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I’m lined up to be one of the four witnesses for Radio 4’s Moral Maze tonight, exploring the morality of advertising – an edition prompted by the debate around the Sainsbury’s Christmas ad, which tells the story of the WW1 Christmas Day football match – so I wanted to do a little thinking aloud ahead of being put on the spot by the panel.

My fundamental take on this issue, I think, is that the debate is far too simplistic at present, and as a result deeply unconstructive. This is what my open letter to Martin Sorrell was trying to get at: the line is drawn between people who say “advertising is bad” and people who say “advertising is good” when actually these are both pretty meaningless positions – and worse, positions which obscure the really important debates we should be having.

 

For me, there are three debates, each at a different level.

The first is about the product/service/whatever being advertised. What is its role and reason for being? Does it exist purely because it can be sold for profit? Or does it have some useful (or perhaps necessary would be a better word) role in society? This isn’t so much about advertising as about product development.

The second is about the values and norms associated with that product or service in the advertising. Is the ad promoting extrinsic motivations like status, envy, etc? Or is it promoting intrinsic motivations? If the latter, is it doing so authentically or instrumentally – building a genuine association or just co-opting a tenuous association in order to sell stuff? This debate is at the level of individual advertisements.

The third is about the aggregate impact of the quantity and ubiquity of advertising we have in our society. This is about the story of the individual in society. Advertising is a natural carrier of the message “You are a Consumer”. When the average person is exposed to somewhere between 1500 and 5000 advertisements a day, plus the constant news coverage using “Consumers” as the collective noun for what might be called “people”, plus the fact that we measure Consumer Confidence as a key indicator of the success of societies… advertising in aggregate is at this level part of a major problem for society.

I think then you also need to bring in one more consideration. This is the fact that in order to make meaningful change, we have to start from where we are. There is relatively little point establishing a moral position which doesn’t engage at all with the current context – unless it is to establish a consciously theoretical ideal towards which we should then practically work. But in this case, that needs to be called out as what we’re doing.

 

Once you establish this framework…

you start to be able to look at specific questions in a far more meaningful fashion, like for example the Sainsbury’s ad. But this is about as far as most discussion about the role of advertising in society gets: to quote the Danish creative Thomas Kolster, there’s “goodvertising and badvertising” – when you advertise good products, you’re fine; when bad, not so much. And this is of course to some extent true, but there’s rather more to it than that. And happily, the Sainsbury’s ad seems at least to have pushed us into this space.

Firstly, as a product/service, it’s advertising Sainsbury’s at Christmas. Now, you can be extreme on this, and say that’s not right – but I think from where we are, that’s a pretty hard one to sustain. I know I for one am going to be doing some supermarket shopping between now and 25th December. (Coca Cola on the other hand…)

Second, the values and norms associated with the brand. This is where Ally Fogg’s Guardian piece digs in. His view as I understand it is that Sainsbury’s is (a) sanitising and even glamorising war and (b) cynically co-opting remembrance for brand advantage. To be honest, I just don’t agree. I look back at the last 10 years of Christmas advertising, and actually find myself pretty happy about this ad on balance – and indeed the wider market this year. If you think of advertising as to some extent mirroring (and to some extent moulding) the values of society, the fact that the big retailers seem on the whole to have moved towards sharing and giving (Sainsbury’s and John Lewis respectively) seems a good thing. Just think about the Harvey Nichols’ horror from last year, or PrimeLocation’s current offering…

One of the biggest problems with the role of advertising in society today is the fact that most advertising tends to endorse and normalise values that accentuate the extrinsic, status motivations that are present in human nature. Car advertising is particularly good at this – I remember one Lexus line: “Warning: the car in the rear view mirror may appear jealous.”

But that doesn’t mean that just because they’re talking about sharing not status, Sainsbury’s are off the hook. Because there is a really knotty question here: what if the brands are merely co-opting these values in order to sell more? Doesn’t that trivialise that motivation, and do even more damage than if they were just straightforward?

Perhaps the best example on this is the Dove “Real Beauty” work, often held up as a classic example of advertising “doing well by doing good”. The problem is that Dove is owned by Unilever, who for all their positive efforts, also happen to own both Lynx and the market-leading skin whitening cream in India, Fair & Lovely. Lynx may have repositioned around Peace One Day in the last year (probably in reaction to criticism focusing on this very point, though it would be great if they’d be brave enough to admit that) but it is hard not to find out about Fair & Lovely and not lose a little of your appreciation for the Dove brand. At worst, it makes you feel that you are being cynically exploited, and could even be said to trivialise the very idea of real beauty – to an extent where it might even have been better for Dove just to have stayed out of it. Personally, I probably wouldn’t go that far. From where we are, I think the argument that Dove is moving Unilever forward is valid. But I would and indeed have called on them to do more and make clear by actions rather than words that this is an authentic commitment.

