Laura Desmond


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Can advertising be both a force for commerce AND a force for good?

People love to say they hate advertising – and in many ways, I think we've earned our bad reputation (which might sound strange coming from the CEO of the largest media agency in the world). Personally, I believe that advertising has a responsibility to be more informative, more relevant, and more reliable in helping people navigate the landscape of choices in their lives. At the same time, we have to honor our commitment and responsibility to our client partners to grow their businesses and build their brands. In your view, what advertisers are doing the best job of serving this dual role in a genuine way? What are some examples you've seen, both past and present, that demonstrate being a force for good as well as a force for business? What more can be done in this space?

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    Jan 14 2012: "Advertising is the modern substitute for argument; its function is to make the worse appear the better."
    George Santayana

    I find a lot of advertising insulting to my intelligence and most of it irrelevant. As such, even if the purpose of an advert was in pursuit of some greater good, I would probably continue to ignore it or be suspicious of the motivation behind it, which, I imagine renders it ineffective.
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      Jan 16 2012: I think your sentiments capture the “bad reputation” I mentioned and that’s exactly why I believe it’s an important topic to explore. It’s crucial that advertisers act with authenticity. If they don’t, their message will be rejected in exactly that way you’ve expressed. I hope this conversation is a small step forward in pushing our industry to listen to audiences and behave differently. Anything is possible with good intentions and I do believe we can elevate advertising to be a force for good.
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        Jan 17 2012: In New Zealand, there is plenty of advertising to promote healthy lifestyles, safe-driving and so on. This is funded by ACC, which is a tax-payer funded accident compensation (beats suing each other) and other not-for-profit organisations.

        For an advertising company to create ads for good causes, they would need to separate themselves completely from remuneration. If this is not done, the very media-savvy generations we have become will be immediately suspiscious of motivation. This may seem a small thing, but is the basis on which people build their perceptions.

        The very fact that companies selling products and advertisers talk about creating a "trustworthy" brand, fails because people are wise to most of the tricks of spin-doctoring and sales-pitching.

        I agree that, in some instances, education works and putting messages frequently in front of people does change attitudes (see anti-smoking campaigns).

        Personally, and I may or may not be alone in this, mass media, in all forms is a facade, a thin veneer over reality. I understand that this has been the nature of the beast for some time but this is the exact thing that now smacks of artifice and is the great barrier that advertisers must overcome.
      • Jan 23 2012: I agree with you Laura.

        People who make ads--especially copywriters--tend to only concentrate on the way to express their creative ideas into the ads without considering the matter of relevance, the matter of authenticity, and the matter of "good intention".
        If their attention is all about their benefits that come from their works--making seemingly very memorable and innovative advertisements. And if they do not consider their "silent duty" as the people who convince other people to buy and use their products, their irresponsible and selfish works won't be helpful at all to their consumers and to the people who watch their ads frequently. And more importantly, before long, the company that emerge in the ads will lose their reliable reputation from their customers, which means it is a matter of time that the company fails.

        If they had been honest and wise enough to think about "win-win" situation beforehand,
        the terrible situation I demonstrated above woulnd't have happened.
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      Jan 18 2012: I am sure my receptors, which were burnt out by ad-over-dosages sustained in the years I watched TV, are beyond repair in this life time, "rendering ineffective" all ads.
  • Jan 24 2012: I think your central premise is entirely disingenuous. You say:

    "Personally, I believe that advertising has a responsibility to be more informative, more relevant, and more reliable in helping people navigate the landscape of choices in their lives. At the same time, we have to honor our commitment and responsibility to our client partners to grow their businesses and build their brands "

    But there is a false a priori assumption here that you are providing a service to the people who see your (or any) adverts. You are, by definition, doing what you say in the second half of your premise: looking after the interests of your clients, but it is not a dual role: that is all you are doing.

    You can invent all sorts of justifications and arguments that you are in some way providing a service to your viewers, i.e you are giving people useful information, but that is at best a totally subjective view of what you're doing, and in real terms it is simply untrue. You have no way of knowing whether the information you provide is useful, and furthermore, as an advertiser, you are not presenting the information in an objective, neutral way, but in a way that is designed to sell that idea to your viewer, no matter how you try and wrap it up.

    In my humble opinion, advertising is by definition immoral, and advertising to children is deeply immoral. This is not to deny that adverts can be extremely entertaining and enjoyable, but please don't kid yourself that you are doing something that is in any way philanthropic. You are in the persuasion business. Persuasion is not a morally neutral art, it is seeking to deliberately influence another for commercial gain. If you want to do good, stop selling things people by and large don't need or want, and start educating people in the things that are desperately needed right now; awareness of every individual's responsibility toward their fellow beings and the planet would be a start. Brave of you to enter into a debate about it though.
    • Jan 25 2012: Advertising DOES provide a service to me, so the assumption is not totally false. If the assumption were that advertisers provide a service to EVERYONE in all cases, that would not be true.

      How am I to make an informed buying decision about a product or service without knowing at the outset what is even available?

      You say, "Persuasion is not a morally neutral art, it is seeking to deliberately influence another for commercial gain." You are seeking to persuade readers of your comment that your position has merit. Do you have intent of commercial gain? Your statement is fundamentally flawed.

      Your whole comment is fundamentally flawed, from beginning to end.
      • Jan 25 2012: I'm sorry, but that is incorrect. If you wish to find out about something, you simply look it up. You do not need advertising to lead you or goad you into making a decision; you are (surely?) capable of researching something yourself. If you wish to make an informed decision, go to a forum, read unbiased information, it's not rocket science.

