The professional integrity of the advertising industry depends on a commitment to ethical and responsible advertising, says Memac Ogilvy & Mather’s chairman and chief executive, Edmond Moutran, as the Advertising Business Group (ABG) launches in the UAE.
Ethics in our industry is a sustained value that sits at the core of our culture. It also governs our professional behaviour. Upholding and fulfilling its moral principles is not the responsibility of one party alone, but of all parties that form the ecosystem in which we all operate, interact and grow – agencies, clients, brands, the media, consumers and the industry’s regulating bodies.
There is no doubt that the advertising industry in the MENA region can intrinsically influence local culture. Why? Because agencies play, however marginal, the role of a cultural intermediary that prompts and inspires audiences’ desires and attitudes towards brands. In doing so, all agencies face ethical issues when creating campaigns and conducting business. The need to realise and conform to what is ethical and to distinguish with clarity between what commercially must be achieved and what legally must be considered is therefore of vital importance.
Over the past decade, we have witnessed such varied infractions as false product claims, copyright infringement, exploitation of consumer rights, deceptive communications and the like.
Alas, it is a journey not without flaws and failings. Over the past decade, we have witnessed such varied infractions as false product claims, copyright infringement, exploitation of consumer rights, deceptive communications and the like. Cases of unethical behaviour are not solely restricted to advertising agencies, but can equally be experienced by other parties of our ecosystem.
A while back a print ad produced by a GCC agency selling the pervasive culinary qualities of a Chinese restaurant portrayed ordinary people whose faces – altered by Photoshop – became Chinese looking. The ad was entered at an award show, did not win, and was later severely criticised across social media as offensive and racist after it found its way to the internet and went viral.
Another example concerned a well-known regional hotel chain that used the stock photo of a famous natural arch and beach landmark in south-west England to suggest to its website visitors that it depicted a landscape near their hotel resort in Ras Al Khaimah. This case of misappropriation of intellectual property and erroneous information was subsequently rectified.
While it is commonly said that ethics begin where the law ends, with MENA advertising industry laws not sufficiently developed and varying from country to country, our advertising industry regulates itself by seeking guidance from global advertising standards and our own business codes of ethics and conduct.
Agencies’ ethical roadmaps, however, become more complex when the diversified culture of our MENA region allows the running of an advertising campaign in one country but makes it impossible to run in another. Only agencies with abundant experience and acute local insights can successfully overcome the blurry borders of what is culturally ethical and what is socially offensive.
For instance, some consumers view advertising that neglects Arab cultural norms and the ethical values of its religious principles as infringing on Islamic culture. Nonetheless, a new generation of modern Muslim consumers (as revealed a few years ago by Ogilvy Noor’s pioneering study on new Muslim consumers) feels comfortable adopting the notion that their Islamic values and faith do not necessarily conflict with today’s modern consumer life.
This notion is broadly reinforced by a growing exposure to new media. Social media has contributed greatly to a change in lifestyles and a widening awareness of global issues. More importantly, it has allowed some courageous brands to play more thought-provoking roles than otherwise tolerated through traditional media channels. In essence, today’s consumers would much rather accept a brand with no claims than a brand that fails to deliver on its claims. For Muslim consumers this is crucial, as they are keen to be reassured that none of the money they spend on a product or service will end up going towards causes they consider to be unethical.
This reassurance is equally needed when advertising targets children, especially those under the age of 12. Ethical advertising becomes significantly important because of their vulnerability and inexperience.
Social responsibility and change are at the forefront of consumers’ minds in today’s digital revolution. People are reacting to the world’s social injustices and are active in bringing about change. In freely questioning their own national leaderships and their countries’ public service performances, they are also questioning the brands to which they are loyal, and openly voice their candid and unreserved opinions.
Like most multinational agencies in the region we are increasingly attending training workshops on business codes of ethics and conduct. It is no longer the case of only producing great creative work and selling it to our clients, it is about providing each piece of work with fitting cultural relevance.
All advertising agencies with leadership positions must continue to diligently play a critical role in applying the highest ethical standards in everything they do. And they must do everything they can to promote a moral engagement throughout our industry’s disciplines. After all, the professional integrity and reputation of all our industry’s ecosystem vastly depends on it.