advertising

So, here’s the question. Is there something inherently unethical about advertising? If not, then why do people hate it so much?

Maybe it’s because of the manner in which advertising has evolved. Capitalism is, to a large extent, interconnected to advertising. When we want to buy a pair of shoes, it helps to know where they can be purchased. And when we want to sell a pair of shoes, we certainly want people to know where they can buy ‘em. However, when I am not interested in buying shoes, and I am very interested in watching a show, sporting event or whatever on television, I strongly dislike being interrupted from what I want to do in order to hear some guy shouting at me regarding how cool his shoes are.

Perhaps this is one reason why early Internet philosophers were so intent upon keeping commercial activities off cyberspace. They failed, of course. Like the wild west in days of yore, there were explorers (now called “early adopters”) and misfits who just wanted to get away from excessive regulations and laws and the commercialism of life “back east” and be free to be. Eventually the land had to be properly titled, surveyed and deeded and turned into “property” so it could be taxed in order to pay for lawmen and judges and systems to keep people "safe" from the bad guys in order for provisions to arrive safely. And then goods were regulated so they, too, could be taxed. And so on... for the sake of safety and security.

The Internet could not remain “free” forever. That seems a given. Like real geography, cyberspace has virtual real estate, cybersquatters, and increasing regulation. And it is populated by people who recognize new opportunities. Like 49er gold seekers and pickaxe manufacturers who scrambled to San Fran during the gold rush, prospectors have been busy exploring these new online territories and sifting data to find the real opportunities here.

It didn’t take long for eCommerce to gain a foothold. The efficiencies inherent in owning “stores” not made of bricks and mortar made it possible to sell goods and services at reduced rates. Manufacturers could by-pass middlemen in the distribution chain and hold on to a portion of their margins. Consumers would appreciate the savings that were passed on as well.

And so advertising made fast inroads in the new frontier. Web businesses couldn’t just rely on luck to draw customers. Systems had to be developed. But we’re off topic here and I need to veer back toward the initial theme.

There are a number of issues surrounding advertising today, two I will mention here. The first is the preponderance of interruptive advertising. The second is the whole debate surrounding branding.

I completely understand the annoyance produced by interruptive styles of advertising. I’m enjoying a quiet evening at home, then the phone rings and some jerk is trying to sell me something I neither want nor need. In the end, over the objections of the Direct Marketing Association, the government created a “Do Not Call” list which forbids this kind of intrusiveness.

Television advertising is similar. I don’t want it, but unlike the phone, you understand that the shows exist as a vehicle to promote products. You "accept" this unwritten compact by turning on the TV. It's an agreement to accept a certain amount of interference. At some point, you may stop watching when the advertising takes forty minutes of the hour long show.

Brand images are less intrusive, and I am not entirely sure why they have become so controversial. You watch a sports event and see logos galore. Why? Because if the racers did not have sponsors, where would they be? Certainly not out there doing high tech adrenaline stomping metal shredding in cars, snowmobiles, motorcycles or trucks. Sponsors support racers, and the racing organizations that host, manage, promote events.

Online banner ads are similar. To create good content, many websites need to pay their staff, since the people making content have housing and food costs in the real world. So web forums and other sites turn a portion of their web content into real estate they can rent out to the highest bidder. The rent rises where there are lots of eyeballs, which means the web developers need to make sure the content is vital, relevant and "alive" enough to keep folks coming back.
Now would someone explain why brand names on clothes are so awful in high schools? There are schools banning brands. I do not recall being corrupted by seeing the word Levis on a pair of jeans when I was in school. Baseball hats had insignias. What’s up with this trend?

And then there’s the whole issue of highway billboards. I sort of like it when I am travelling and I see that there is a Crackle Barrel at the next exit. (disclaimer: unpaid endorsement) The food’s good, the atmosphere wholesome. Same goes for motels. I like knowing that somewhere down the road is a place we can call home for the night. Billboards serve a useful purpose, as far as I’m concerned. Why do people hate them so much?

I’m not arguing for signs unlimited. But the reality is, the signs are self-limiting because there’s a finite amount of businesses that will benefit from paying monthly rent for that billboard space. There are also jobs created by customers using services they were not aware of till they saw the signs.

If I sound like an ad man… well, that’s because I am. Isn’t it nice to know how far it is till the next rest stop or truck stop or restaurant?

Another ethical facet of advertising pertains to the matter of truth. That, however, is a discussion we’ll have to save for another day.