Friday, October 20, 2006

Honesty in Advertising : an Oxymoron or Best Practices?

WARNING: Especially long post, especially important, pack a lunch if need be.

Honesty is an alien concept to many. Just as good as I need to be is the motto. So this post on honesty (I come out for it), I'm heading with the most honestly weird photoshop montage I've ever done.

Here's the real deal. The best advertising technique is to tell the truth. The best business advantage goes to those who take ethics seriously. The best stories about people show them as they really are, warts and all. We all love a bit of a wart on an otherwise perfect person. Tell it. Make it real.

We've seen enough slimey practices in the seats of power to convince anyone that crime may pay quite well, it won't pay for much in the pen.

If you already know this, skip right to
Shel Horowitz's inspiring and validating Business Ethics Pledge. Savor it, sign it and share it.

Your better revolutions have a generous supply of indisputable truth that gets superglued to your brain quite pleasantly, you feel a lot better about yourself, then you pull others along with the glue, who bring others still. It takes on a life of its own. And it begins to change the world. One good brain to another, an exponential spread, and Shel Horowitz may well take over the world one solemn vow of ethics and honor at a time. Huzzah, Shel.

Ethics certainly isn't only a concern to ad folks, this pledge is greatly needed in government, big business, manufacturing, making cars
, lightbulbs and Twizzlers. Ethical business practices is a universally applicable concept, a universally successful practice and it applies to every job at every level.

I know the ad biz, and how easy it is to use some ill-fitting verbal vavoom to add pizzazz to a lackluster product. Just a bit of overstatement--that's not so bad. But like anything built on horse dung, it isn't going to work.

An honest, creative alternative might be to be absolutely up front with how boring your product is. It does a cou
ple things, so that's all right. But it's wrapped in kraft paper with black ink. Antiquated hints for the garden a la Farmer's Almanac, cleaning tips by Miss Cleidofern, it's boringness becomes its beacon. The truth wins. It gains a bit of camp sachet along with it, sales explode. When the truth is the only thing people buy (more than once), it's the only thing you've got to sell.

The least-respected, best-paid form of advertising is direct marketing. That crowd has every semicolon down to a scientific variable that increases or decreases response. If you realized how much went into
the stuff you throw away every day, you might move to Zanzibar without a forwarding address. It's easily the most manipulative subgenre of advertising there is. What they lack in elegance, they make up with hard, cold statistics.

The idea is that if you get them inside the envelope, then they'll read your killer copy and convert. I did a letter package that got enormous results (and an Arrow Award). It beguiled the reader with a million ways of saying money, i.e.,"wampum, greenbacks, filthy lucre, coin of the realm, legal tender," etc. The real money cardholders get? A paltry refund of the total money they'd charge every year. WhooHoo! $12.00 American, once a year--alert the media!

What do you do when the product you're asked to sell is dangerous to small children, kittens and Aunt Bee? You quit. Some things cannot be gotten around, and endangering humanity is at the top. I gave up my biggest client. In return, I slept better knowing I wasn't furthering the sale of a fatal poison. Now found in groundwater all over Southern Illinois (and pretty much all over), where crops are routinely sprayed with chemical cocktails of seven, ten, 14 different products, including atrazine. Atrazine lurks silently in every well, draining into every river, until Sister finds a lump, or Joe gets a brain tumor. It's legal. It's effective. It's where I drew the line. Hope you never have to. It hurt, but it hurt good, if you know what I mean.

Talking to clients? Tell the truth. If you don't, you will have to confess on Sunday, and you won't give the client the benefit of your years of experience (the only thing you have to sell, after all). And, they're not going to be as successful as if they'd taken your counsel. Clients may bristle, but handled gently, they can be brought around to your way of thinking, because it's based on experience hard won. That's why you're being paid. Don't cower before a client apologetically, mincing words, allowing the very soul of your work be deleted to assuage unknown fears. Tell her the difficult truth. If she's worthy of her job, she'll see the light and you'll become the agency that made her look fabulous. The truth is so rare, but it absolutely delivers the very best results.

Shel brings it home how broad a swath an ethical business MO could make across all kinds of concerns:
  • Businesses are more likely to succeed when they base themselves in ethics: honesty, integrity, and quality.
  • Businesses must look at the "triple bottom line": financial, environmental, and social impacts [emphasis mine] (and this will require major pressure: currently, US public corporations are required by law to focus only on the economic bottom line, to the exclusion of other objectives and stakeholders)
  • Amazing things can happen when all stakeholders (employees, customers, suppliers, neighborhood residents, even competitors) become your active champions-but that only happens if your business specifically empowers each of these groups and addresses their different needs and desires
  • Line employees, managers, and even CEOs need support to show that ethical principles will help their businesses succeed, and that they won't be penalized by the marketplace for taking an ethical stand

Here's Shel's goal:

Eventually, this movement will reach critical mass. And some crooked "entrepreneur" will come along and try to cheat employees and customers while leaving a big, expensive mess for the public to clean up. But that crooked business owner won't find the people who will carry out this dirty work. Instead, good people will stand up for what's right, for ethics, for justice, and for honoring the company's real mission, not only because it's the right thing to do, but because they understand that it works better.
    Free advice: cultivate a few good honor stories. Tell 'em to your kids. They'll become family lore and their internal compass. I know, I had a few myself. I'll post some later, but now, I have the best sum-it-up quote I'm likely to find today:

My favorite Doc:
Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind. --Dr. Suess


Shel Horowitz's inspiring and validating Business Ethics Pledge

Sign it today and send to as many as you think have ears to hear, probably the unindicted, but you be the judge.