        I am not seeking to persuade anyone of my interpetation of the morality of advertising, I am simply stating it; I am not prompted by commercial gain to do this. My statement is not fundamentally flawed, you have simply not understood it.
        • Jan 25 2012: Hud.
          Who would provide said unbiased information? Product reviews are biased in their very nature, and often misleading as they have not done their research.
          Marketing is certainly not a morally neutral art or science, and neither are the reviews you refer to. Relying on information from multiple sources is likely the best way to research, and the manufacturer of a product, or provider of the service is certainly the most knowledgable of all. Done right, a marketer is informing the public of the benefits of their product. Without their input, how can you make a truly informed decision? Further, if the provider of that product is providing a guarantee or warantee with their product - is this practice morally devoid as well? Not as cut and dry as one might hope....
        • Jan 25 2012: That's wierd did you buy your computer? Find out about TED? Get to enjoy TED? Decide on the clothes you wear or the food you buy? Do scientists get their idea to market by publishing research? How do they know what to be interested in to study? Advertising is one part of the marketing equation and in and of itself it is not immoral. That's like saying guns are dangerous! You have to be a participant to give it morality (or a lack of). Advertising missing people on milk cartons is not a bad thing as is the advertising that milk is good for you. Having the milk board and the FDA ram 'information' down your throat that they know is lies is immoral but you can't blame the medium for that. It's the user of the medium that is to blame...such as our dear host on this conversation!
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    Jan 23 2012: This is an interesting question, primarily because of who is asking it. I have to admit, I approach my answer to this with feels to me like a veiled attempt at earning my trust so I am a more captive audience for future attempts at making profit. When you talk about the possibility of advertising used as a mechanism for social good...I have to wonder to what end you are seeking to accomplish this? Is it so you can brand yourselves as a company that is working for social good so that you might earn more profit and be more effective for you clients, or is it because you recognize yourselves as in possession of unique access to the mediascape as you shape public wants, desires, priorities and expectations? The power held by those with access to the media, while recognized by many as relevant, is largely misunderstood. So, when you talk about what you can do for social good, I would begin with how self reflexive is this process? Do you recognize the power you hold in the shaping of public perspective? Do you recognize the power you have in restricting some options and enabling others? Do you recognize your position in relation to the rest of us without access to this forum---and what do you expect to do with it?

    I consider the power of media...and advertising in particular a good deal in my field of study. While it's not my central focus, it is something that plays into everything I consider as an academic. For an in depth explanation of how advertising has a negative impact on our expectations of ourselves from a gendered perspective...see the following two blog entries that consider the very specific impact of media on gendered identities.... (femininity) and for a look at the social construction of masculinity, see

    Another example:
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      Jan 24 2012: Skepticism is something advertisers must deal with quite a bit, and I’ve seen a healthy dose of it in the replies to this TED conversation. Fair enough.

      To answer your question, yes, I do recognize that the advertising industry has unique access to media that can shape public wants, desires, priorities and expectations. That’s why I believe it’s important for advertisers to participate in communities and hear for themselves what people think, feel and do. Social media has accelerated advertisers’ access to this type of feedback. It’s an exciting time when the power of individual voices can create real change. Consider this: 22-year-old Molly Katchpole started an online petition against monthly debit card fees and Bank of America listened. They halted plans to charge a monthly debit card fee. Another example (albeit a bit more lighthearted): Millions of Facebook fans joined together to convince NBC to book Betty White as the host of Saturday Night Live – and she did on Mother’s Day 2010.

      So yes, our industry has unique access to shape our culture – but now more than ever so do individuals who harness the power of media to achieve a shared purpose.
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        Jan 24 2012: Hi Laura,
        Thanks for your response and engaging in the discussion. While my response here is skeptical, I don't so much categorize my standpoint as skeptical as I do responsible, and ultimately, hopeful. The images and messages that permeate our culture absolutely shape our perspective about ourselves, others, the world--all of which has a direct impact on how we orient ourselves toward the very real problems that face us as a global community. When we begin to recognize the power inherent in these messages to shape our frames of reference, particularly when we allow them to wash over us without critically examining them, we can start to more actively engage in the creation of a reality that we can all have a productive part in. Advertisers are but one of many contributors to the messages that shape expectations about who we are as men, women, members of specific ethnic groups, professional affiliations, what it means to succeed...the list goes on and on. It is the perpetuation of a stigmatized, harmful social identity that can serve as a potential limitation to how we see ourselves and how others see us. This then impacts how much voice we have in any global discussion.

        So, while I recognize attempts at trying to achieve a positive message while still selling products as a well intended step toward contributing to a better world, I think it is important to first consider what the message is doing to limit the possibilities of individual actors based on the creation and perpetuation of social expectations for specific identity groups--does it contribute to or contradict the dominant messages about what is and is not expected of specific groups of people? Does it perpetuate or challenge dominant stereotypes? How might the message be tweaked to counter this and open up space for the individual? This is the kind of self-reflexivity I would like to see on the part of our advertisers and others with access to the creation of media messages.
  • Jan 21 2012: @Laura Desmond

    Quote: "Can advertising be both a force for commerce AND a force for good?"
    >> Advertising without the underlying competitive mechanism is called educating. So is advertising good? No.

    Quote: "People love to say they hate advertising – and in many ways, I think we've earned our bad reputation (which might sound strange coming from the CEO of the largest media agency in the world)."
    >> That is not strange, just honest. And when honest has become strange, something is horribly wrong. Inverse the inverted.

    Quote: "I think we've earned our bad reputation".
    >> Why do you think this? From the video: cluttered, false, aggressive and intrusive. Then I hear a "but" and you continue by telling why educating people is good. And educating people is good, you just don't need advertisements for that.

    Video link:
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      Jan 25 2012: Advertisement is necessary. And like politics, it will always exist as long as there are people. If you cannot turn an apparently existed thing into good force, you admit failure.

      Besides, you can find examples of advertisement do both: for commerce and for good.
      • Jan 25 2012: Why do you think advertisement is necessary? And why do you think politics and advertisement will always exist as long as there are people?

        What examples can you give that do both, a force for commerce and a force for good?
  • Jan 27 2012: In the interests of full disclosure, I have worked in an advertising agency, and currently work in a role in my current organization where I am responsible for a lot of advertising as part of our marketing efforts.

    I am of the view that advertising is inherently "not good"-- and I am referring to advertising in its more specific meaning (the one-way market-facing communication meaning) as opposed to all forms of marketing.

    I have always felt (since I was quite young), that advertising-- were I to assign a personality to it-- is, well, kind of date-rapey. Yes, I just said that. Advertising is that guy who comes into a party, isn't really interested in you at all (he's not even listening to what you're talking about), he just wants interrupt you to talk about himself and, by the way, almost nothing he says about himself in any way squares up with your actual experience of the guy. This is the same guy who told TiVo that their "commercial skip" button shouldn't skip commercials anymore-- because people will use it to skip commercials and we don't want them to be able to skip commercials. Yes, we want to force people to have to see things they do not want to see.

    I have been looking (off and on) for a decade for a way to, literally, end advertising-- while still providing a way for people with wants and needs a way to connect with businesses ready to meet those wants and needs, but on a more equal, open and honest footing.

