Ethics & tasteless ad campaigns

ethics cartoonIt 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. Some 15 years ago, way 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.

A couple of years ago the largest mall in Canada’s Nova Scotia launched a creative ad campaign to lure the back-to-school shoppers. Creative it might have been, but tasteful was 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?”

Here’s what one of the ads looked like:

mmm ad 2

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.”

When I wrote about that campaign in 2013 I suggested that 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. However, it was sexist.

In the past decade, my opinion on these kinds of ads has not changed; nor, it seems, have the marketers.

Just this past month Bic was caught out in another tasteless campaign where the inherent sexism borders on unethical messaging. Is this the kind of image any organization these days (especially one where many, if not most, of their customers are women) wants to enhance?

Bic’s South Africa ad looked like this…

This appeared online (including their Facebook site) and was deleted after the social media storm.
This appeared online (including their Facebook site) and was deleted after the social media storm.

The one thing that has changed since the 2002 case is that social media response is strong and immediate. The condemnation began quickly, one response that captured the zeitgeist said this: “’Look like a girl. Act like a lady. Think like a man. Work like a boss.’ Market your company like a 1970s misogynist.”[1]

We all know that feeling when we’re seeing an ad that seems in poor taste, but how often do you consider whetehr or not this communication has crossed an ethical line?

Most newspapers and magazines indicate somewhere in their online materials 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.

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 approaches to advertising are harming women and their ability to be taken seriously, their opportunities for equality etc. Did you notice that there were no dumb dudes in the mall ad campaign. 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.

[Some of the material in this blog post appeared in a much older post.]

[1] Harriett Minter, Bic advertising: look like a girl, market your company like a 1970s misogynist, The Guardian online,


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