In defense of behavioral change

Few people go into advertising with a moral mission to save the world. It's adland's job to create communication that changes behavior, says Mullen Lowe Group's chief growth officer

Increasingly I find myself wondering: What do advertising people actually think they’re doing? What is our work about? If you ask around, you’ll get a lot of different answers.

Some think the industry is about building great brands. Some think it’s about communicating products persuasively. Others think it’s about using creativity to connect consumers and corporations, or helping clients to sell more stuff. And if we’re honest, there are those who think it’s about going on glamorous shoots and winning creative awards.

All these viewpoints share have something in common: Our industry depends on using the media to influence the behavior of millions of people. Our industry is about getting large groups of people to change what they think, what they feel and what they do.

As an industry professional, I love the different ways advertising people have found to nudge behavior change. But I've had enough conversations with people outside the industry to know that a phrase like behavior change can set off alarm bells. It triggers images of sinister masterminds hatching fiendish plots to make the hapless public do their bidding.

These people quote thoughts from the 1957 classic "The Hidden Persuaders" — or at least they quote the title of the book. Some even mention Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, author of the influential 1928 book Propaganda and a founder of modern marketing. And there are regular salvos from all quarters about risqué ads and about the morality of advertising in general. Even industry professionals can get to feel a little jaundiced about their work.

So let’s get one thing straight. Advertising does face moral quandaries and it isn’t alone on this score. Professionals in the law, accountancy, management consultancy, finance, politics, science and even healthcare may have doubts about some of what they do. This is in part because people have rightly become more sensitive to a whole lot of moral and ethical issues that were previously taken for granted: disability discrimination, racism, sexism, animal welfare and environmental destruction.

But it’s also because advertising is part of real life, which is full of the sort thorny moral conundrums that have made Harvard political philosophy professor Michael Sandel an international academic celebrity.

Few people go into advertising  or indeed into most professions  with a moral mission to save the world. Advertising and most other professions are morally neutral.

Even when they stay strictly within the law, they can lead to up to moral high ground, or down into moral swamp land. One obvious case down on the swampy-side is advertising to promote smoking, even long after the deadly effects of tobacco were beyond doubt. Up on the high ground, advertising can be used for great purposes such as helping end the guerrilla war in Colombia, promoting road safety in China, campaigning against neo-Nazism in Germany, and raising stroke awareness in the UK.

Our job is to create communication that changes people’s behavior on behalf of our clients. As long as our clients’ products are legal, and as long as our communication is legal, we’re good to go. The rest is down to personal preference. Advertising professionals with a particular moral sense may decide against working on certain types of account. But that’s a matter of personal morality and personal choice in most professions. Our job is to serve our clients effectively.

Naomi Troni is Mullen Lowe Group’s chief growth officer.


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