It’s perfectly legal – but is it ethical?

ONFILM  August 2008

Waka Attewell has spent a good part of his career telling epic stories involving things you use to wipe your nose, wipe your bum, scrape your teeth; he’s driven the world’s best automobiles through hundreds of miles of crashing surf; he’s even hurled ‘the amber liquid’ down the throats of sports celebrities. Now he’s having second thoughts…

 

I’d like to believe I’m immune to its seduction: I already know all the tricks, I can tell whether it “does get in” or not. It barks at us from the back of buses, radio, TV, print, and web. We take it for granted… until confronted in the supermarket by 23 washing powders – only then we dredge up the subliminal thing from the hidden recesses and we reach for the one that makes the “whites whiter” and the Advertising Industry can claim success. But hey, we’re consenting adults, we’re educated, we have freedom of choice, no harm done.

Zoom back 15 or so years – I’m sitting at a board room table in a flash advertising agency – the guy opposite is the client. He’s explaining to the grinning, nodding meeting the social benefits of gambling to the wider community, especially the small towns of the depressed rural sector. I’m white knuckles on the arms of the chair repressing every urge not to crawl over the table and smack the bullshit out from his mouth. The copy writer is taking notes and nodding earnestly… Welcome to the world of advertising.

In the late ’70s I built a production company on hope and naïve idealism. It was a hand to mouth existence, then my first long term relationship crashed and I questioned whether I could ever be responsible enough to have kids. I fell into a black hole that completely consumed me, then at the low point I saw an ideal life of glamour that didn’t require much thought beyond blind ambition; the advertising dollar whispered as ‘Muse’.

The ’80s hit town like a tornado, I was re-invented and I had a life making TV commercials – I had money to burn, I was on the treadmill of debt, profit, tax and more debt. The banks loved us all. Enter the world of long lunches (tax-free) and exotic location trips (expense account) – I’d gone from a semi-real world of documentaries to TV commercials, a world of glib half truth. It didn’t immediately worry me: I mean, we were doing important work like selling lawn mowers, cars, toilet paper, beer and fruit juice. I promised myself I’d eventually return to the important stuff.

Yeah right!

I over-achieved – I got particularly good at making food look more than it was, brighter, juicier and more yummy. This sumptuous produce trend put pressure on the growers; I’m positive it encouraged the use of chemicals. It also shifted the what we eat and the way we do it.

But what I really yearned was the call that would include me in the elite, the chosen few. After more dedicated time on the used car front, breakfast cereals and gadgets to clutter the home, the call finally came – my chance to work with the famous dark-sugar-fizzy-drink from the USA! International sports heroes were cast to slam the stuff down their necks and endorse the life-style that the waisted bottle embodied.

We made up stories and told them with complete conviction, we created myths and legends around inanimate objects, we created desire and needs where none had previously existed. We shifted history for our own purposes. I was in pig-shit-heaven.

A client has a bunch of imported cars that have just arrived as deck cargo, but they’re a bit shabby. Solution – paint a bold stripe down the side, slam a cheap stereo in the dash and call it the “Spirit of New Zealand”. Within a week of the TV campaign you could see the results; exciting and seductive stuff. We believed we were shifting “our culture” to a better place. Under our guidance cafes placed tables on the footpath, even though it wasn’t us… We redefined ourselves; like when that guy from the bush re-invented the ‘Kiwi bloke’ by taking a Japanese 4×4 for a spin through the mud; the fact that behind the scenes he smacked his Missus didn’t matter – why should it? – there were bigger things at stake; besides “what happens on tour stays on tour”.

The corporate world supplied the abundance and like obedient whores we dutifully serviced its needs. The mirror glass, the men wearing European design, the women with big hair and perfect figures; risky business was the name of the game – ‘mission statements’ were displayed boldly, you felt like you could save the world and “do good work done well”.

We worked in the realm of truth in the sense of the half truth of it all… half truth in the sense that only a bit of the real truth was revealed, yet the telling bit that wasn’t true was expertly hidden from view and what you couldn’t hide you gave a wee bit of a spin.

We played dress up – we became urban cowboys and perfected the ‘just so’ tear in the jeans – a perpetual three-day-growth was essential. We lunched with all the other production companies and, while we tried to steal each others’ clients, the famous Wellington restaurant tried to steal our money. It had its own perverse honesty.

In this world of pretend you didn’t mix pudding, you “whisked up a treat”. Mothers waited at home in perfect kitchens, poverty was outlawed… it was all about the manipulation of language, choosing the right word to express the correct emotion. Have you ever thought of how many grown ups it takes to establish the correct way to put a piece of gum in your mouth? Squeeze a tube of toothpaste? Eat a candy bar like you’re having sex?

If you ever had a moment of doubt, like “are we dealing with the ‘big stuff’ here?” or “does this really matter”, you’d justify it as practice for when you’d eventually return to the real world of ‘worthwhile’.

I became suspicious of the fervour multi-national companies created – I watched grown men and women sacrifice all for the corporation and do what was necessary to further its wants and needs. Did I condone this behaviour? I pretended it didn’t affect me, but it was hard to have ‘proper’ conversations with these people; their fear of failure oozed from every pore; it nearly pulled me in – beware the vortex, the dark bit.

