Category Archives: ethics

Changing the world is the only fit work for a grown man

That’s a quote from an ad man called Howard Luck Gossage (great name; great quote) and is the title of a new biography about him.

He ran his own agency in San Francisco back the 1960s when all the action was taking place in New York (Bill Bernback, David Ogilvy, Rosser Reeves).  He had, what seemed at the time and perhaps still now, some pretty crazy ideas about the way advertising should work, which now that I no longer work in an agency, seem exceedingly sensible.  From the book, they include:

Didn’t believe that it was all about growth and the money.  It was about maintaining the quality of the creative work and the culture of the agency.  The agency never grew to be more than 15 people.

He thought about the point of advertising.  As he put it “there is precious little awareness, and no real enquiry into the economic, sociologic or philosophic bases of advertising”.  I would say that this is still the case. I was raised to believe that the point of advertising is to make money for the agency and make money for the client.  No sociologic or philosophic enquiry there.

He believed that pumping out advertising with no real sense of who was receiving it and how it was being received was not only wasteful but unethical.  He said: “I will go further and say that it is not only wrong to attempt to influence an audience without involving it but it is unethical and dishonest”.  Strong words, but this kind of accounts for, at a guess, more than 50% of advertising these days.

He had a theory of the way things work (cybernetics, via Norbert Weiner) which could be applied to advertising.  Cybernetics (roughly) is about recognising that there are feedback loops in the natural world.  So for Gossage, he saw the creation of information loops as beneficial and indeed a life-enhancing way of making people respect others and accept responsibility for their actions.  So, his ads featured ways to engage the audience so that they could help create the next round of work.  No feedback, change the ads.  By involving the consumer and getting their input into the campaign, it was evident that they were enjoying the work and more work would evolve that encouraged further feedback.

In this “he viewed advertising less as a commercial bludgeon and more as a conversation between equals”.  And “people like to be treated as human beings rather than consumers and they react very well to it”.  ‘Go Compare’ anyone?

He was, perhaps unsurprisingly, anti-billboards because he believed that no media owner had the right to sell that media because a billboard interrupted a view that belonged to the people.

One of Gossage’s ads that stopped the Grand Canyon getting flooded

He ended up working on saving the Grand Canyon from getting flooded (via an ad campaign), then helped make the Sierra Club famous before using his skills to launch Friends of the Earth.  To him, this is what advertising should be for: “advertising was too valuable an instrument to waste on commercial products…it justified its existence only when it was used for social purposes”.

So, he said all this, but was also well ahead of his time in terms of thinking about social media, PR-generated stunts and interactive.  What’s interesting is that the back cover of the book is full of modern-day advertising greats talking about how great Gossage was.  For example, Jeff Goodby says “The best of Gossage is the best of advertising ever done, and what’s really amazing is the the work he did foretold what’s happening on the internet and social media right now”.   To me, it’s more interesting to take his thinking in the round – to consider the points that I’ve highlighted above, not just the interactive/social media bit.  It would make for a very different, more purposeful industry, where that purpose is beyond just trying to make money and sell stuff.  Maybe one day more of his ideas will come to pass.  I hope so.

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Children for Sale

Should you be able to buy and sell babies?  Should you be able to buy and sell votes?

These are the sort of questions posed in the excellent ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits to Markets’ by Michael Sandel.  His basic premise is that we’ve moved from a market economy to a market society.  That the Rules of Economics rule.

He covers lots of themes within the book raised by this basic premise – like the coercive and corruptive nature of money and the issue of democracy.  One area is the use of incentives.  Economics say that incentives are a good thing because if you put a price on something then it encourages people to act in the ways you want.  So, paying children to read a book, or the offer of money to work hard to get a high grade.

What this does, which he eloquently points out is that by incentivising something, you run the risk of ‘crowding out’ the social norm that currently exists, to the detriment of society.

