ethics in advertising – poll results

ethics in advertising poll results

The fine line poll has been open a few weeks now, so I thought it was a good time to share some initial results.

Fascinatingly, one in five participants would refuse to promote a religion – more than any other category.

I was intrigued by this ranking.

It’s perhaps less surprising to see tobacco in second position, but the presence of political parties in third place was another finding that tickled me.

The majority of participants who voted “other” highlighted sexual exploitation of some description.

Meanwhile, one in ten participants were comfortable promoting anything for the right price – fewer than I initially expected.

So, an interesting set of results.

And while most are in line with my expectations, religion’s place at the top of the heap still fascinates me.

Being the curious person that I am, my response is: why?

What is it that advertisers find so morally repugnant about promoting a religion?

Is it because it’s beneath them?

Is it because they can’t think of anything that differentiates one religion from another?

Is there some kind of ethical barrier, and if so, why is the promotion of a brand that purports to save our souls more heinous than doing so for brands that have been shown to kill us?

I’d really like to know your perspectives – the comments section is open for your thoughts.

* The “Other” option allows participants to specify what they wouldn’t advertise. Thanks very much to everyone who has taken part so far. If you didn’t get the chance to vote, please feel free to take part in the poll now

6 Responses to “ethics in advertising – poll results”

  1. 1 On the Money August 22, 2009 at 04:09

    “etics in advertising” is almost as good an idea as “military intelligence”


  2. 2 On the Money August 22, 2009 at 04:09

    … or even “ethics” …

  3. 3 Rashmi August 24, 2009 at 18:57

    I just have to say – Customers dont have any religion. The advertiser who would associate themselves with religion would literally kill themselves…

  4. 4 Leonore August 25, 2009 at 16:40

    When I first read the results, I didn´t really get it, what is it so “holy” about religion. But then I thought I´d take part in the poll myself and now that I really had to think about MY preferences, I was shocked cause I would be one of the people voting for the religion too. I don´t consider myself to be a very “ethical person” and I am not religious and in fact I don´t even know anyone religious. So why does it seem so immoral to promote religion? Have had to promote all sorts of stuff in my career, what on earth makes this worse than eg promoting gambling? Must be something to do with old-fashioned education or maybe it is instead about considering other people´s rights and freedom? In one of the Estonian online marketing magazines was yesterday a long discussion about marketing to gays. Perhaps it is the same thing – I am not religious and not gay and I do not really quite understand the people who are, but it seems I should respect their choices and therefore stay out of it?

  5. 5 phil October 9, 2009 at 10:46

    Your question was “What would you refuse to advertise?” – and your blog entry also talks about “where do you draw the line when it comes to advertising?”

    It assumes that “you” (the respondent) is either an advertiser, a media planner, or an ad executive. It also assumes that “you” has a choice – that is, one can refuse to NOT be a part of a team in an ad company, for example – something of a rarity, I would say.

    So… I am not sure what to make of the responses, to be honest.

    But I’ll venture several guesses.

    1. Religion is a risky business. To “support” a religion that is being advertised can be perceived as being “biased” towards that religion – something that an ad company, a media planner, a brand would avoid because it would alienate people. Religion is – whether we like it or not – divisive because it is one of our ‘heuristics’ – our shortcuts towards understanding this complex world.

    2. Why would religions want to advertise? For the religion’s sake or for the believers’ (and potential converts’) sake? Advertising is a capitalistic, political tool – it sells, it shapes human polity. In and of itself, religion is already is a successful capitalistic, political tool. (Read the October issue of Bloomberg magazine on how religion is/could be a capitalist tool – a la Madoff. As a political tool, the fact that we are having this conversation is proof that it is a political tool – a shaper of human opinions and polity).

    3. It is difficult to delineate the personal from the professional – and if you don’t believe in what you’re selling, then what you’re doing is essentially rote, machine-like execution. And that doesn’t cut it in communications planning. The greatest of communicators are those who believe what they are saying. If you’re Christian or a Muslim, you don’t leave your religion at the office doorstep when you come in. If you were asked to advertise another religion, isn’t that tantamount to sacrilege or ‘religious treason’? Even if one isn’t that religious, ‘religion’ – regardless of how much we deny it – defines us and our actions (either by adherence or disobedience).

    Also: I don’t think it’s a question of morality – and hence advertising religions is not immoral nor moral. It just isn’t ethical.

    • 6 eskimon October 9, 2009 at 11:06

      Thanks for such a detailed response Phil – I confess that one of the motivations in writing this post was to inspire debate, and I’m glad it’s ignited your ire.

      I think your third point is critical. Truly religious people don’t compartmentalise their beliefs, because those beliefs guied everything that they do.

      However, as someone else pointed out: as a n advertiser, is it your job to question the validity of your client’s ‘brand’, or just to present it in the best possible light. I find it very awkward when I’m asked to work on brands I don’t believe in, but such challenges often inspire me to develop more ‘creative’ solutions.

      This leads to a counter of your initial hypothesis that we don’t have a choice. I disagree – we always have a choice. Sure, the choice is very hard – between advertising something you don’t believe in and losing your livelihood – but important choices are always tough. However, I’d suggest that you’re always best off escaping an employer that requires you to compromise your own ethics and morals. No job is worth sacrificing your long-term happiness or your soul for.

      However, your second point of ‘why would religions advertise’ is much more interesting. I think part of that discussion comes down to what activities we would include in our definition of advertising. Surely religions are one of the oldest proponents of social media, and the best at leveraging word of mouth communication?

      All rich food for thought, so thanks (yet again) for your great comments.

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