Idag kommer ett litet experiment. Det finns ju en hel del läsare runt om i världen som tar sig igenom mina poster med google translate – hur sjutton ni orkar det är en gåta men en blir naturligtvis överlycklig över att höra det. Nu fick jag ett mail från en sådan läsare med en superbra fråga. Hen försäkrade mig om att svaret absolut kunde skrivas på svenska, men det känns inte riktigt rättvist. Så här kommer det. Fråga och svar om reklam och moral. På engelska.
The question: I’m 21, live in Vienna & will finish law school soon, but I want to do something creative, tell stories, be innovative, be funny and sad – so I thought I’d try to become a copywriter afterwards. When I told my friends, most of them said ”ADVERTISING? That’s just evil. You manipulate people into thinking they need something that they actually don’t need.” I did not know what to answer and thought maybe you could help with a few words. I am gender sensitive and try not to be an idiot about being white and privileged – but I honestly don’t know if I could continue to live up to my values as an employee in an agency.
The answer: This is a really good question. Honestly, I don’t know a single person who works in advertising who doesn’t struggle with it from time to time. Advertising is more morally complicated than a lot of other jobs, both because you face a lot of ethical dilemmas (you may increase over-consumption, race/gender stereotypes, beauty standards or promote shitty products, or everything at once) and because it is public, and very powerful when done right. I am however convinced that it is possible to do a lot of good as a morally conscious person in the ad industry, as long as you do it the right way. Some ideas for making that happen:
1. Know that you are needed. It is A LOT easier to change things from the inside than by pointing fingers. Simply put: if you want H&Ms advertising to change, the best way is to become the marketing director of H&M. By working in advertising you get plenty of opportunities to improve things, big and small. Maybe you can’t do it all the time, but it’s sure as hell better to have people like you in the meetings, than have them outside demonstrating.
2. Work for the right agency. Advertising agencies differ when it comes to their commitment to sustainable advertising. Most successful agencies pick their clients carefully and would never have their people work on accounts they are not comfortable with, mainly because that means their work would be shit. Less successful agencies tend to have less leverage against clients, and thereby less of a moral compass, at least in practice. I spent seven years in the advertising industry and I never had to work for a brand I didn’t like, or produce work that I couldn’t ethically stand behind. As a creative, you have a lot of power in that sense. So make sure that you work for people who have the same high standards that you have.
3. Work for the right brand. Your friends’ response is pretty common, I know. But to be honest, there’s a lot of advertising that is not at all about making people buy stuff they don’t need, and the better of an ad person you become, the more options you have to work for organizations and brands you personally support. It doesn’t have to be about advertising charities, but it can also be about supporting companies who have a vision you share. For example, I spent several years working for a paper pulp company who had a green vision where their products would replace plastic materials. Helping them sell stuff was super interesting and in line with my values. There are companies like that in almost every industry. And on top of that, some of the largest ad spenders, at least in Europe, are not even companies, but state or government organizations. Helping them get their information out is challenging, but really helpful to society.
At the end of the day, I think the most important question to answer is if you think you would like working in advertising. In that case, I say go for it. Because unfortunately, there is no such thing as a job where you only do good. Even my friends who work at the UN or non-profit organizations sometimes have doubts about weather their job is ethically ok (although that might be more about processes than the end result). There will always be people who have opinions about what you do for a living, but as long as you know what you’re trying to do, you’ll be fine. And if not, you can always change your mind.