Can You Leave Your Morals at the Ad Agency’s Door?

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Call them morals, ethics, beliefs, principles, I don’t want to get into semantics here. You live your life by a certain set of rules, and we all have a slightly different set. Anyone who reads my column regularly knows I lean very far to the left on most issues, and that rubs a lot of people the wrong way. And I really don’t care. In the same way, you shouldn’t care if your views piss people off either.

But when it comes to doing the job we do, is the best creative work done by people who don’t give a flying fuck about their morals when they cross the agency threshold? Or by people who can, by some extreme act of willpower, disengage emotions and just get on with the job? There have been several times in my life when my morals were really pushed to the limit.

It started in my first ever job out of college. It was, by no stretch of the imagination, a job that was a million miles away from the glitz and glamor that I thought advertising was all about. Most of my time in the first six months was spent working on credit card mailers, slimming products, local car ads and other such crap. There were bigger, more glamorous accounts at the agency, but they were reserved for teams that were not fresh out of college. Those accounts were earned.

Then, one day, the creative director said he was giving us a chance to work on a big account. But it had one slight drawback. He knew both my partner and I were anti-smoking, and it was a cigarette account. To be precise, a cigarette account in a country that was very poor.

Hmm. Do we want to say no, and delay the chance to work on great accounts for another six months? Or do we do it, and sell poisonous shit to people who cannot afford it, and will go hungry in order to buy a pack?

We chose the latter, to our shame. And we did a cracking job on it too, with the campaign being loved by the client and outperforming any previous campaign by a good 20%.

YES! We had succeeded…in selling more death sticks to people in poverty than any previous team before us. Talk about a double-edged sword.

Over the years, other such challenges have raised their heads. Most of the time, I kick my morals or beliefs to the curb and just get on with the fucking job. I’m a professional, I get paid to keep the clients happy, and my personal beliefs have no room at the conference room table.

Being such a lefty liberal, I had to bite my tongue and advertise a Republican candidate on more than one occasion. He wasn’t even a moderate. He was the kind of guy Rush Limbaugh would consider a bit too right wing. And yet, I did it, and he got elected on the back of the work we did.

I still regret that one. Much like a lawyer who gives a criminal the best possible defense, I did the best job I could on his campaign. Should I have thrown it?

I’ve also been directly responsible for pushing ads that I knew, beyond a reasonable doubt, were “conning” people out of their money. Everything was legal, but my God, I certainly walked the line. Thankfully, that company is out of business now.

I could go on, but I am way more interested in what you have to say. Maybe this is some kind of catharsis for me, to see if I’m not the only one who says “fuck it” to my beliefs in favor of doing a good job (and keeping it).

Would you work on the “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.” campaign if you were a strict vegetarian or vegan? And could you really do a great job, even if you try and kick your own beliefs to the curb?

Could you advertise alcohol if you were on the wagon? Could you really convince other people to drink booze even though you’re off it for good?

What if you’re anti-war? Would you happily work on the Army or Marine Corps accounts? Would you do it begrudgingly? Would you “just say no?”

Could you ever work on advertising for the KKK? What if your job depended on it? Would you do a piss poor job if you had no other choice?

In the past, when it was easy to go from job to job, having morals was a little easier. It was possible to turn down some accounts, or raise objections if pitching for work that you believe the agency just should not have.

But these days, with the industry (especially in Denver) being so fragile and work being so hard to find, could you dare stand up for your beliefs and sacrifice a good job? Would that make you feel better, when you had no food to put on the table for your family that night?

We all, to some extent, do things we don’t like to do for money. No one really wants to work on shitty credit card mailing packs. No one likes doing godawful radio spots for local clients. It pays the bills, and we know it.

But where is the line, and when do you refuse to step over it? Do we, as advertising professionals, have any right to let our own personal morals and beliefs interfere with the job we are being paid to do?

Go on then. Chime in.

Felix is a site contributor, ranter and curmudgeon for The Denver Egotist. He’s been in the ad game a long time, but he’s still young enough to know he doesn’t know everything. If he uses the f-bomb from time-to-time, forgive him. Sometimes, when you're ranting, no other word will do. In his spare time, he does not torture small animals. He's been known, on occasion, to drink alcohol by the gallon. Do as he says, not as he does.


It is good to see some people in an industry created on misleading people into buying and bending the truth to it's limit have an internal moral debate. ( Felix. How about a piece on the presidential debate? Is the mighty dollar + advertising going to put Mitt Romney in the oval office? Obama's moral choice of might cost him the presidency.)