    I will definitely allow that some advertising is relatively better than others-- although when I see an ad that touches me emotionally, I'm pretty immediately met with the thought "They just connected with me emotionally... to get my money." I mean, commerce is what's behind it all anyway-- they're not reaching out to me just to make sure I'm doin' okay.
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    Jan 24 2012: The key to any successful advertising campaign, especially one that is attempting to enhance the positive aspects of an organization, is "believability". If the campaign is in any way at odds with the public perception of the sponsor then there will rightly be skepticism, cynicism, or perhaps even downright scorn elicited from the viewing audience. This obviously presents a problem to any organization that wants to improve it's public image, all the more reason to remember to not let your public perception slide in the first place.

    Can you imagine the possibilities if the organization was created as a change agent for social responsibility from the get-go? Not only as a vehicle for generating owner/shareholder profits, but as a true example of Profit-Donation Capitalism? Some notable examples of this ethos: "Newman's Own", or Tom's "One-for-One" whereby any shoe purchase also results in another pair of shoes going to underprivileged children. How simple, honest, and direct would their advertising be then? Would they even NEED advertising?.

    Perhaps the best and truest way for advertisers to generate good will is for good will to be part of the organizations's founding principles, and not something to be embraced simply to burnish their rusty public exteriors.
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      Jan 25 2012: Those are great examples. You could hold both of those up as the gold standard for all corporations and marketers with a desire to do good. Thanks for sharing.

      You raise one of the all time great debates for our industry - do great products even need advertising? I think of it this way - If I did something good for the world, but nobody saw me do it, did I really do something good? Many people will still answer yes to that question, so I'll take it a step farther. How much greater of an impact would I have had if the good I did was seen by one other person? What about millions of people? When you consider the ripple effect, I think advertising is worth it.
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        Jan 25 2012: Thanks Laura for the reply and for sparking this discussion in the first place.

        I agree that advertising's "ripple effect" can surely broaden the impact of a great product or a worthy brand, but, as in all things, there are trade-offs to consider. Every dollar spent on advertising will dilute the profit-donation equation, so the potential benefits of any ad campaign must be carefully analyzed. Further, there is the danger of being perceived as "tooting one's own horn" so to speak, consequently the campaign would need to maintain an overall sense of honest humility and social responsibility. I suppose that under those conditions an ad campaign could be very beneficial, to the general (or targeted) public as well as to the advertising entity.

        However, there are alternatives to classic, mainstream advertising. If the story is compelling enough, and the products are interesting enough, couldn't the endeavor itself become "News"? And, as such, could not widespread exposure be manifested via contemporary print and broadcast news/talk outlets, as well as online social networks, blogs, and other forms of "information dissemination" simply on the basis of being noteworthy?

        I'm certainly not tolling the death-knell for the advertising industry, but in a connected society with a decentralized information flow there are new paradigms in play.
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    Jan 24 2012: Dove soap commercials over the years have shown imagery of oil soaked birds being scrubbed and released by volunteers. It is a clever use of the product, and it is an inspiring reminder to volunteer and help animals. More importantly it demonstrates how the product works and how it works well. Advertisers can do more by recognizing their own biases, recognizing the biases of their society, and contributing works that oppose these biases. What I mean is self-accountability.
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      Jan 24 2012: I believe you are speaking of the Dawn Saves Wildlife campaign:
      That’s a great example. It may be one of the best illustrations of an ad being a force for good and a force for commerce. It not only shows the Brand giving back to the world, but also – as you said – demonstrates the effectiveness of the product. Thanks for posting!
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    Jan 27 2012: To everyone who has taken the time to comment on this conversation - thank you! I love being part of the TED community and have sincerely enjoyed reading your comments over the past two weeks. I appreciate all of your thought-provoking responses and hope this is just the beginning of a meaningful discussion about the purpose of advertising.
  • Jan 27 2012: no no no.. sorry. advertising is bad because it is something which is not chosen it is something repetitively given to people when they are trying ot watch a movie read a book..i like national geographic i like reading articals about africa and how the people have suffered due to diamond mining.... next to this i am forced again and again to look at seiko wathces encrusted with diamonds.... if they had brought out a magazine about diamonds i would not have bought it... advertising means someone is forcing you to looka t something you would not choose to watch listening to musci you would not choose and eventually buying things you would not choose... if there is a good product a good film or a good song and someone finds it they will pass it on to their friends and with the internet things can "go viral " at an amazing speed songs are shared by people who would never have had to money to advertise produce etc their music but they are good and people like them so their music spreads. if on the other hand every shop you go to every bus you take every time you turn on i tines or the tv you are forced to listen to some pop star {and youar e of a certain age rang that is interested in the topics of said star such as sex and hot boys or whatever crap theyre singing about these days} then youw ill buy that product.. you have not looked for it you have just been mass marketed you were not shared by your peers..and this means the bio diversity of products is more to do with the powers of advertising than th eingenuity of the product or the needs of the buyer which sucks.. it has played its part in our history from violence to soporific comsumerism and that is good because before advertising the forms of control over us were far more brutal... but i think we will leave it behind very soon and allow people to choose and spread their memes products and inovations by choice rather than by imposition and i think advertising will become a crime.
  • Jan 25 2012: To each their own in terms of how they define good but I will give some more food for thought. Lets use online affiliate marketing/advertising as the example as there are many ads that have made me chuckle or provided minor entertainment but when clicked delivered a false promise. Therefore, if "good" encompasses entertainment or amusement then yes advertising can be a force for commerce and a force for good.

    Lets use a better example in beer commercials. Alcohol is a substances that is constantly abused and negatively affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people every year but I laugh and/or smile at almost every beer commercial I see.

    The major point I'm trying to make is that advertising/marketing is to increase sales. If the product, service, or cause your advertising happens to do "good" (however you define it) then you sleep easier at night.
  • Jan 25 2012: Ok so for example, the new Acura ads show a man in football gear being stripped and then redressed in a fancy suit (essentially being "upgraded") while a deep voice says "it works for people, why not cars?" and the man is then replaced by the new Acura, conveying the idea that we can be "upgraded" by the new Acura. The truth is, we will not be upgraded by the new Acura, but rather we will be significantly poorer financially and arguably spiritually poorer as well for believing that a car would upgrade us in the first place.
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    Jan 25 2012: No.

    I think the only ads I can think of that have been a "force for the good" have been anti-ads. In other words, ads designed to counter the effects of other ads, which seem like a giant waste of cash. If only the original ads had been held to some sort of standard, they wouldn't have run.

