Socially responsible advertising is increasingly relevant. In recent years, the European advertising industry has made a clear self-control effort since its goal is to provide a solid alternative to more governmental advertising regulation. But the last change in the European Commission's Directive, "Television without Frontiers" (COM/2002, 6.I. 2003), has provoked fresh thinking.
Today's main controversial topics are alcohol advertising, time constraints for advertising on television, norms on interactive television, sponsoring, self-promotion, teleshopping, and other advertising/programming content. Extreme commercialization of television programs is having an impact: Clutter has increased to levels that are unbearable for viewers. Countries like Sweden and Greece also are putting in place specific laws for children's advertising that have influence all over the continent. In Belgium's Flemish region, advertising to children is completely banned in children's programming, going further than European-level legislation. In Greece, toys cannot be advertised between 7:00 and 10:00 P.M. In Austria, unsolicited e-mail, fax and telephone advertising also is banned. Every European Union market is more or less regulated.
Betting for Self-Control
The European advertising industry is trying to improve its social-responsibility grade. Twenty-two European countries have active self-control or self-regulation organizations that try, with differing success, to handle complaints. The European Advertising Standards Alliance (EASA), which is just ten years old, includes the 15 European Union self-control organizations, as well as those of most countries that will become members after the EU's enlargement (self-control organizations of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary also are EASA members). The industry is seriously concerned about its credibility in Europe's public opinion.
However, sectors of the media, the public, national and European-level regulators all consider that the necessary standards have not been reached. This issue is complicated further because anti-globalization movements tend to pinpoint commercial communication. They blame advertising for spreading throughout the lifestyles and consumption patterns of the developed world. Such patterns are not sustainable, because they lead impoverished nations to spend too much and create artificial needs among their citizens. Here indeed lies a paradox. The persuasion industry needs to persuade all parties about its capacity to implement effective ethical codes and solve this major reputation problem.
Examples of European Self-Regulation
* The Italian self-regulation organization (IAP) has developed a major campaign using press, radio, television and outdoor advertising with the message "we love advertising so much that sometimes we have to restrict it." The image used is the safety belt, which serves as icon of a restriction used to protect superior values.
* In Belgium, JEP, another EASA organization, has set up a Web site addressed to consumers and practitioners alike that allows them to file advertising complaints directly online.
* The Irish ASAI has stopped unethical campaigns by brands as diverse as Carlsberg, Guinness or Coors Light.
* Great Britain's ASA, probably the most efficient self-control organization in the European Union, has established a code of behavior for alcoholic beverage advertising.
It seems that it is no longer enough for the industry to ask for "freedom of commercial speech." It may be worthwhile to underline the industry's social responsibility; to put more effort into doing excellent advertising than into blocking laws; while stopping bad behavior.
A recent paper sponsored by the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) and the European Association of Communication Agencies (EACA) tries to be a wake-up call asking the industry to become "a partner in sustainable development."
Corporate Social Responsibility
Persuasive communication is part of our lives. Most institutions need it. Its actors are not only commercial brands, but governments, citizen associations, NGOs, political parties and churches as well. Therefore, there are enormous opportunities to promote positive and socially responsible brand images. It is not just a "cosmetic image" but a need for brands that today must have a "social selling proposition" to develop their own identity, as Pringle and Williams put it.1 High quality brands know they must deliver; they have to raise themselves to the level of expectation they create. If their image does not mirror reality closely, the public will soon react.
William Bernbach, one of the main representatives of the sixties' "creative revolution," said that a good ad for a bad product is a disaster, because it will cause many people to know the product is bad. That is why it is apparent to smart advertisers that good persuasive communication can only function properly in a climate of public trust. When audiences do not believe what the advertisers have to say it is very difficult to build a brand; it might be bought once, but not twice. Brands need loyalty.
The Need for Education
The best equipped minds of the industry and their international organizations understand that education is another big challenge. EACA Education is working along these lines. All respectable professions have well educated persons taught at the highest academic levels, but the difference with the reality we find in some European media outlets is striking. Practitioners are frequently arbitrary and irresponsible, to a large extent because they lack serious education. That is the reason why they tend to live in their particular world, following trends that are imitated again and again, and more inclined to think about the ideas they believe will be winning in the next advertising festival than to understand their public. Today almost anybody may be working in advertising. If, as EACA's manifesto says, a leap "from a trade to a profession" is to be made, the role of education cannot be underestimated. To become a socially esteemed profession, advertising education must be university-level or it will not be the education that advertisers, markets and citizens deserve.
Health and education campaigns are particularly valuable in developing countries, where the need to spread social and environmental messages, as a part of corporate and public service advertising, becomes more visible. It is also worthwhile to develop innovative products with good social effects and support them with high-quality packaging and labeling and other public information mechanisms. In other words, brands must have not only economic effects, but also positive social, civic and ecological outcomes.
The European advertising industry knows that the end of tobacco advertising is rapidly approaching and does not want to defend a cause that undermines its credentials in the public domain. It is yet another sign of the emerging social corporate responsibility that includes, as WFA and EACA's report says, the need for respect for the truth. In order to reach this goal, codes, rectification mechanisms and complaint handling outlets must be put in place. Good behavior must be upheld. Messages need to be honest, fostering good images of publics like children, women and the elderly, that are now frequently mistreated by advertising.
Advertising certainly is a part of the promotion of goods, services, education and information that the audience needs. There seems to be no question but that it can contribute to the betterment of society, inspiring the best causes. The industry is ready to cooperate, punishing the dishonest behavior still pervasive in part of the profession, and putting the best brains in the industry to serve good causes. It is necessary to tell this story so that audiences and regulators know it. It is not only a matter of reacting to critics, invoking freedom of commercial speech. It is time to build a more human society with positive messages of excellent professional quality. Dishonesty will be increasingly chastised by laws, but also by market forces, public opinion, and industry self-regulation.
Pringle, Hamish and Marjorie Williams (1999, 2001). Brand Spirit: How Cause Related Marketing Builds Brands. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2003 (15:1), pp. 8,31.