I choose my morals and not the advertising industry. I don't think there is any other way even in a booming economy

You cant have it both ways
It is black and white

If your actions dont match up with your beliefs
they arent really beliefs
so if you say you are against smoking but
are now the creative behind getting a bunch of kids in Vietnam
addicted to cigarettes, and eventually developing cancer due to their
addiction, while lining the pockets of Ho Chi Healthy Ciggy
you aren't truly against smoking

People who actually believe and can act (decline an account)
on their belief put their money where their mouth is

People who talk a bunch of 'I care' but can't back it up with action(accepting the Ho Chi Healthy account)
dont have that belief
That person holds another belief that he or she can act upon, which is
I believe my personal gain is more important than my belief that smoking is bad

Isnt Common a good example of not leaving your beliefs at the door?
Hooray for Boulder

Life is about choices. Every action there is a reaction. One door close and another opens. If money rules you then I would say your morals are checked at every door.

I for one feel a bit of sympathy for the people who do cigarette ads. I mean, yeah they are poison death sticks that kill people, but for a long time they were also a normal and even loved part of our culture.

What happens when another product you work on, like beer or cars or fluoride tooth paste finds itself on the wrong side of public opinion? Do we villainize the people that work on those accounts too?

The problem isn't the product. the problem is how it is sold. It doesn't matter if you sell cigarettes or kids books, if you are dishonest in the way you advertise the product you are doing something wrong.

If cigarette companies hadn't tried to cover up the negative health effects and sell shit to kids for decades, they wouldn't be in the situation they are in today.

Your job is to be the voice of your client. YOU personally aren't advertising/selling cigarettes. You're just showing your client the best way he/she can speak to consumers.

Rightly or wrongly, I've always justified it by asking "Does the client really believe in what they're selling?" If the answer is yes, then it's my job to help them. If the answer is no - such as for cigarettes and several other products I've been asked to advertise - then I pass.

What if they're selling hate, as in KKK literature? They definitely believe in their cause 100%. Or how about if they're selling a clothing line that makes little girls look like hookers, because those Toddlers & Tiaras girls need stuff like that to wear? I think that's a hard direction to follow. A lot of really crappy things have people behind them who believe in them completely.

'Your job is to be the voice of your client....' does not separate you from the work you do, that is a guilty person's way of rationalizing their contribution to a cause that does harm to society, People who need to rationalize/justify doing work that causes tangible harm know they are guilty. They just don't want to feel bad that their audi was paid for
at the expense of harming a lot of innocent people.

depends which moral code you subscribe to
nowadays belief/morality is relative to the individual
the code is a slippery
system relative to your own moral or immoral whims. we live in an age of relativism and everything can be justified
so yes, i think smoking is bad
and yes, i value my job and do work that sells the very product I believe is bad for people
contrary to some of these puritan idealist posts, your beliefs do not need to match up with your actions

At the end of the day, 99% of us will let our moral code take a backseat to our career. Or at least, our job. It's all very well having beliefs you stand by 100%, but why the hell did you get into advertising in the first place? I am personally against alcohol and smoking, but fuck it, I'll do a killer campaign for either one. It's my job.

Interesting arguments.

Here's a tangental p-o-v, a Voltairian "cultivate your own garden," from a lifelong observer of advertising:

Put a little distance in between you and your clients, if you do in fact decide to work for them. Your clients create products that may or may not be harmful, and so do you. But they are not the same. Yours is the advertising. Make it the best you can.

"Best" of course, is open to myriad interpretations. It can mean "sells the most," "is the most original," "sells the most without actually, um, lying," "makes viewers feel good," or even, as Felix proposes, "is the worst campaign I could get my morally depraved client to approve, thus minimizing their noxious impact on the world."

So make your peace with your own definition of "best" (I'm not offering any help there; just a little distance and perspective) then strive to execute it. Advertising is your product. Do not confuse it with your client's. Do your job and do it well.

Historical aside: Decades ago, editing a magazine for agency art directors, my product was commentary about art directing. And print showcases (hahahaha) like Rolling Stone were filled with the illustrated Joe Camel print ads. I thought then, and still do, that they were excellent art directing. And showed them for exactly that reason.

Hats off to Dan for an eloquent reply, and using myriad correctly. I see "a myriad of" used everywhere and it bugs the shit out of me. Dan, which clients have you done work for that really did make you battle your own personal ethics?