    All I know is that now I want a house hippo.
  • Jan 25 2012: Dear Laura,
    Perhaps reword the questions:
    1. In your view, what advertisers are doing the best job of serving the interest of the world - humanity, nature and community?
    2. What are some examples you've seen past and present that demonstrate that advertising can be a force for good, such as helping to reduce consumerism, while still being a force for sustainable business?
    3. What more can be done with advertising space to educate the public on the destructive nature of depending on ever expanding economies and business growth facilitated by the advertising industry?

    I'm sad to see TED allowing you to abuse the forum to suit your best interests by doing a survey that you can then use for creating more consumerism and profits for the companies you represent! You're a slick sales person but I'm not buying until you ask the questions that really need to be asked!!!
  • Jan 25 2012: It would be utopia if advertising was based solely on principled behaviour. At the vey least a guiding "do no harm" policy would be great..i.e targeting children or the lesser educated for fast/processed food or easy money with hidden or inflated costs is just plane wrong and does immeasurable harm. However in reality these clients exist so we need to develop better critical thinking strategies so we can make more informed choices. Perhaps an advertisement educating the public on the pitfalls of advertising and spin might be in order ;) At the end of the day I think we all know what the right thing to do is, it's just that advertising knows how to target our own rationalisations for not doing it....
  • Jan 25 2012: Please excuse my still developing thought - but I think this is a really interesting question. Advertising is a manipulative tool, arguably by definition. Advertisers manipulate consumers to think/feel/react in certain ways, and I feel that we have this natural tendency to immediately think of manipulation as bad. But I like to think of Tom's shoes (the shoe company where you pay a fairly overpriced amount for some canvas shoes and a pair of shoes is donated in a developing nation - for those who hadn't heard of what I'm referencing) as a great example of positive, social change advertising. Toms (Tom's?) became wildly popular, and I have a hard time believing it was because of the functionality of the actual shoe. The product's success was driven by its advertising campaign, manipulating people into believing that should pay exorbitant prices for a shoe and also for the satisfaction of knowing that they helped a child in Africa. Is this wrong? I don't think so.

    Maybe advertising is still "evil" but we might need its manipulative powers to get powerful, social change businesses off the ground - and I think there is a lot of potential for good there.

  • Jan 24 2012: We are stepping into an age where advertising can easily be both a force for commerce AND a force for good. But two things need to happen (besides ad-agencies and corporations having integrity.)
    First, a shift from general advertising(GA) , to direct response(DR). Or at the very least, advertisements that stem from the foundations set by Claude Hopkins, Caples, etc. There are two problems with general advertising, besides being grossly ineffective.
    1) GA creates more noise than information. Cluttering the daily lives of consumers with information that does not matter. If advertisements were more relevant there would be a stronger and swifter flow of information that matters. (And this is done by taking the consumer's problem seriously, and then communicating the product's ability to solve their problem. Not catchy jingles, not commercials that make people laugh.)
    2) Hyper-targeting - Targeting consumers through strategic advertisement is not a new idea. But right now, the ability to target consumers through ads is unprecedented. (Did you hear about Perry Marshall's student who helped unseat a mayor in South Dakota, via hypertargeting via facebook
    If we are able to target relevant consumers, with relevant advertising (not jingles). Consumers will be much better off, because they no longer are bothered by meaningless advertisements ad nauseum . But instead they will have automatic access to relevant information that helps them solve problems in their life.
    Additionally, this will line the pockets of ad-agencies and corporations alike. The ads themselves will be more effective and wasteful spending will be cut dramatically.
    A shift from GA to DR, plus as we discover more and better ways to target consumers (and then implement it). This in tandem with advertisers and corporations having something relevant to say (they almost always do, they just rarely say it) - will create a new world for advertisers and consumers alike.
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      Jan 25 2012: I love watching how data and technology is transforming our industry. The more advancements advertising makes toward behavioral and hyper-local targeting, the more relevant it becomes. It's an exciting time and I love being part of an industry that is on the cutting edge of change.
  • Jan 24 2012: My personal answer is No. I was an advertiser for 10 years and struggled with this question as well. I eventually made a shift, in part because I honestly couldn't find a way to answer Yes.
  • Jan 24 2012: At base level, advertising is just letting people know about your product, where and how to buy it. Great! Er....not really. As a consumer, I actively associate many products with annoying advertising and will avoid the product. If I must watch something on tv, I turn the (spiked up) volume down during ad breaks. I don't like being shouted at, manipulated, patronised, bored to death, outright lied to and most of all, the intrusion. I haven't bought "womens'" magazines for years, as they seem to have little new/valid content - just endless pages of ads, most of which I find incredibly negative toward - well, women. I disengaged with most internet advertisements on pages a long time ago, though the interruption thing applies here too. Am I an ageing, hairy-armed, sackcloth clad troglodyte with no make-up? Hardly - I have more than my fair share of lovely 'stuff', which I seek out myself in shops, galleries, museums, fairs and markets - virtual and actual - and my friends and I talk/email/fb/tweet. I am soon to launch an atypical website - with an Emporium attached - and the question of advertising and how we handle it is very much on my mind. I know what we don't want to do to our audience, and that's my start point. And yes - I hope we can stay alive, too....
  • Jan 24 2012: WE took this on board as an agency in late last year. So much so that we changed our vision. Our vision is to "create inspiring and innovation solutions that Make a DIFFERENCE" . Our goal is to ensure that our personal and client impact and contribution to the community as well to the environment is always positive. Therefore we endeavor to create campaigns that make a difference - either utilising sustainable and biodegradable products or by their campaigns also contributing to a foundation, cause or charity. I also believe that all agencies have a choice of what products to work with - this would be reflected in your values as a business. We also have an in house CSR team that is allocated a set amount of hours per week to set initiatives and measureables for our business as well as our clients. These are used as part of our business KPI's quarterly and reported to the board to ensure there is as much positive impact as possible. ADvertising is the perfect medium to spread positive messages and create brand influence. Prime example being 77% of Australian women seek brands that are aligned with causes and 54% of those would switch brands if their preference does not.

    Last but not least, all true creative should start with research and an absolutely authentic message. No matter the product, brand or division, we have an opportunity to present the right message to the right buyer / viewer. Not all products are for everyone, not all brands are for everyone. It's about ensuring the right message is reaching the right group. We are all responsible for our choices be that the agency or the consumer as long as the message is true to point, the end goal should be achieved.
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      Jan 25 2012: This is inspired. Thank you for sharing your company vision statement. I believe more and more agencies are starting to follow this path. When we wrote our purpose statement for Starcom MediaVest Group we said our dream was "To grow our clients businesses by transforming human behavior through uplifting, meaningful Human Experiences".
  • Jan 24 2012: If you advertise as part of the commercial machine which is gradually grinding down the human population then I think you should be put in a cell and locked up until you realise and admit your role in the downward spiral of human liberty.