So, in America, like here in the UK, people donate blood.  They did this because they saw it as their civic duty.  It was then realised you could make money buying and selling blood.  So, you can now either get paid to give blood (typically done by poor people who are being coerced into doing so because they have little money) or donate blood.  What’s happened is that fewer people donate blood.  As he says “Commercialisation and profit in blood has been driving out the voluntary donor” and that “once people begin to view blood as a commodity that is routinely bought and sold, they are less likely to feel a moral responsibility to donate it”.  Further, “it is likely that a decline in the spirit of altruism on one sphere of human activities will be accompanied by similar changes in attitudes, motives and relationships in other spheres”.

That last statement sounds like a leap, but he’s got 203 pages of why that may well be true.

Another example is nuclear waste in Switzerland.  The government did their research and found out that the most appropriate place to build the waste site was near the small mountain village of Wolfenschiessen (pop. 2,100).  51% of residents said that they would accept it.  The economists added a sweetner to try and get the % up.  They offered money of an annual monetary payment.  The result?  The financial incentive cut the rate of acceptance in half to 25%.  Why?  In the world of economics, increasing the incentive should have increased demand.  So, why did it go down?  “For many villagers, willingness to accept the nuclear waste site reflected public spirit – a recognition that the country as a whole depended on nuclear energy and that the nuclear waste had to be stored somewhere.  If their community was found to be the safest storage site, they were willing to bear the burden.  Against this backdrop of civic commitment, the offer of case felt like a bribe – an effort to buy their vote.”

Sandel uses example after example to drive home the point that we should examine the line where economic thinking is impacting on our sense of civic duty and the ideals of democracy: paying to jump the queue, executive boxes at sports stadiums, paying to be late to pick up your kids, bribes to lose weight, carbon offset, paying to kill endangered species, life insurance, corporate naming rights in sports stadiums, advertising in schools etc. etc.

We decided that buying and selling people (slavery) was morally incorrect, yet there seems to be little to no public debate about what else should or shouldn’t be bought or sold.  So, you may well be able to go into a store soon and say “I’d like to buy two children” although Madonna and Branjelina may have already passed that line.

A very timely book.

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Free to go shopping?

Been thinking about this a lot recently and finding it very hard to describe and articulate, but here’s a go:

When it comes to what’s actually important and what makes us happy, do we really know?  I’m not entirely sure that we do.  I’ve decided this as a result of thinking about shopping and consumerism.  It seems to me that integral part of what Western society deems as important is to shop and buy things.  Either more things than you’ve currently got or better things that you’ve currently got.  And in buying those things you will be happier.  Having stuff – more stuff or better stuff – is a way to feel better.

To buy that new shirt to continue to be fashionable and feel good when you’re in the pub, or a magazine to know what’s fashionable or a new phone because it’s better at letting you stay in touch with your friends and feel connected.  It’s even called Retail Therapy because therapy is a way (apparently) to feel better about yourself.

So, buying things is correlated to feeling better.  I would suggest that we accept, blindly, that having more stuff is the natural thing.  It’s not even talked about.  It’s an unspoken narrative in our society.  It doesn’t need to be said or even discussed because everyone understands it and believes it.  Like the sun coming up in the morning.

And to a degree that is, of course, true.  Having a new thing can be great.  You go to the shop, you get to choose what you want, pay for it, take it home and use it.

But, what happens if you don’t buy anything new?  You don’t buy more or better stuff?  Typically this means you don’t have the means.  So, you’re either poor or unemployed.  Both of which are socially undesirable.  Or if you have got money and don’t buy more and better stuff then you’re a bit weird for not doing what everyone else does.

So, putting myself in the unemployed and ‘have the money to buy not buying category’, I currently haven’t bought any new clothes (except for some socks) or electronic equipment or just basically ‘stuff’ for about a year.  Still buy food, drink, travel and some second hand things, but no ‘more or better’ new stuff.

How does that feel?  Well, pretty good.  Which isn’t supposed to be the case.  Right?  If the narrative of shopping is that if I buy more and better stuff then I’ll feel happier, then the converse – not buying any new or better stuff should be that I feel worse.  Right?  I should, in some way, feel deprived, or left out, or somehow ‘lesser’ shouldn’t I?

Absolutely not.


