AdLand Through The Decades: Advertising ethics and potential 'evil' in digital age must be discussed, says Dare's Matt Weatherall

Speaker: Matt Weatherall of Dare

Advertisers must consider the ethics of their trade and acknowledge the potentially harmful effect it can have particularly on children, according to Matt Weatherall, planner at Dare.

Speaking at Creative Social’s AdLand Through The Decades event in London, Weatherall wrapped up a walk through the industry from the 1970s onwards by industry figures including Gerry Moira and Rosie Arnold with a look at the state of play since 2010, and he had strong words for creatives in the audience.

“'The truth is that marketing raises enormous ethical questions every day, at least it does if you’re doing it right.’ Those are the word of Rory Sutherland,” Weatherall explained, “who went on to say ‘I’d rather be thought of as evil than useless’.

“It’s not that black and white though. Advertising isn’t really evil and we try our best to make sure it’s not useless. For the most part it sits in the murky waters somewhere in between and we have a duty to keep it there.

“But perhaps, just sometimes, we are guilty of forgetting that there’s a middle ground; guilty of sacrificing our morals or turning a blind eye for effectiveness, because it’s what pays our bills.”

Weatherall told the audience how he saved up his pocket money at the age of eight in order to have a Nike tick shaved onto the back off his head in a bid to shake off a nickname.

“I know that self-conscious, eight-year-old me had been affected directly or indirectly by advertising. The message was do this and be cool, buy this and feel better,” he said. “Is that really the message we want to be teaching children? I don’t think it is.”

Citing a 2011 report, Think Of Me As Evil by the Public Interest Research Centre and WWF-UK, Weatherall said evidence showed that advertising “might do more harm than good”.

“The study found that advertising as it is now is tipping the scales in favour of self-enhancement values, that advertising on aggregate is just turning the big wheel of the rat race, encouraging us to keep working and stay ahead of the pack,” he said.

“If we’re more concerned with status and financial success then we’re unlikely to be concerned about the world for others and the environment.”

He asked: “In the quest to produce more effective work, in the quest not to be useless and with the army of modern day technology at our disposal, have we become evil?”

To combat potentially harmful effects from advertising, Weatherall spoke of efforts in Sao Paulo, where in 2007 15,000 billboard were taken down under a law to curb outdoor advertising, while a ban on advertising fast food to children in Quebec lead to the lowest rates of child obesity in Canada.

“We can’t afford to turn a blind eye,” he added. “We just don’t talk about this. I think we all have a responsibility to do that.

“I was eight years old when I paid for a Nike tick to be shaved on the back of my head. It’s not cool.”

Earlier at the event, Havas Worldwide’s Gerry Moira took a look at the 1970s, followed by BBH’s Rosie Arnold’s journey through the 1980s. Paul Kitcatt of Kitcatt Nohr explored the changing role of direct marketing in the 1990s, and DigitasLbi’s Abi Ellis warned against imitation in the noughties.

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