    If you are a small business or positive group and advertise in order to raise awarness of your cause or service then it is absolutely a good thing.

    The companies which do good unfortunately do not earn enough money in order to compete with the companies which ust make an absolute mint and can afford prime time tv advert slots etc.

    I think "advertising" can be fantastically influential, the best example must be Apple over the past 10 years. Through advertising (and having far superior products already on the market before anyone else) they have established themselves as Number 1.

    I rarely see greenpeace adverts on TV but more on facebook etc where it is cheaper and does not have as good an influence under the circumstances that using a pc to communicate uses far more brain power than staring at a tv screen absorbing whatever show/advert is pumped down your optic and audio nerves.

    Currently in times of financial hardship I have seen a worrying increase in online gambling sites advertised between daytime TV. ANd its main target audience?????.....the unemployed who are living on benefits and always searching for the elusive big cash injection to their life.

    Coincidence???? NOPE........... there is plenty of scientific proof which shows that those who have very little disposable income are more inclined to gamble because the pro's outweigh the risks of losing....especially when you didnt have to work for the little you had.......

    And at night time????? Online loan get that cash you have lost before payday.......

    A very very sneaky advertising campaign which should be dissallowed by the government,

    Advertising in times like this should be more responsibly aimed at productive things such as grow your own veg etc
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    Jan 24 2012: Advertising, Design and Communication is one of the greatest social tools we have. It is just terribly unfortunate that the majority of organizations willing to spend money on Advertising and Design need our expertise to navigate PR situations.

    I understand that to survive in the world of advertising most agencies need at least one of these heavy hitters on retainer. I'm just saying it would be nice to see more said agencies contributing to accounts that would benefit the quality of life for the world(not just humans) as a whole.

    As a professional in the industry I know that advertising can be Good. I also know how over worked concept and production artists can be by account executives to meet the goals of 'evil' advertising campaigns.

    I think it's up to the Account Execs to streamline their budgets to free up some money for worthwhile initiatives while making an effort to seek out less morally questionable accounts. The creatives are begging you to do this, but we'd never be heard for fear of being laughed out of a boardroom. You would be surprised how many people get into this industry for the right reasons, but end up doing the wrong work.
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      Jan 25 2012: Viewing advertising as a social tool is one of the themes I'm reading in many of the comments here. It's a good way to look at it, and I've personally seen more and more companies add social responsibility to their business objectives. Some clients are calling it "Grow the Good". I love that expression. It's something that ad execs need to seed in all levels of their organizations.
  • Jan 24 2012: What better use of advertising than to be a force for good -- good for the individual, good for the family, good for the organization...let's all do our best to make good competitive!
  • Jan 24 2012: I'm impressed with the Hellman's ad that draws attention to issues around food security
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      Jan 24 2012: I'm also impressed with this campaign. I would have loved to see some infrastructure put in place at the retail level to give the public a easy path to action.
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      Jan 25 2012: Thanks, Mark. I don't know if I've seen that one. If you have a moment, I'd love it if you could post a link.
  • Jan 21 2012: There is no doubt in my mind that advertising can be used for commerce and for good (and also for really bad).
    With good I would refer to quite a few governments that run ad-campaigns to inform people about the dangers which certain life styles have. For instance in the Netherlands a lot of ads have run to promote save sex (which btw could work as a perfect example of how commerce could be a force for good). Also I remember some ads about 'what to do when confronted with .....' by a few governments (where .... = you see violence / someone is in need of medical attention / etc.)
    However the biggest problem there is with adds being 'both good for commerce while doing good'. Is that in almost all cases you have to first explain that something is wrong with the world. This then causes a negative feeling or cognetive dissonance which you do not want to have linked to a product.
    Because ads are always short it is impossible to 'have the bad feeling being washed away' before the ad has ended. Therefor I believe that none of the companies will run an ad-campaign which does the above.

    The only 'good examples' where ads try to do good are commercials that show the world as 'it should be'. For instance there are many beer commercials that show a world where friends come to eachothers place to have a beer and share a laugh. This might encourage more people to do the same.

    One thing that I would find important to see in future commercials that 'are for the good'. Is that people from different religious backgrounds and people who look very different are treated as equals to the rest. Because although we say that the world is already like that I see time and again that it is not. And I believe that a lot of fear could be taken away from people if they saw that there is nothing dangerous about others.
  • Jan 27 2012: Ideal advertising highlights products, services, or ideas that stand to make a positive difference in people's lives. If consumers see value in the offer, then presumably they adopt the product/service/idea. In this scenario both parties win: the advertiser earns the consumer's business and the consumer's life is improved in some way.

    Of course, not all - or perhaps even much - advertising is ideal. Yet it is clear that advertisers that approach this ideal do better for themselves and their customers' well-being at the same time. For example, in work we're doing at The Center For Positive Marketing at Fordham University, we've observed quite a strong correlation between brands' well-being (read: financial value) and the well-being of the people they serve. This result dovetails nicely with the Harvard Business Review piece Ms. Desmond cited in an earlier comment.

    Advertisers need to more explicitly recognize these relationships and aim for this ideal. Advertising can and should uplift businesses, consumers, and society as a whole.
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    Jan 27 2012: Laura,
    The ad world doesn't deserve the bad reputation, the clients also bear that responsibility! Companies with a bad product or service do want to advertise that product.

    Perhaps the responsibility of ad men is denying that advertising a product won't help.
    In an ad agency, who would dare to turn down a client after realizing their product sucks...? "Sorry sir or M'am, but we believe you should first improve your product/service before deciding to spend a significant amount of money to advertise it". Your point of view is the same as David Ogilvy's: inform, help.

    I love marketing and communication strategy (that's my job) but I'm allergic to ads. Here is why. The century-old traditional advertising model could be compared today to "shout and sell", whereas we do have the means to "talk" with consumers when they want and eventually help them, which benefits both the consumers and the brands.

    Mass-advertising with "shout and sell" techniques still works, unfortunately. But content marketing, that is to speak about everything relevant to the product but the product itself is a great way to engage a meaningful conversation with consumers and help them make a (better) choice.

    One of the first (commercial) example is by P&G: Help teenage girls addressing (embarrassing) questions about becoming an adult. Of course it is meant to sell, but P&G did put their products in a very discrete way. It was a great success and I believe still is.