So, what do I feel about not buying stuff?  Unburdened by the need to.  Not having to spend (waste?) time engaging in deciding what to buy and then buying it.  Getting to enjoy, use and appreciate the stuff that I have got.  Finding interesting ways to use the stuff I have got to do new and different jobs that I might have previously bought something new to do.  Glad that I don’t have that occasional moment when I look at something and say ‘why did I buy that?’

But, perhaps the most interesting feeling that’s come up as a result of not buying more stuff is around freedom.

 Yes, I’m lucky enough to live in a democracy, get to vote and speak my mind, but when it comes to shopping, am I free?  The easy answer to that is ‘of course!’  I can go to any shop that I want and buy whatever I want (as long as I have the money).  However, the freedom that I feel is about the choice as to whether I want to shop or not, rather than the freedom to buy what I want when I go shopping.

This is vitally important distinction.

So, there is absolutely freedom around shopping.  But the freedom is around which of the many products that are available, is the one that I want?  I am free to choose the blue one or the red one.  Nike or adidas.  Apple or Sony.  Toyota or Honda.  And it takes a lot of tine energy to decide which is the best one to go for.

Buy to make you happy.  I’m free to choose which one I do buy.

However, I’m not free to decide whether or not I want to buy in the first place.  Will buying more stuff or better stuff make me happier?

This is not a question that is posed by our society.  At all.  Consider the evidence.  All the advertising and marketing spend, all the packaging, all the window displays.  They all are suggesting that we should buy them and in many instances, that what they are offering is in someway superior or different from the other available options.  The Ultimate Driving Machine.  Washes Whiter.  Refreshes the Parts Other Beers can not Reach.  They are all pushing the same thing.  That buying them is a good thing and will make you happier.

Where is any communication, from anyone, as to whether either buying more or better stuff or not buying more or better stuff is going to make you happier?

I can’t think of any.

So, I’m talking about a different sort of freedom.  If we were really free then we would be free to make that decision. Wouldn’t we?

I would contend that because there is no debate on this – one that stimulates a discussion so people can weigh up whether buying more and better stuff or not buying more or better stuff makes them happy – means that we are not free.  We don’t have the freedom to choose because we are only ever presented with one option.  Buy to make you happy.

I’m not saying that buying nothing makes you happiest.  That would be stupid.  Maybe a smart phone really does make you happier.  But does that sixth pair of jeans?  It’s not about absolutes, it’s about having a conversation about the principle and people deciding for themselves.

I think this is really fascinating.  We spend so much time shopping, talking about buying more or better stuff and spending money in the process in the belief that it makes us happier and we don’t even discuss whether it actually does.

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Rotten Apple

Quite a bit in the press recently about Apple and it’s lack of concern about how its products are made.  I think this provides a really fascinating moment in time for consumers to decide what they value.

Many Apple products are made in China.  There’s this chilling article in the New York Times that basically says that Apple are aware of and don’t care about the frankly horrendous conditions that workers making iphones and ipads have to put up with.  Part of this is due to the success of the products that mean that they are forced to make them faster than is safe.  So, for example, those cleaning iphone screens should use alcohol.  But, alcohol takes time to evaporate.  So as the article says:

“Investigations by news organizations revealed that over a hundred employees had been injured by n-hexane, a toxic chemical that can cause nerve damage and paralysis.  Employees said they had been ordered to use n-hexane to clean iPhone screens because it evaporated almost three times as fast as rubbing alcohol. Faster evaporation meant workers could clean more screens each minute.”

As well as this there are suicides, explosions due to aluminium dust that have killed workers as well as the 6 day a week, 12 hour days.  Basically, Apple supports 21st Century Work Houses.

As one former Apple executive puts it: “Most people would still be really disturbed if they saw where their iPhone comes from.”

So, what does all of this mean?  To me, what’s interesting is what will consumers do?

At what point, if at all, will consumers make a value judgement?  When will they, if at all, decide that the way the iphone 5 or ipad 3 is made runs against their sense of equality and justice?  Or is the fate and treatment of Chinese factory workers less important than their desire for the kit?