So actually I think this is a big area for the industry as a whole to debate and engage with – and that they’re not doing so at present – but I think the current Christmas crop could be a lot worse. For Sainsbury’s specifically? I think it’s a bit like Unilever – a “Yes and” from me. I think it’s ok actually, but wouldn’t it be great if they could have done more in their stores to help us get involved in the sharing? This could be a really powerful idea generation platform for them… which brings me on to the third level of debate.

 

This is the debate I think really matters, the debate I think will only become more important, and the debate we’re just not having at all right now.

 

Do there need to be limits on where the story of the Consumer can be in our lives?

If so, do there need to be limits on where advertising can be in our lives?

At this level, the specific advertisement becomes largely irrelevant. Indeed, the creative agencies become largely irrelevant – it’s much more about the media agencies. The problem is that, increasingly, everything and everywhere is becoming seen as a potential advertising medium. I had someone come to see me when I worked at Fallon telling me he could turn a forest into a medium for me; in Germany, they’re experimenting with piping ads through train windows so that if you rest your head, you’re advertised to.

On this basis, things are already scary, but they’re only going to get scarier. Google Glass is a particularly frightening example from this perspective. If the business model is advertiser funding, we will pretty soon find ourselves literally looking at the world through a Consumer lens. And while some people are talking about the ethical challenges of big data, and some people are talking about the ethical challenges of advertising, I haven’t come across anyone at all who is really even trying to get their head around the overlap.

I won’t rehash in this particular post all the reasons why that’s a problem – but it really, really is. The result of a society where we tell ourselves we’re Consumers constantly is a society where the narrow self-interested logic of the Consumer has come to infiltrate pretty much everything we do; and a society as a result not only decreasingly likely to be able to fix its big problems, but decreasingly likely to want to.

This future has the momentum of the present. The utopia that the media industry is currently explicitly aiming for is, to me, a dystopia: a world where we the Consumers are served relevant advertising literally everywhere we go, hushed by the lullaby of Consumerism, happily giving up all power to shape our own lives and destinies.

What gives me hope is that this future actually isn’t in anyone’s interests. It’s got momentum, but there’s an alternative – the future of the Citizen, where we reclaim our agency beyond merely what we buy and see ourselves as genuine and active participants in shaping the context of our lives. This is difficult, but exciting and generative.

And while this level of the debate really goes way beyond individual ads, this point does take me back to Sainsbury’s and “Christmas is for sharing”. Because the fact is we the people can do so much more than buy the chocolate bar. In the era of couchsurfing, ridesharing, micro-volunteering (Crisis have a particularly great way to get involved at Christmas) and initiatives like the truly brilliant Casserole Club, Sainsbury’s could genuinely have championed the idea that “Christmas is for sharing”. These are the kinds of ideas you come up with if you think of people as Citizens not just Consumers. And that’s the future I want to be part of creating.

3 thoughts on “Christmas is for sharing?

  1. Just adding some interesting words from a friend who works in advertising:
    “The critical difference here is that the retailer hasn’t just attached itself to an emotional storyline, it’s sponsored a movement – a significant one at a significant moment of remembrance. The alliance of the Royal British Legion and Sainsbury’s is new in my mind (though they have actually supported it for 20 years). I saw the animated spot for the Poppy Appeal and it matched nicely to the cadets in the foyer who helped me buy my own poppy last Saturday. Suddenly now it’s all gluing together into something bigger. The act of choosing it as their Christmas cornerstone says as much as the work itself. Let’s be honest, though this is the centenary year of the outbreak of war, most of us left this story back in August when Christmas is absolutely the moment not to forget. Will it sell? Whoever asks that question should be punched in the face. Of course it will, because all salience driving advertising at Christmas does. That’s not the point. This elevates Sainsbury’s back into being a source of national pride, way bigger than the big 5 in every respect.”

  2. Just listen to The Moral Maze. The debate and argument on the ‘against’ side (Matthew Taylor and Melanie Phillips) was just too simple – throwing up the basic old “Isn’t all advertising bad and naughty?” They never even tried to dig deeper or beyond repeated points – usual for Melanie, although I’m surprised by Matthew.
    Enjoyed and was interested by the points you made though, and in finding this website from it too.

  3. I listened to you in my home in Nova Scotia Canada on moral maze and then listened again a week later. Your points were stronger than anyone else’s. I’ve now put your website on my bookmarks and tomorrow morning will look more closely at what you have said. I’m going to see what I can use in my discussion with my university classes on All Quiet on the Western Front. I think your refusal to be flustered by efforts to shut you up were positively exciting. Thank you

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