    For above the line ads, the example of Nike is nice: translating what your company stands for into something meaningful (see Michael Porter's Thick Value theory for that matter)

    In a nutshell: Today, the ad industry has the means to "talk & serve", which eventually sells more (!) instead of shout & (trying desperately to) sell, which becomes more and more difficult (and big kudos to the creative directors who still manage to do it!)
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      Jan 27 2012: I wholeheartedly agree that "being a force of good" needs to be embedded in a company's culture and long term vision. The Nike Foundation is a good example. As I referenced in a previous comment, there was a great article recently in the Harvard Business Review titled "How Great Companies Think Differently". It talks about how successful companies balance short term financial goals and long term societal benefits.
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    Jan 26 2012: "do great products even need advertising?" Yes, they do. Because the media is the present power of delivering an information. People use media as a source of information. In my opinion the real question is: who are these people who decide in media agencies if a product is a good one? There is, and always will be, a big issue about earning money and morality. Is there a place for a geniune way of deciding what's good what's wrong? If a media agency achives a position in consumer's market as a 'moral' one - it wins.
  • Jan 26 2012: Dear Laura,
    the topic is so interesting and I would like to have the time to read all the comments.
    I've been studying the relation between advertising and good and I discovered the power of archetypes, of jungian archetypal psychology and the methodology of archetypal branding by Pearson and Mark.

    My new book with all my reflections is going to be published in Italy on February 21th. The title is "Create! How to design a contagious communication (and make the world a better place)".

    I have also a keynote that I'm presenting in english. You can find here the slides:

    My next presentation will be at Davos (Switzerland). I hope to see someone of you there.
    If you are interested in contacting me you can find me here or on Facebook:
    by the way I'm looking for publishers in different languages so if you are interested I can send you more information . very best to you
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    Jan 25 2012: Are you familiar with TED's Ad's Worth Spreading?
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    Jan 25 2012: To me, information is much more important than advertising. If there is a cure for a certain type of cancer, interrupt me and let me know. Otherwise, leave me alone and quit interrupting me. My brand loyalty is now gone...I believe if something doesn't sell itself on it's own merit, it should not be advertised.

    For advertising to be a force for good, you'd have to do it for good first, and hope people can repay you some how.

    (as I say this though, I hope my daughter has a nice career like yours!)
    Thank you for asking the question!
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    Jan 25 2012: Advertisers are geniuses at telling a story and evoking powerful emotions in 30 seconds or just a single image. That snapshot carries the magic of transporting us to another world or giving us perspective on our own, especially when humor is involved. Advertising has certainly set the standard for that type of communication.

    Yes, advertising has the power to educate, but to say that is actually does is a stretch. Education expands our thinking and our world, while the companies paying for the ads really want to narrow our focus to their product.

    For small companies, I believe advertising is essential to connect customers with real needs with service providers. Large companies generally just use it to make us feel insecure and urge us to conform. Given large corporations' intentional overreach in our lives and our government, I do what I can to stay away from their insistence that I need them.
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    Jan 25 2012: Since I don't have (or want) ANY kind of media besides the internet I would appreciate if you could give me an example of an ad which sells a product really generally needed in an informative - non dehumanizing (great choice of word) - way. I'd be happy to change my mind!
  • Jan 25 2012: Kudos for coming here to discuss this, Laura. I have long seen advertising as having enormous potential for good but the balancing act you people have to perform - as described in your OP - is a hard one and, sadly, a lot of the time we see more hard sell than the 'selling' of something good for people..

    Relevance, and help with making wise choices are absolutely the areas which need addressing, imo. May I ask how much ethical discussion goes on before it is decided to proceed with an advertising project? Or is it, as many think, really all money driven?

    We know so much more about health now, maybe a rethink of what kind of ads should take priority is needed. I believe that companies who played along with this could earn serious respect - and we have to try to get away from the 'all big corporations are bad' mindset, which is just divisive.

    Personally I would like to see the genius behind Coca Cola ads used - by that firm, even - to promote a healthy drink AS WELL. Then people would have a real choice. Ditto with other big brands selling small luxury goods. That's what we want, but there is also what our bodies need..
  • Jan 25 2012: Full credit for being open to this discussion, Laura. Late last year I co-authored a report with WWF and a former advertiser, seeking to open up a debate about the ethics of advertising, called Think Of Me As Evil? - the title was inspired by a quote from Rory Sutherland of Ogilvy, who said that he would "rather be thought of as evil than useless" in the work he does. (Report PDF:

    As we review in the report, there's compelling evidence that advertising, far from simply building brands as you state, boosts overall levels of consumption. That's to say, it encourages people to spend or borrow rather than save, or even work longer hours to earn more - in order to attain the sorts of materialist lifestyles that are being advertised to us. In a world of resource limits and an increasingly unstable climate, ever-increasing levels of material consumption are unsustainable. Advertisers often say they bear no responsibility for such big problems - 'we're merely selling what a client asks them to'; 'we have to rely on govt / other businesses / the consumer to shift behaviour and drive greener investment first'. Of course, pretty much every industry and every state has raised similar objections: 'we're only 2% of global emissions', 'someone else should lead'.

    But as you say in an earlier post, advertising "...can shape public wants, desires, priorities and expectations." To that list I'd also add cultural values - an area that has seen a huge amount of social psychology research in recent decades. We argue in our report that advertising promotes materialistic values, and undermines pro-social and pro-environmental values.

    If advertising wants to be a force for good in society, it needs to start thinking very hard about its indirect impacts. It's one thing for Starcom to (commendably) pilot its own carbon footprinting tool to measure the direct CO2 from crafting an ad campaign; but what about the additional CO2 caused by that ad boosting consumption?
  • Jan 25 2012: I was very encouraged to find this site. I wanted to thank you for this special read. I definitely savored every little bit of it.

    Heathrow cabs
  • Jan 25 2012: I would like to comment on what I see as the difference between "advertising" and "marketing", as well as the difference between "customers" and "consumers".

    In my view, advertising is when a company puts out information into the public domain about its products or services, so that if someone out there has need of that product they know where to acquire it; i.e.. to whom they can give their custom. However, I believe that this quaint notion has been slowly but inexorably overturned to be replaced by the new wave of "marketing", whose aim is to put messages into the public domain that try to convince us that we have a NEED for a company's product. Sometimes such messages will even go as far as to imply that our self esteem or social status depends critically on having this product, and sometimes even that it must be THIS YEAR'S model of the product! The aim of these messages, of course, is merely to encourage consumption; the products no longer to exist to serve the customer, but the consumer exists to serve the product producer - by endless consumption.

