When tasteless crosses the ethical line

It never ceases to amaze me that over the years, the more things change, the more they stay the same – or so it seems in communication ethics.  Back in 2002 I wrote a column for PR Canada (online publication – now defunct) titled “When Bad Taste is Unethical”, a column that made its way into my book Ethics in Public Relations: A Guide to Best Practice.  I had naively thought that over the years, those involved in the development of communication strategies might consider the ethical implications of their creative plans before their implementation rather than finding themselves in defensive modes when criticized for bad taste that crosses the ethical line.  I was wrong.  Tasteless and arguably unethical communication strategies are alive and well and clogging the public communication channels once again.

Just this week, a mall in Halifax/Dartmouth, Nova Scotia launched a creative ad campaign to lure the back-to-school shoppers.  Creative it might have been, but tasteful it certainly is not.  Described on Twitter as “sexist,” “humiliating,” and “#gross,” the campaign even prompted one dad out there to tweet, “So this is what they think of our daughters?”

Tw of the Micmac Mall ads for back-to-school 2013.  Source: www.micmacmall.com
Tw of the Micmac Mall ads for back-to-school 2013. Source: http://www.micmacmall.com

The Mall’s defense was to tweet the following:

“The campaign’s intent was to correlate school subjects to shopping and our strong social media presence in a humorous and light-hearted manner.”

I respectfully beg to disagree.  This disingenuous response is typical of communication and marketing practitioners caught with their ethical pants down.  The intent of the campaign is clearly to lure shoppers to shop, thereby increasing mall profits.  The strategy was to attempt to use humor – according to the response to the campaign, humorous it is not.

My take on bad taste and ethics has not changed in the past decade…

Have you ever seen an advertisement, read a political cartoon, or a so-called funny story online only to have your immediate reaction be:  That’s in bad taste?

You know the feeling – it’s not based on any objective analysis, rather on a gut-level, personal reaction to the content or delivery, or both. Occasionally, tenets of so-called political correctness provide a touchstone for evaluation, but more often than not, it’s just a feeling.

How do you know when something is in bad taste? And, more to the point, is tastefulness (or lack thereof) ever an ethical issue?

Let’s start by defining good taste.  Most newspapers and magazines, for example, indicate that advertising or other matter for their publications must be in good taste, but it’s rare to find an actual definition of what this means. If these organizations are asked who will define such a thing, the usual response is that they will. In other words, the definition of what is in good taste is a relative thing and changes depending upon the circumstances.

It seems that (a) there is a fine line between good and bad taste, (b) good taste is at least somewhat related to personal preference, and (c) the line between tastefulness and tastelessness is difficult to discern. This is analogous to the black line through a gray area that characterizes ethical dilemmas. But for those of us engaged in the business of public communication, it’s important to consider when that line should not be crossed.

Crossing the line from questionable taste to bad taste sometimes takes us into a moral dilemma. Up to that point, it’s only a question of the kind of image you want to convey. Beyond that, it’s a question of right and wrong.

A decade ago, the Spanish branch of Greenpeace embarked on a unique communications strategy – at least unique in their industry. They launched a fund-raising campaign by using a desk diary featuring nude models lounging in environmentally related situations. For example, one lounges naked on empty mineral water bottles evidently to highlight the pitfalls of non-recyclable items.

As you might expect, feminist groups were outraged that an organization such as Greenpeace would resort to what they judged to be sexist advertising. So, is this a question of good versus bad taste, or is it that and something more?

First, regardless of whether images of naked women are used to sell environmental issues rather than sex seems a moot point. What they are selling is immaterial. How they are selling it is what is germane to the discussion. Well a decade on and we’re asking those same questions today about the mall ad campaign.

Clearly, you as an individual will have an opinion on this subject from a purely stylistic point of view. Either you will consider this to be in good taste or in bad—or perhaps you don’t care about taste.  For the sake of argument let’s say that you consider this to be a tasteless way of gaining public attention. The further question is whether or not it constitutes an unethical way of promoting issues.

If we use the ethical test of whether or not the approach harms anyone, then you are, indeed moving into ethically treacherous waters. There is little doubt that the feminist groups, as well as many individual women (and men) will feel that such an approach to advertising is harming women and their ability to be taken seriously, their opportunities for equality etc. After all, there were evidently no nude men in the diary!  And there are no dumb dudes in the MicMac Mall campaign that I’ve seen. There are only dumb girls who think that putting photos of their new clothes on Facebook is part of “social studies.”

When public relations practitioners (and marketers) are developing strategies for achieving communication and relationship objectives, they consider the potential efficiency and effectiveness of the chosen approach. It’s equally important to consider the potential ethical implications beyond the question of good taste.

Picasso is quoted as saying: “Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness.” He, however, was a fine artist. The difference between an artist and a communicator is that as communicators unlike artists we do need to be concerned about how people will respond to our messages, and whether or not we harm them in any way.

MicMac Mall’s marketing strategists clearly didn’t consider these issues.  I wonder how the retailers on their premises feel about this.


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