Can advertising be ethical?

Can advertising be ethical?

Image of a woman's eyes peering from a niqab
Ferrero candy's "Who are you?" campaign struck a chord among women in the Middle East.

Advertising across all media is expected to reach $579 billion by 2016. Top advertisers include the U.S., China, Japan, Germany and the U.K., with the U.S. alone expected to spend $189 billion by the end of 2016. Internet ad spending alone reached $158 billion in 2015. (Just tracking down data for this article encountered five unavoidable pop-up advertisements.)

Out of this maelstrom, our EthicMark Awards for advertising has over 10 years of experience in finding socially responsible advertising. Founded in 2004 by sustainability pioneer and renowned futurist Hazel Henderson, the awards recognize advertising that uplifts the human spirit and society. The goal is to transform advertising by demonstrating the power of media campaigns to inspire and further both public and legitimate private interests.

Over the past 10 years, goals and criteria have been refined from academic treatise to simple, intuitive language. An ethical advertisement portrays and reinforces healthy lifestyles and behavior for consumers, youth and community. The product and the company or organization meet high standards of integrity, responsibility, trustworthiness, transparency and fairness.

The ad avoids promoting self-destructive or socially irresponsible behavior, particularly to young people. It avoids exploitation of violence, cruelty, sensationalism and degrading and pathological portrayals. The ad, product and company or organization respect consumers by refraining from greenwashing, exaggeration, instilling fear or manipulating brain science. Ads respect diversity.

A screenshot from Facebook of a comment that reads "I am nothing."
<p>The Ferrero campaign engaged more than 85,000 women on social media, with some devastating responses.</p>

Winning ads have evolved, becoming more imaginative, combining traditional, social and multi-media venues. Peru’s university of engineering UTEC won in 2013 for a billboard which simultaneously advertised university programs and distilled water from the air.

"The evolution is most visible in non-OECD countries which are creative, building on limited resources and leapfrogging over expensive traditional media to optimize the use of online and social media," said Henderson.

A runner-up last year came from the candy maker Ferrero with an online campaign asking "Who Are You?" encouraging women in the Middle East to acknowledge their own names. This year a similar campaign from the United Nations has been nominated — "Give Mom Back Her Name," encouraging men in Egypt to see women fully.

There are dozens of awards for advertising: the Women’s Image Network Awards; the Tribute; Cannes Lion Grand Prix for Good and the D&AD White Pencil, both for social awareness within larger fields.

An aerial view of the site that includes the photo of a child killed by a drone attack.
<p>From the #NotABugSplat campaign: An aerial view of the site that includes the photo of a child killed by a drone attack.</p>

The expansion of issue-specific awards is an important step forward. Spotlighting the positive influence of advertising is a powerful message to the advertising industry at large. The EthicMark has awarded Philips for Light Centers in Africa, the Nike Foundation supporting girl’s education and Liberty Mutual, asking what it means to "do the right thing." A winning favorite is 2014’s Unsung Hero from Thai Life Insurance exemplifying selflessness and healthy community interaction.  

When considering what makes an advertising campaign ethical, one must also consider the company, not just the message or the product. Many beautiful messages are aligned with unhealthy products; many useful products mere gimmicks for green branding; many dedicated non-profits without the means to convey an impressive message. Do we really need to apply ethical criteria to product, messaging and company? Yes! Let’s set the standard at its highest and see who meets it.

Case in point: "Chrysalis," the 2009 winner from Pantene, a division of Procter & Gamble, elicited close scrutiny and debate among the EthicMark judges. The imagery is of a young woman blossoming in her talent as a violinist despite disability and naysayers. The message uplifts the human spirit. The company is globally respected. The product?  P&G allows animal testing on shampoos. Despite concern for animal rights, Pantene won. At the time, P&G used legal testing methods, had received no reprimands and had publically stated continued effort to limit animal testing as better methods became available. When Henderson founded the awards, she set up a "carrot rather than a stick." Ask tough questions and let companies know they are being scrutinized.   

Companies do care, designing campaigns around ethical branding. Yet most advertising awards do not take the advertiser into consideration. Coca-Cola’s acclaimed "Security Cameras" may be heartwarming, but it promotes a company linked to water waste and obesity.

Henderson advocates programs such as the Truth in Advertising Assurance Set-Aside (PDF) requiring companies to allocate a small percentage of their advertising tax exemption to fund public service announcements to produce supplemental counter-advertising campaigns. 

Until such a system is implemented, consumers can reward ethical advertising. The 2015 EthicMark Awards honored viewer-nominated Not a Bug Splat, a collaboration with Inside Out and the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, the stark image of a child, visible from hundreds of feet up, challenging the desensitized manner in which drone operators accept casualties of war; and Lucky Iron Fish, a for-profit, Certified B Corporation, using creative marketing to address chronic low levels of iron found in diets throughout Cambodia.

Anyone can participate by nominating a favorite uplifting, socially responsible advertisement at