You can justify most things when the money is good – “It’s not as if I believe in the concept or the product… I just make the commercials… the impact the product is making on the planet is not my concern…” But the absurdity of it had ignited the smallest flame of doubt; I mean, people were starving in the world.

 

Advertising seems to have become more desperate, more devious – someone invented the TV mute button… how does the advertising business get through?

Call me a shallow bastard if you like but the insidious end of this advertising business isn’t welcome, especially when it involves my family… it feels not too dissimilar to social engineering. Twice this year the Ad-Man has breached the ramparts – I’m not talking about that annoying thing on the TV or that spinning graphic on the website; I’m talking personal stuff!

The first visitation came as a self-subscribed e-mail – a few years ago my then three-year-old granddaughter and I joined the “club” of a company that sell clothes to kids and of course adoring adults – but if you look at the autumn sales link on their website you might think they’re selling the concept of kids clothes to paedophiles… The image is of a young girl (maybe four years old), legs akimbo holding a small guitar – the clothes are exposing a bare midriff, the camera angle is low. I’m assuming the small guitar is to create the illusion of adult sizing; she has a ‘come hither look’ on her made up face and her lips are pouting through lipstick.

Call me old-fashioned but are these sexually driven poses, is the expectation to dress our young kids up like sexually mature adults? I don’t get it.

Then a few weeks back the Ad-Man again breached the castle walls – my granddaughter said, “I have to have the toy, everyone at school’s got one… it’s not fair, I need it.” She used the word “need”, and mention of the relationship between the toy, the golden arches and the food is making me angry… We all knew that this day would come, call it retribution if you like, we somehow hoped we were immune to the process – now is this what Kevin Roberts might call a ‘love mark’ moment? (I invite you to explore the website http://www.lovemarks.com – can anyone explain to me this new world “beyond branding”?)

One must assume that these people who contrived the trick of the toy and food association and those who continue the practice must also have children. Do they think that exploiting a hunter and gatherer desire for sugar and fat is an ethical way of conducting their business? Is targeting the innocence and weakness of children a fair advertising ploy? It’s completely legal… but is it ethical?

Secondary schools have media studies to prepare the next generation for advertising but it seems to be all about making copies of these commercials rather than questioning their integrity.

Children get food awareness lessons at primary school in their first year – though I did notice that the food pyramid is almost the complete inverse of what it was in my day. Obviously the dubious food science from 40 years ago is still evolving and still dubious. Does the advertising industry have anything to do with the heart stamp or the food pyramid?

At least we are attempting to inform our youth about the politics of food… Yet after school, we let them loose on a world where the bus they catch home is festooned with junk food advertising, the billboards on the way home are glossy invitations, the bus shelter is selling widgets and waffles by promoting stick thin models.

It’s said that you can judge a society by the way they treat their elderly and children. We come from the generation that allowed free-range in the advertising stakes and we’ve allowed our vulnerable kids to be high-jacked by large international corporations… Grown men and women sit around boardroom tables and discuss the next honey trap and our kids become unhealthy because of it.

While I was fuming about this article, some new figures came to light – the media spend for TV advertising last year went like this: $55 million on junk food, $20 mil on chocolate products, $18 mil on fizzy drinks and $6 mil on fruit and vegetable advertising.

 

The advertising biz generates a lot of money and employs many people and is enslaved to a larger purpose – in the scheme of things they are mere puppets,..

The way we feed ourselves along with what we eat has changed more dramatically in the past 40 years than in the previous 10,000.

The hunter gatherer is a dead sitter when it comes to selling fat and sugar to and the processed food business knows this; through the advertising agencies they exploit the fact we can’t help ourselves… even when they know it’s not doing us any good.

It’s a complex world that’s driven by the needs of Capitalism… Those of us who play in it have to be very sure of it or be merely pushed along with the tide – a cork with few options.

Times are getting tough and that dollar is even harder to secure – why would you speak out against the advertising business and ‘bite the hand that feeds’? If your job is to exploit the weak and frail, target the fat and balding, create sexual doubt and perpetuate dubious science around the processing of food then go right ahead, what you’re doing isn’t illegal… Just stay away from the kids.

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One thought on “It’s perfectly legal – but is it ethical?

  1. As a young man I toured round South America. Our wheezy our bus broke down in a beachside place called Cartagena, Colombia (which could have been a lot worse!). I was lying on that beach when a local lady came round with slices of pineapple in a basket on her head crying “Pina, Pina..”. It struck me then that she was essentially advertising. It also struck me that the advertising she was doing was a necessary part of her whole economic survival. She / her family had probably grown the pineapple themselves, harvested it, prepared it (slicing it). Now she needed to advertise the fact it was available. From that point on I concluded that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with advertising. It’s a totally legitimate element of the ‘division of labour’ that lets us all enjoy things we can’t possibly make ourselves. And as an ad man I also used to think of the people in the jobs back along the chain – in the factories etc – who relied on us doing our share of the work to the best of our ability. So to that extent I can’t agree with you, Waka: advertising can be totally ethical, even necessary. I do agree however, it is not always (ethical). It is up to practitioners to draw lines: for society to draw lines: but also for consumers to take more individual responsibility.

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