Advertising, design and morality

Can you work in advertising and be a moral person? Philosopher AC Grayling answers the big questions

CR: Is it possible to work in advertising and to be an ethical person?

ACG: Advertising is about persuasion, about putting the best face on something, so there might be a degree of dishonesty involved and a degree of persuasion that is not in the interest of the person being persuaded. The argument against that is that advertising in origin is at least in part about informing and without that information we would be worse off – we need that information and we need to be able to hear advertisers make their case. This is why it is right for advertisers to hire the very best people to make their case for them.

Given that context and that any reasonably intelligent human being is going to know that this is a tendentious message, then advertising is a perfectly straightforward and useful service. So, yes of course it is possible to work in advertising and be an ethical person, just as it is possible for the whole advertising industry to be so.

CR: Is graphic design an inherently more “moral” profession than advertising?

ACG: I can understand why graphic designers might feel that way as there is a very long tradition in Western society, going all the way back to classical antiquity, where those engaged in commercial activity were thought to have sullied their hands whereas anything that was purely creative was OK. Designers may feel a kind of superiority if they are not engaged at the marketing end of communications, which of course is what advertising is all about. But inherently there is no difference between the designer and those working in advertising in that they are both doing a job that meets a need. In so far as they do it honestly and with all their heart, they are on an ethical par.

CR: A report by the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications states that: “The media of social communications have two options and only two. Either they help human persons to grow in their understanding and practice of what is true and good, or they are destructive forces in conflict with human well-being.” Is this a false dichotomy?

ACG: The mistake that the Vatican is making here is that it is putting the burden entirely on the media of social communications. In fact, people who consume these messages have a responsibility themselves to take responsibility for the choices that they make. If we are thinking about really good advertising which inspires us and makes us feel that owning this product will enhance our lives, we may feel that we have been tricked, but something which is manipulative is not always wickedly so.

You’ve got to recognise the responsibility on the other side. This idea that the great unwashed are just a herd who will do whatever the Machiavellian advertisers want them to do is nonsense. The reason that the advertising industry needs to be so skilful in the way that it communicates its messages is because the masses are so obdurate, they are resistant to these messages.

CR: What is the best way to develop an ethical code for those working in advertising or graphic design?

ACG: It is very hard to do these things from the top down. The chief executive can send round an email but it tends not to work because it’s how you get people to sign up that matters. It’s best to involve people, ask them to put forward suggestions so that it comes out of the guts of those involved. Achieving a commercial objective is fair and just but what isn’t legitimate is if it is done in order to harm people or with bad intentions. There is a very interesting point here which is that there is a distinction between ethics and morals. Ethics is much broader and concerns what kind of person you are, what kind of business you are in and so on. Morals are about our relationships with other people. It is an ethical matter what colour I decide to paint the door of my house, but not a moral matter, unless I choose a colour so awful that it might upset my neighbours. Ethics are about what kind of people we are. How do we want to be seen by others? Where do we draw our lines in the sand? Do we take that account for a cigarette company? If not, why not?

CR: Is it enough simply to act within the law?

ACG: You have to look beyond legality. The law is a famously blunt instrument. If you imagine a large circle labelled mores – etiquette, politeness and so on – and within that a smaller circle called morality and within that an even smaller circle called law where behaviour has got to the point where you’ve got to constrain it somehow. Because the law covers a smaller area than morality, it allows people to do things that are legal but not acceptable in good practice, so you have to ask is it enough that it is legal?

CR: A recent report from Compass made great play of the fact that children are so aware of brands. Is it wrong for children to be aware of brands?

ACG: On the one hand you’ve got to equip children to be able to understand their world, you can’t shield them as that is to enfeeble them but also there is the question of those who are less able to make judgements and resist manipulation. It’s a very hard one. With my own children, when they are watching television, they are interested in the ads and they like to know about the products being advertised, but they very rarely jump up and shout “you’ve got to buy that for me”. Children are much more robust than we may think. However, there is an ambiguity which places a greater responsibility on the advertiser in this case. But it is certainly not wrong for children to be aware of brands – they are such a part of their world that they should know about them.

CR: Designer A works only for cultural organisations and charities. Designer B works only for multinational corporations. Which one does more good?

ACG: This goes back to the long-standing tradition that money equals bad, no money equals good. We’ve moved beyond that in a way. Even those on the left politically recognise that we have got to create wealth and it is wrong to downgrade those involved in that. It is really a question of individual choices and attitudes. It would be wonderful to work for a small art gallery with all the satisfaction that must bring, even if it brings no money, and you have to admire those who forfeit benefits because they believe in something, but I reject the idea that they have the moral high ground.

CR: If a piece of work has been commissioned and paid for by an organisation in order to promote that organisation, does it have any artistic merit in its own right or is it utterly compromised by its origins?

ACG: If you go back 500 years to the studio system of the great artists like Raphael, they were churning out Madonnas on commission for the church to be used in its intellectual propaganda. Even the greatest artists have to eat and they were perfectly happy to do commissions for rich organisations such as the church. The idea that just because something has been commissioned it is devalued is nonsense. In classical antiquity, painters and poets were not thought to have produced the work themselves – Homer heard the muses whispering in his ear and he merely took dictation. Then with the Romantics came the idea that the individual him or herself was the source of the work and that they must be independent and untouchable and that art was only art if it came from a pure source. This is terribly unfortunate because today, great artists could come from any number of commercial areas such as web design – look at something like art deco and all the wonderful commercial work produced there. The intrinsic value of the piece is what makes it a work of art, not the source. There is a detachment between the work and the other things that it means – you can hate the Nazis but still think that some of their architecture was pretty striking.

CR: What does it mean to have sold your soul?

AC: You will have sold your soul if you do something which you really don’t believe in and that makes you feel bad and if you are doing it for unhealthy motives. It’s not unhealthy to make a buck but it is if it goes against your grain. Selling your soul is about having principles and then allowing someone to bribe you out of them. There is an old joke about a man on a train who asks the woman sitting opposite him if she will sleep with him for a million pounds. The woman thinks well, it is a lot of money and concedes that she might. The man then asks if she would do it for less and less money until they get down to twenty pounds. What kind of woman do you think I am she asks? We’ve established that, replies the man, all we are doing now is negotiating the price. It’s an old joke but one with an interesting moral idea – that everybody has a price. That simply isn’t true – there have been so many cases of moral heroism where people have refused to go against their principles. Everybody should have an idea of where their lines in the sand are. So long as we are consistent and sincere and don’t allow ourselves to be bribed or soiled – that’s the important thing.

AC Grayling is Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a Supernumary Fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford. His book on the Allied bombing of German cities in WWII, Among The Dead Cities, was published by Bloomsbury last year. He is also interviewed on ethics and graphic design in GOOD: An Introduction to Ethics in Graphic Design by Lucienne Roberts, published by AVA.

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