I remember doing work for a client that I can't mention here, because of a lawsuit (really, they wanted to sue me until I signed something) that had me so conflicted that I became deeply depressed. I will never do work for a client like that ever again, it's just not worth it. I do a lot of pro bono work now to make up for that, like it will somehow erase it. Not likely, but at least it makes me feel better.

My moral choices were and are far, far easier than most of yours.

When I wrote about advertising, I saw my big-picture responsibility as the promotion of quality art direction. (To those of you laughing: it is a significant part of our cultural environment.) A difficult choice then was a big budget, attention-getting campaign that I recognized as a rip-off of something small-budget and obscure. Cover it, and reward the rippers-off? Or don't cover it and pretend to my subscribers that it did not exist? Never came up with a hard and fast rule, and went both ways, depending.

Now, doing trade pr, I have the luxury of no consequence. Big-picture, if I do my job well, a client who pays me will get more press. If I do my job poorly, somebody else's client will get more press. The amount of coverage devoted to the trade (advertising, duh), and that coverage's impact on the world's well-being is the same either way.

I find it liberating—exhilarating, even, on the good days—to be able to do my job as best I can and know that it really doesn't matter. (To those of my clients who may be reading: Somebody has hijacked my email. Somebody else wrote this.)

If I have a problem with a product I won't work on advertising it. I've declined many projects for this reason. It cost me money. I'm fine with that.

I DO work on some things I'm embarrassed to admit but don't have a problem with. Those types of projects I just keep secret. Sometimes it is about cool work, sometimes it is about paying bills.

I know many people who direct their own careers towards things they are not just OK with but passionate about, like nonprofits. Those people have truly dialed it in and I applaud them for it. Mixing occupation and passion is about as good as it gets for a career.

In this day and age many people don't feel like they have the choice to say "yes" or "no". Maybe they have families to take care of. Certainly one's children are more important than short term moral decisions. Or are one's own children more important than the kids that'll die of lung cancer in 50 years? That gets sticky.

Hopefully people can look long term when making these decisions. It may hurt short term to avoid the morally bad client, but long term one CAN control one's own destiny enough to weed those situations out preemptively.

I couldn't agree with Dan more.

I love advertising. I love marketing. I studied and worked hard to get where I am in this industry. And I have no regrets.

I do not always love my client’s products. I do not always agree with my clients products. Most of the time I do not even use my client’s products. But ill build strategy and creative that sells their crap.

When I was being interviewed for college, the head of the advertising course (a former Saatchi's writer) asked me what I'd do if the ad agency I worked at asked me to do a campaign for the BNP (basically, Britain's toned-down version of the KKK). I said I hoped the agency I worked for would have more sense than to take such a horrible account, but if push came to shove, I'd have to say no, even if it cost me my job.

The guy looked at me and said "good answer, but let's see where you stand in 10 years time, when paying the bills is more important than staying true to your principles." That always stuck with me. Thankfully, I've never been asked to work on a campaign supporting that much hatred.

I have worked on accounts that denigrate women in their marketing, harm the environment, are bad for you and a waste of people's money. I have also worked on brands that help raise money for cancer research, improve the lives of the impoverished, and raise money for schools. Regardless of the account, I felt my moral responsibility was and is to do the best that I can for the people who have entrusted me with their business. If I truly objected to the work, I should quit and do something worthwhile with my working for the company that raises money for cancer research.

Thats why you are, and will always be, yes men.

most brands are responsible for some evil somewhere
at some point along the way, there is a dirty secret
so whether you are aware of it or not
you are probably guilty of hurting someone anyways

but if you dont see the child sweatshop worker fainting at the sweatshop
does the child sweatshop worker falling down still make a sound?

I worked on the convenience store side of a 'Big Oil' account. It was a digital campaign that bought banner and rich media space on a number of child-oriented websites. We were basically selling gasoline and cigarettes to children on Disney sites. Made me feel dirty as all hell but as I'm still early in my career I had no choice... When I asked for advice on how I should handle my ethics conflict I was told something along the lines of "Well, they're going to buy cigarettes and gasoline anyway why not do it at one of our client's locations."

All I can say is I have had some pretty greedy, large corporate, scumbag companies as clients. Working on these accounts I have also gotten to be in the the belly of the beast--and have gotten access to lots of info, visual assets (logos etc etc), and other high confidentiality materials.....So lets just say that after hours I have my fun and I can do" my own version" of their ads.....and post them across town....

I the mid 90s I got a client (and I still have them) who had what I believed to be a poor environmental ethic. I made a decision to donate 10% of my profits, from the shoots that I did with said client, to various environmental organizations. Over time, as my relationship with the client grew I personally pushed this big corporate machine to get greener, and they did. I'm not certain that donations and grass roots, insider niggling take me off the hook for looking the other way in the beginning but I think if you keep your eyes on the prize (the real prize), you can change the world and make the big bucks all at the same time.