    Not only is this situation not good for the environment - from the depletion of raw materials to produce products that are either entirely unnecessary or designed to be shortly thrown away and replaced - but it's not good for us either because, if we are susceptible to these marketing messages, we are pressured into a constant state of feeling incomplete.

    I believe marketing consultants have a responsibility to redress this situation, and to use their own skills of persuasion back on their own clients - i.e. the product producers - to create a market reality where there is a healthier, more genuine, and more sustainable balance between what is being produced and what we really need in daily life. Let's start by remembering that our role in life is NOT just to consume!
  • Jan 25 2012: i gotta rant one more time -- the fast food industry is at fault for taking cheap sugar cause we elected morons who created a corn surplus and then had to hide that in the belly fat of the people who voted for the morons and we still won't vote out the morons and they won't change it cause iowa makes the king? You should all be more concerned with the new german state while europe crumbles: efficient, state/corp partnership, will own the eu and will be pissed when they don't get paid back. The only question when the tanks start rolling is will we stop them again or is our state/corp partnerships so strong we will just put up red light cameras and send them fines. laura stop that red light scam, when the hell did we become sources of profit, not citizens who paid for the politicians third wife's pension. That may be a bt product of advertising, maybe...yes laura, stop that one scam and the morass below will anoint you their leader. then run.
  • Jan 25 2012: hold back the anger at the poor woman for asking an honest question and maybe give her some credit cause she may be trying to figure out how to do make ads better. couldn't even get thru half the nonsensical responses. dove soap didn't clean those birds so bad example. good example: sistine chapel. or the drawings of a starving tribal leader reminding his folks that they can go hunt, like you all should give this woman respect. That ads cause such quick and obvious phony anger is the signal of what is coming. Total penetration of every inch of everything and the weak minded will point that out as bad while they complain about the push notification of a half of sub as they are walking in to redeem the offer.

    We’ve created a platform (a passive social credit awards service...In other words, SMRC passively observes, generates and manages real value (credit) for EVERY Tweet, blog post, SMS, shared video-bookmark-link, comment, etc., that funds the most socially worthy charities (i.e. efficient, right-focus) in your name (or trade the credit points), while never exposing the identity of any member - GUARANTEED.

    what the f$%ck is this? passive charities? worse than religious wars -- we need carlin, or maybe we can let this woman try to make a sistine chapel. just for the keeping artists employed advertising is one of the most important industries out there, hell without it vonnegut would have been a dentist. godamn i just read someone said advertising is immoral? where the hell am i? the declaration of indy was a goddamn ad. so is the bible. only kings can make the distinction between art and commerce and their ad was the divine right of themselves. informative ads are impossible because of the audience, not the ads. if these are the responses here of all places? -- Laura, just rook em into buying something they don't need. they deserve it. and make sure it is crap so they can see everyday the broken down pieces of thees broke ass ideas
  • Jan 25 2012: How about we look at this from a little bit of a different angle? In addition to advertisements being a force to drive good will and charity, what if the market research itself could help promote positive social change? In today's world, social media is as big of a boom as television and radio was 40 years ago. Social media provides an avenue for any topic to be discussed, but at the same time it provides us with a chance to assign value and record the social-emotional sphere of this generation. Never in the past have we had an opportunities like we do today, and they are vastly untapped. If we could tap this resource, wouldn't the possibilities for good be endless?
    I am aware of a company, a start up, that looks to harness the value of the topics that people are passionate about, and assign a legitimate, monetary value to said topics, and donate that to charity. This works by having people, like yourselves, volunteer your social media accounts to be passively observed by the service, and for every bit of feedback you produce on anything, it donates 80% of the market worth to 5 charities that you have hand picked, IN YOUR NAME, allowing you to change the world in the way that you see fit. On top of the donation, the user also receives equal donation credits, exchangeable with for profits, additional tax credits, and/or rewards. On average, according to this system, people generate about $0.60/day to their charities, which is 219 dollars per year, so if 1 million people signed up, it would generate 219 million dollars a year towards human advancement.
    With this, no longer would people see advertisements as a nuisance, but they would see them as an opportunity, wouldn't you say? Also, since cause marketing has a 2010 Cone Cause Evolution Study bench marked increase in sales, we can create a society that not only prospers charitably but fiscally. The name of the company is Social Market Research for Charity.
  • Jan 25 2012: Furthermore, we will be nothing like the famous football player used in the ad.
  • Jan 25 2012: Modern western advertising is based on the lie that we are not presently as happy as we could be if we bought your product, and that we need it to be better people. So to answer the questio, no advertising cannot be both a force for commerce and a force for good. And to the person who started this debate, as an educated person how can you seriously think that it could be?
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    Jan 25 2012: Last year I went to Havana for the first time. I walked the city for 6 days, every day 6-8 hours. I never got tired. I wondered why...when I realized - there are NO ADS! Never before I had walked around in a capital, a major city in an ongoing state of PEACE OF MIND.
    So really: Product information IS very important! But not to be found in ads which are paid for by the producer. Not in this (capitalistic, based on consume) system. There is no way to satisfy the producer as much as the consumer. One side is bound to "loose" and it will always be the consumer being told what he needs.
    Advertisement is based on building up needs. No needs - no consume - no system as we know it. Without being told all day by ads what we need combined with the end of artificially raising fear we'd quickly realize how little it is we really require to lead a satisfied and rather happy life.
    This can not be done by ...what..."green ads"? True information has to be disconnected from any monetary interests.
    • Jan 25 2012: Advertisements themselves have not been at fault for dehumanizing advertising campaigns that have been at fault but for the corporations themselves to air these advertisement to represent their companies.Corporate social responsibility is a growing trend and is a source of strength for many of them. Supporting companies that air commercials that are socially responsible is our best way to show companies that this is the way to compete in a world where we have values.
  • Jan 25 2012: I think that advertising has a lot of potential to do a lot of good. Speaking as a young woman who has come of age in the digital age, advertisements have always been present in my life, so I feel like perhaps my generation doesn't notice them as much as older people may. I have also seen many of my girlfriends feel that they are inferior due to the beautiful women they see in advertisements who don't look anything like them, and I think that this is a good example of where advertising can do good. If we can put more ads out there with more realistic looking women, like the Dove "Real Beauty" campaign, it can help more women and girls feel better about themselves, I believe.

