“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” -George Bernard Shaw
I have covered the marketing, media, and advertising industries on this website for 15.5 years now.
What began as a place to have digital “watercooler discussions” about ads, quickly grew into something bigger and better.
Adpulp.com has also been driven forward by the power of our mission. Our mission is to serve (and thereby strengthen) the industries that support us by offering critical analysis and deserving praise.
Why do I bother? I believe that marketing communications, media, and advertising are powerful forces for good and bad in our society, and therefore the topics are much too important to leave alone. Or to treat lightly.
The Lady Rings A Bell, Its Sound Is Sweet
Because of my orientations towards improvement and systemwide reform, I find the new op-ed from Katherine Bell, editor-in-chief of Quartz to be inspiring. Business journalists cover power, thus they need fluency in ego, money, and law.
Capitalism is not a natural system, markets are not forces of nature, and companies don’t have minds of their own. They are all collections of human decisions, rules, incentives, predictions, and unintended consequences—and people can change them if they want to.
If we want a better, more inclusive economy, we need a new, more demanding form of business and economic journalism, one that questions the assumptions our organizations, industries, and economies are built on; investigates not only how the systems that govern them are working now, but how they might be improved; and prepares readers to take action to improve them. In other words, we need business journalism to be more progressive.
She goes on to say, “Being progressive and inclusive requires us to ask more fundamental questions about the companies we cover.”
She also suggests the following line of questioning: “What useful thing has the company set out to achieve? Who does it benefit, and who does it harm? If it succeeds, what will its net effect be on society and the environment?”
What About the Companies Behind the Ads?
Reporting on the ad business is interesting because it requires an ability to see the ads as a film critic sees a film or as a food critic sees food. To do this, it takes a lot of knowledge about the making of ads or films or food. One needn’t acquire this knowledge by also working in the business, as I do, but the knowledge has to be acquired somehow, or it may not be intelligently conveyed.
Business journalists fall short of Bell’s guidelines when we don’t consider the company behind the ad, and what kind of cover the ad campaigns provide. There are so many obvious case studies here. How about BP? BP’s ads had a lot of people fooled. But their negligence in the Gulf of Mexico proved how false their messaging was.
Science above. PR below. One has authority. The other has money.
There are countless other examples of PR and advertising making untrue claims. What’s missing are countless examples of reporting on these daily deceptions. The trades are filled with vanity coverage, which is entertaining to a point. Newspapers no longer employ ad critics, as they once did. Almost all of the ad blogs folded years ago.
It’s a tough beat in some ways. People who get paid lots of money to create brand impressions don’t want too much transparency or truth to mess up the whole deal. That would suck. Therefore, getting people to go on record about their agency, their boss, their clients, and so on, is not a simple request.
Interestingly, the brands and their agency helpers have created so many disgruntled to outraged employees for so long that there is plenty of whipsmart criticism and hopeful energy to be found in various corners of these Interwebs.
Ad Makers Are Often Blind to Their Client’s Operational Realities
When you learn to make ads and make a living making ads, there are no courses on ethics, sociology, psychology, or economics. Those are all electives. Thus, it’s far from surprising that ad people don’t want to get into the operational messes that lay just behind the brands they work so hard to support.
Why, for instance, would Nike’s ad agency bother to look into the company’s business practices? What good would it do? It’s hard enough to not remake the same ad over and over, year after year. Taking on the company’s impact on the environment, on labor, on the local communities where it operates, and so on might diminish the Swoosh and that’s not the business that image-makers are in.
So, whose job is it to tell Nike and every other corporate abuser to get their act together BEFORE it ruins their brand and market value?
Is it the consultant’s job? How’s that going? Most agency people want to party with the client in Cannes. That’s a different engagement, isn’t it? The brave ones who care enough to match the brand’s comms strategy to the reality of the company on the ground are the first ones fired. Squeaky wheels don’t get the grease, they get taken off the vehicle.
It’s Time for Change and Change Is Here No Matter the Time
It’s not responsible to look the other way today. Because the pressure to reopen the economy is severe, so is the pressure to sell cars, vacations, homes, clothes, restaurant food, and so on. But in many cases, it’s not safe to invite people to dine in, to travel, or visit a retail location.
What damage to the brand might be done, for instance, if an outbreak of COVID-19 is traced to a retailer? When Chipotle had the food poisoning problems a few years ago, it sure stopped me and many others from eating there.
Today, there’s no room for error. There’s also no more room for all the layers of PR speak and corporate bullshit. It’s “Get Real” time from sea to shining sea, in Marcom, in agriculture, energy, politics, journalism, education, healthcare, transportation, et al.
It’s the Twenty Twenties. Let’s act like it, which means many things, but above all, in this desperate moment, it means respecting science and caring about each other. We can do this much and much more.