Nice to hear, Tomas. Both your long-term effect and your ongoing uncertainty that you've done "enough."

To me what matters is what I was hired to do. That would be to create the best damn web properties I can. Develop technology, innovate, and give our clients what they need to do what they do. I've worked on lots of things I don't particularly care about, and some that are directly opposed to my "views", but what does that have to do with me doing good work? I love writing code, and I don't care who for. Does my mechanic refuse to fix my car because he doesn't like my stance on political issues? No, he fixes the car because that is why he is being paid. I might get shafted on price if he hates "my party" but it likely will never come up. The fact that I have to intimately handle the content and creative for clients that don't line up with my worldview makes no difference. I wasn't hired to critique clients, and whine about what I don't like (maybe if I was a creative director who finds the right clients I would care more?). I was hired to kick ass and give them my best work period. If you can't deal with that life, and you want to be doing stuff that aligns with your personal beliefs, go right ahead. I don't know for sure what will happen as a result of my work, whether promoting alcohol will get someone killed b/c a drunk driver doesn't have the sense to not drive. Maybe my beer ad will bring fun and enjoyment to many people, maybe even brighten their day, but that is also none of my concern. I don't control everyone and everything. People choose what they want. Ads don't force them to do anything, it just helps them decide what option is best for the decision they have made. If someone isn't interested in what we're selling, then it doesn't matter how good we do, they aren't biting. The onus is not on us.

Well, this is what I say. If you can't do it with a good conscience, then you shouldn't do it at all. Whether you like to believe it or not, we are all going to be judged by God. It won't do, at that time, to say, I had to put food on the table, and I certainly know you couldn't have helped me with that. Therefore, I had to do what I did. Honestly, the way you have lived, in throwing your morals out the window, would it not have been better if you would have died as a teenager?

Seems kind of hypocritical to express your morale-backed opinion on advertising, on an advertising blog.

We're all hypocrites. How many of you bought your wives big sparkling rocks that a bunch of black babies we're murdered for. Who the fuck makes the Nikes that cool hipster kids paint ridiculous cartoons with bright colors on and sell them for 300.00 to other super rad hipsters that pay 9.00 for a gluton free peanut butter and jelly sandwich just because. This article is fucking pointless. The African and Asian babies make everything for us poor dilusional bastards. Are you running out of ideas Felix? Are you loosing your touch to offend the soft ad scene of Denver? I'm disappointed in you.

It started in my first ever job out of college. It was, by no stretch of the imagination, a job that was a million miles away from the glitz and glamor that I thought advertising was all about. Most of my time in the first six months was spent working on credit card mailers, slimming products, local car ads and other such crap. There were bigger, more glamorous accounts at the agency, but they were reserved for teams that were not fresh out of college. Those accounts were earned.

There is a reason they make a tshirt that says "Design is Honest, Advertising is Lying"

I've worked on numerous brands some of which I'm not proud of. But the truth is, that is the job I've been paid to do. Imagine what would happen if the police decide whom they wanted to protect and whom they didn't want to. It's the same thing in advertising. We must maintain our professionalism before more and more marketers write us off as self-serving idiots.

If anything, I always remind myself that the work I produce is only as good (and as honest) as the client would permit.

When it gets harder to wake up in the morning, get in the car, go to work, turn on the laptop, write a bunch of lines that will never promise anything more than just fiction and lies, yeah, it weighs heavy on the conscious. Especially when you don't believe in anything you're doing anymore.

Reading The Copy Book doesn't help either. 'Cos at least back then, their ads did something. All our ads do now is lie.

If you work in advertising, you have NO morals or ethics. You actually don't care because you CAN throw them out the window, which means they were never there to begin with. If you justify your job simply by saying,"I gotta make those payments on my(house, car, or what ever DEBT your still paying off)." Then I would suggest looking into WHY does my society WANT me to have NO ethics when deciding, what job to apply for(specifically out of college)/can I hold true to my moral values when applying for it?
For instance, if you had held true to your morals, you probly wouldn't have gone to college(being lied to about the fact that you would HAVE to throw out your morals when applying for this job) looking for an advertising job. Also do you even think it works? I find it even funnier when people I know(who do what you do[which is ad campaigning]) but doesn't believe it works lol(but I think that's them cleansing their morals out the window!!!).
How do you work a sh!thole ass job which EVERYONE hates(we all know everyone hates adds), which IMO, pays you WAY too much money anyway(or maybe that's what they studied and figured out about people like you, which is that they KNOW the price to which scum like you will throw out you morals[or positive infleuance to society] just for that[ever slowly shrinking] pay check).

