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Alain de Botton

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An Ethical Advertising Agency

Posted: 03/30/2012 11:15 am

Advertising has a bad name in society, because it's associated with selling us things we don't really need: chocolate, 4x4 cars, diamond rings. We may appreciate the artistry, intelligence and wit that's often found in adverts -- we've just got problems with what goods are being sold.

So imagine a different way of using advertising, one that would use the aesthetic talents of advertising but direct these to a really grand and noble project: that of nudging us to be the best of ourselves. Imagine an ethical advertising campaign that wanted to promote virtues of character applicable and relevant to our own lives, virtues like kindness, patience, humility, generosity, courage and humour.

In Ancient Greece and again in medieval Christianity, people claimed to know exactly what the virtues of character were. For our part, we'll never get to any concrete list, we're too far down the road of postmodern relativism, but that's not really the point. Far more important than to define the virtues is to set in motion an attempt to live by a few. It is absurd to imagine that anyone could ever hope to identify seven or eight or 15 cast-iron rules of good conduct which would answer every question that might arise about how human beings can live peacefully and well together. But what about making a start? What about picking six virtues that do seem sensible and wise and then tackling the enormous challenge of making them alive and active in our minds? A lack of absolute agreement on the good life should not in itself ever be enough to disqualify us from investigating and promoting the notion of such a life.

Advertisers engaged on an ethical mission would know that their technical talents would find their ultimate purpose in calling forth appropriate ethical responses from us: our eyes would train our hearts. Militating against this mission are all manner of visual clichés. The real difficulty with the ideas which underlie virtues like love or compassion is not that they seem surprising or peculiar, but rather that they seem far too obvious: their very reasonableness and universality strip them of their power. To cite a verbal parallel, we have heard a thousand times that we should love our neighbor, but the prescription loses any of its meaning when it is merely repeated by rote. So too with bad adverts: the best virtues, presented without talent or imagination, generate only indifference and boredom. The task for advertisers is therefore to find new ways of prizing open our eyes to tiresomely familiar yet critical ideas.

Atheists tend to pity the inhabitants of religiously dominated societies for the extent of the propoganda they have to endure, but this is to overlook secular societies' equally powerful and continuous calls-to-prayer. We're never far from a commercial message urging us to buy this or that. We should try to build a more plural system of advertising, where the traditional commercial messages paid for by corporations were balanced out by ones promoting ingredients of the good life as defined by a wide-scale poll of citizens. Advertisements for 4x4 Jeeps would run alongside ones evoking the importance of listening or forgiving.

We are in need of such advertising because we simply will not care for very long about ethical behaviours when all we are given to convince us of their worth is an occasional reminder in a book -- while, in the city beyond, the superlative talents of the globe's advertising agencies perform their phantasmagorical alchemy and set our every sensory fibre alight in the name of a new kind lemon-scented floor polish or savory snack. If we tend to think so often about cleaning or cracked black pepper crisps, but relatively little about endurance or justice, the fault is not merely our own. It is also that these two cardinal virtues are not generally in a position to become clients of a top agency. Until now...

What I'm proposing is a new kind of Ethical Advertising Agency, which would every year run a campaign promoting six key virtues, as chosen by an online poll. Six very high profile poster sites would be chosen around the country, generating a wave of discussion and interest. Behind each chosen virtue, people would be directed to a host of organisations, private, charitable and governmental, which in some ways help to foster this virtue.

The Ethical Advertising Agency would perform a trick which has eluded advertising in capitalism so far: to unite the best of advertisers' energy and artistry with the highest moral ambitions.

 
 
 

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