In a way and if you wanted to get all patriotic about it, the Declaration of Independence states:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

 So, if ALL men and created equal (so that includes Chinese factory workers) then given the conditions that Apple are knowingly putting those workers through, Apple don’t support the Declaration.  They don’t seem to be big on Life (if the workers want to commit suicide), Liberty (forced to work 72 hour weeks) and it’s doesn’t seem the sort of conditions you’d chose to pursue Happiness.
Back to the consumers of Apple products.  If they are aware of the conditions of the workers, then, by association are arguably being un-American.

So, this is approaching Apple from one ‘negative’ angle.

What makes Apple even more interesting is fact that Apple products are made to be replaced on a short cycle.  From a sustainability point of view, it would be easy to argue that no other single company is more responsible for contributing to both our never-ending desire for more stuff that we arguably don’t need (we didn’t need a tablet before, but now we do), but also the desire to replace the perfectly workable stuff with new, flashier stuff.  E.g. iphone, iphone 3, iphone 3s, iphone 4, iphone 4s were all introduced in just over 4 years (2007-2011).

Given the amount of rare metals and resources that go into making Apple products, again, at what point, if at all, will consumers decide that the environment is more important than their desire to have the newest, latest kit, some of which they didn’t need before?

Is it possible to join these two points together?

If the mounting evidence of Apple’s business practices aren’t enough to get those people to stop buying Apple, the question becomes ‘How bad would Apple’s behaviour have to be in order to get them to stop buying Apple?’

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Into the lion’s den

Learning quite a bit recently about system change and personal change and how this relates to the issues that our society, economy and environment face.  But do things need to change?  Is that just a personal point of view, rooted in the course and the things that I see?  Just because I see something and might believe it, is no reason for anyone else to.  So, it’s always good to get ‘evidence’ to help validate my own emerging views that the way the world and society works needs to change if we’re all going to live ‘happily ever after’.  Now, you can find loads of support for a view like that in every ‘eco’/Climate Change/green book/article/movie you come across.  But, I don’t really count them because ‘they would say that, wouldn’t they?’.  So, where would the ‘evidence’ really count?  How about a publication whose very essence, name and readership is inextricably linked to the success and continuation of the current system – the Financial Times.

So, it was with pleasant surprise to read an interview with Laurence Freeman who runs some Christian meditation outfit in London that includes members of the IMF and Blackstone on it’s Board.  In the interview he talks about success and money (something that will be important to many FT readers):

‘“Perfectionism is like a virus. In religion, it can lead to fundamentalism and self-loathing. The secular equivalent is success. If you only judge yourself by success – of your job, your marriage, your children, even – you are setting yourself up for failure or a sense of inadequacy. Learning to meditate, you have to unlearn perfection and the need for success.”’

Given the economic crisis, unlearning success, or rather rediscovering failure, seems especially relevant today. I ask what he makes of it all.

“Clearly, the crisis is hurting those at the bottom most,” he says. “But even at the top there is anxiety, a sense of failure and, perhaps, shame. Clearly, we have to deal with the surface turbulence and strive for the best solutions to minimise suffering and preserve justice. However, the depths of these forces of change come close to, or actually participate in, humanity’s spiritual stratum. This means we cannot manipulate or exploit them but must strive to understand and go with them. This requires a subtlety of wisdom. It also makes one wonder if the crisis is symptomatic of broader change, a new axial age in which old assumptions and ways of living are breaking down.”

When asked about the unfocussed demands of the Occupy Movement he says….

“That’s understandable.  They are protesting against fat cats, sure. But the movements’ deeper value is to witness what is happening – even if it’s not yet clear what the meaning is. Still, we have time to think about it: how long will this crisis last, five or 10 years? We must think about limits. We have become so inebriated with success.”

“You can put ethics courses in business schools but you can’t legislate for ethics. What people need is an experience of goodness, which has to come from within. That’s where meditation comes in. If you are too neurotic and inebriated with success to give yourself time to take care of your interior life, you are going to spin out of control. ”

So, interesting that the FT both interviewed him and printed it.  Well done them.  But also, I think it’s really interesting that he doesn’t think that this is a ‘flash-in-the-pan’ thing.  That he thinks that the length of the crisis (‘5 to 10 years?’) will give us a longer time to think about all this stuff and in doing so, provide us with an opportunity to decide whether (money and) success are the things we should be aiming for.  Good stuff.

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