For me, I believe that morality in my employment is absolute. I have been a marketer for 15 years and find that if I do not truly believe in the product or its claims of superiority, that I have difficulty in applying a strong strategy to a campaign.
My number one critical goal in promoting products is gaining the trust of the purchasers and I can only do this if I believe in what I’m telling people.
I have in the past taken on assignments that I felt weren’t squeaky clean, as there was some underlying shadiness with issues such as product guarantees, extended lock in contracts etc. After just a couple of months my conscience has taken over and I pulled out of marketing for those companies. For example, I worked for a healthcare company who tried to make sure that the representatives did not inform clients that they were signing a three year lock in contract and in their marketing they had me conveniently leave this out. I felt that this was dishonest and misleading as I heard office staff taking abusive calls on a daily basis from clients who wanted to end the contract but were unable to. I left this role after 90 days. Unethical business practices especially advertising impact society adversely. Since working for this company I have made sure that all assignments I undertake pass my moral code before I begin.
My success as a marketer has been finding a unique position for the business or product and promoting that. Once a product has been used by a customer they then make up their mind whether the purchase was good or bad and whether to trust the company. I truly believe that if a product is well priced, positioned and targeted to the right audience in an ethical manner, that repeat purchase and word of mouth referral are more likely.
I found the following statement by Ogilvie and Mather Advertising and feel that it supports my stand. “Ads for reputable companies almost never lie. They have to be able to prove what they say to their own corporate counsel, the ad agency's lawyers, the network's approval committees and to any number of regulating bodies like the FDA and the FTC. With at least five different government agencies looking over our shoulder, the cost of being caught cheating is simply too high. In addition, the individuals inside a company want to be able to look at themselves in the mirror. Some like to think of business people as belonging to some other species, but remember that most of them are you a few years from now.
Advertisers are in the business of communicating with thousands, even millions, of "others" all the time. That gives us thousands or millions of chances to practice what we believe every day. And try to get it right.”
Being honest in business is not limiting nor misleading. I do not believe that consumers should be drawn into something that they will regret. Repeat purchase and word of mouth referral are imperative for long term business growth.
You comment in your blog “but where is the line, and when do you refuse to step over it? Do we, as advertising professionals, have any right to let our own personal morals and beliefs interfere with the job we are being paid to do?” As stated in the paragraph above by Ogilvie and Mather Advertising that we are given changes to practice what we believe every day and this stands for my position as well. I do not believe that I can comfortably promote a product that I don’t believe is an ethical product or does not do what I say it will do.
I justify my marketing choices by my own moral compass, I eat meat therefore I would promote it if required, I have been a smoker in the past but would never worked for a tobacco company, even when I was a smoker I knew that people should not be encouraged to smoke.
You have also stated …..”Over the years, other such challenges have raised their heads. Most of the time, I kick my morals or beliefs to the curb and just get on with the fucking job. I’m a professional, I get paid to keep the clients happy, and my personal beliefs have no room at the conference room table”….. All I can say to you is “shame on you.”
I would not throw out my personal ethics for money or to elevate my career. I choose to have social ethics by caring about what I do and how this will affect my neighbour. Using coercive or manipulative sales techniques such as selling items to people that they never even wanted: is dishonest, just as dishonest as an outright lie.
I believe that we as marketers have an obligation to provide information to customers so that they are able to make an informed decision to purchase the product or not and whether to put it into their favourable evoked set. Advertising standards are legal obligations, based on agreed ethical behaviour and have been put into place so that we marketers abide by the law which is to uphold community values, gain consumer trust and to protect consumers from misleading advertising.
Branding a product is not automatically coercive unless the promotion ignores the product attributes and simply focuses on emotion, anxiety or imaging (such as a woman lying on a car). Marketers who use these approaches I believe have dubious business ethical standards.
I do not believe you can have two ethical standards – one for your work and one for your personal life. Ethics and ethical relationships are about trust and honesty. How can you say something which is not ok in my personal life “I certainly wouldn’t do this or promote smoking to my children or to others”; where on the other hand in business it is ok because I’m doing it for the money or the power and influence it will provide having this client account.
This is the equivalent of what Faust did, selling your soul to the devil. I strongly believe that our professional conduct must align with our personal ethics and morals.

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