Last year, I received an email I will never forget: One of the world’s tobacco giants wanted me to consult for them. It’s not that I’m a stranger to requests from the tobacco industry. In fact, ever since I published Buyology in 2008, my email address appears to be on every tobacco executive’s Rolodex. You see, among other things, the book addressed the issue of how the use of subliminal advertising in the industry was successfully getting smokers to smoke more. The fallout was spectacular, culminating in Philip Morris being forced to withdraw their $100 million sponsorship of Formula 1. After this, you would imagine the tobacco industry would not want anything to do with me. Surprisingly, they actually wanted to know more. That was the nature of the email in question.
The email started off quite diplomatically, requesting I consult with them. Nothing out of the ordinary. The ending, however, left me dumbstruck. Like something out of a science fiction novel, the tobacco giant wanted six months of my service. The inducements were mind-boggling. They would pay me a fee that would propel me into a very comfortable, early retirement. Not a bad thought for a hardworking man in his 30s. The scope of the offer took my breath away. I had to sit down and take stock. My mother has smoked since she was 15, and I grew up hearing her coughing and wheezing through the long winter months. My mother-in-law, also a lifelong smoker, had only just recently died from a smoking-related illness. So, after much deliberation and consideration, I felt I had little choice but to decline.
But when my friends and family came to learn of this lucrative offer, they thought I’d made a big mistake. My own family thought me to be a little ridiculous turning down an offer that would guarantee lifelong security for a mere six months’ work. I began feeling twinges of regret. Was I too quick to say no? At the time, my doubt was painful and all-consuming. For hours on end I pondered the questions: Should I? Could I? Maybe…
As you can imagine, this was not an easy time. However, one year on, I’m convinced I did the right thing. More importantly, it forced me to think about the ethics of the advertising industry in ways I’d never done before.
As a brand guy who’s worked in advertising all my life, I’ve seen my fair share of ethical issues. To be frank, ethics and advertising don’t go together all that well. They are not exactly on first name terms. Pick up the phone and call any advertising agency anywhere, and ask them about their ethical guidelines. Chances are you’ll be met with an embarrassing silence. In the same way that there are few schools you can go to to learn advertising, there are even fewer where you can learn the ethics of advertising. Training for a career in advertising commonly happens on the job, and the ethical guidelines are filed away somewhere in legal departments’ archived rules and restrictions.
As a brand futurist, an important function in my role is to predict the future for whatever industry I’m addressing. In 2003, I wrote the book BRANDchild, in which I predicted that every kid would become a personal brand. Each would have his own homepage which would act as a promotional hub promoting the child’s brand to the entire world. A bit like “I have a homepage, therefore I am.” Facebook, the social networking site, was launched in 2004. In 2005, I wrote BRANDsense. In it, I predicted that every brand would harness senses other than sight and sound. Today, it’s estimated that two-thirds percent of the world’s Fortune 1000 brands include a multisensory platform in their brand strategy.
My prediction for 2012 is a rise in the importance of ethics. I foresee a kind of WikiLeaks emerging to tackle the maneuverings of less-ethical brands. The move will come from an independent organization with the sole mission of disclosing what those companies are up to. Most companies will be vulnerable to being targeted, despite having some sort of written standards. You see, in most cases, the small print is far too complex and removed from consumers’ daily reality. The safety net as designed will hardly save a soul.
So how would one go about establishing a true safeguard? As I said, I’m a brand guy who’s worked in advertising for ages. So I’m not necessarily the right person to ask. Maybe we should ask the people most affected: the consumers. Last year, I began a study of 2,000 consumers in which I asked for their ethical perspectives. Their advice proved invaluable. We would be wise to take note of it:
My advice: The smart brand players out there should spend the next few years cleaning up their house. Honestly, you won’t find it that difficult. Furthermore, you won’t be forced to reject an offer that could fast track you to retirement. The worst thing that can happen is you’ll sleep better at night. Not a bad proposition, I’m sure you’d agree.