    Obviously, advertising is a business that is almost completely centered around the client's needs and wants, so if the client is paying to use an image of a woman that has been photoshopped down to nothing, then that's what they're going to get. I think that advertisers could take the initiative to suggest using more realistic images and back it up by showing how women may respond more positively to such images. But, as others have said, part of the responsibility lies with the companies themselves to do things like using more diverse people in their advertisements or to create products that are more environmentally friendly.

    Also, like others have said, if a product is bad, it will not sell, and it is also illegal to be disingenuous in advertisements. While not everyone will follow these laws, if you see a company doing so, you can report it to the Better Business Bureau or, as someone else said, find their social media pages and voice your opinion. Most companies these days will do whatever they can to correct mistakes in order to save face. Finally, while I agree that advertisements can be disruptive when watching TV or watching videos on the internet, without them, the programming wouldn't cost as little as it does or be free (i.e. Youtube). Same thing goes with radio.
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    Jan 25 2012: Conflict of interest is a big deal and affects everyone. I am sure you have good intentions and truly want the best for people. I am also certain that you are incapable of objectively judging the pros and cons of advertising, given your source of income.

    Advertising that is truly respectful should give viewers full control to avoid the ad if they prefer, should reveal conflicts of interest explicitly, and not include any information or images that are completely unrelated to the idea or item being advertised.

    For example, I would like to see a world in which the only ads that have music are ads for music or very closely related things. A food ad that includes music is inherently about eliciting emotions to bias the viewer. I know that a decent amount of clever music has been composed for ads, but still (and I'm a musician even)... But this is the ideal, and reality isn't going to get to this. The more we stop explicit ads, the more they'll just be interwoven in product placement and such... But that's why we need explicit markers of conflict of interest. I'd like to see a little symbol over the screen in every movie or TV show or internet video that reveals when the use of a product or idea was a paid placement.

    As to being informative, that's fine if it really only goes as far as informing people. I generally hate ads, but I have actually appreciated learning about certain products when the ad is literally a focused description of a great product.
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    Jan 25 2012: Interesting, after reading many of the comments I suppose I hadn't realized the deep undertones of mistrust and sometimes disgust of advertising. Part of me wonders if the skepticism relayed here is in large part due to the audience. This IS TED after all and I for one watch the lectures to learn and be challenged - would the responses be the same from other groups?

    There are advertisers who prey on a demographic. Someone earlier mentioned advertised gambling sites during working hours as to target the unemployed or late night with loan companies. The fast food industry's complete unwillingness to take accountability in their contribution to the obesity epidemic is another vulture. I think it's however unfair to group all advertising here. Some people are simply selling services and they like having food and homes too. Many of our own jobs and incomes depend on the ability to sell a product or service. There's really nothing malicious involved. I'm not going to take companies at their word but neither am I going to completely dismiss what they have to say out of hand. The internet I think has really helped in consumer education because if I'm in the market for something I'll check out different brands, read consumer reports and check customer reviews.

    However, there is a gigantic problem with over saturation. You can't go anywhere or do hardly anything without being bombarded with advertisements.

    For me, I think what would be nice about advertisements is an effort to educate and not just sell. If Mac is going to sell me their sleekest flattest newest coolest device, don't just try to awe and wow me; tell me who would get the most from the machine. Why is a terabyte better than a gigabyte? Why are they better for home security than PCs? What's an SD card slot and why do I care?

    If I'm going to be smothered in ads all day at least give me something in return for my time.
  • Jan 24 2012: This is a really interesting thread. I'm an ad student currently embarking on an undergraduate dissertation, exploring how marketing can be utilised to encourage sustainable lifestyles. I've completed a wealth of reading on the subject and many people would agree with the notion that 'advertising is evil'. It is, at the end of the day, used as a tool to create false wants and needs. The design stage of many products is as equally at fault as the marketing that manipulates people into thinking they need it. Take printers and printer ink for example; products that are designed for the dump. People are forced into unnecessary consumption. Companies need to overhaul their business models and incorporate the planet alongside their profit.

    Advertising plays with the emotions. Advertisers can deploy the same tactics that persuaded someone to buy that pair of jeans , to help making society a little greener. Advertisers helped rebrand failing companies. I believe it can do the same for the planet.
    If anyone has anything interesting to help me with my research, feel free to send it my way.
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      Jan 25 2012: Thanks for posting, Liam. I'm always interested in hearing from students. Two things come to mind that I'd like to share with you. I posted a video as a companion to this TED Conversation:
      In the video I talk about an assignment given when I was a student. Our professor asked "Is advertising a force for good?" and I was the only student that answered yes. I'd be curious to know how a current class of undergraduates might answer the same question.

      Another thing I'll share with you is some recent research about public opinions on corporate responsibility:
      It's an interesting look at how the Millennial generation feels about the obligation of companies to give back to society.
  • Jan 24 2012: As a consumer, I have to say I am often annoyed by advertising and will avoid it if I can. I also used to work for SHR Perceptual Management though, so I understand the commitment to clients to help their business grow. I've come to the conclusion that advertising that is ENTERTAINING as well as informative is what makes the best combination. An entertaining (or thought-provoking) ad definitely adjusts my attitude about watching it, but they're so few and far between. Consider how many people anticipate the Super Bowl commercials... I believe this is because with so much money being spent on the ad spot, agencies put their best people on the project and they come up with more-brilliant-than-usual ads. I don't think anyone minds watching a commercial that causes them to call their friends afterwards and say, "Hey, did you see that ad? You have to go find it on YouTube!" People couldn't wait to see the next Mac vs. PC ad (the campaign with Justin Long and John Hodgman) because they were funny, and they were spot-on for the brand so they accomplished all the goals an ad should. That's what makes them memorable. Not all commercials can say that... I often bring up advertising in conversations where I can remember the scenario of the ad, but I can't remember the product. That ad is a failure because it only accomplished one of its two goals. There are also commercials (Old Navy comes to mind) where I remember the brand clearly, but only because the scenario of the ad was so over-the-top annoying that it marked the brand in my head as something that I never want to support. I know finding the perfect mix is tough - you can't please all the people all the time - but I feel many agencies/clients don't even bother doing the psychological research of visual positioning to make sure the emotions their ad will invoke in the target market are good ones. I'm not even touching the subject of advertising things that do not promote well-being... I'm out of room anyway. :)
  • Jan 24 2012: I read many of the comments and did not see anyone raise this point and apologize if I am reiterating the stance someone has already taken.

    To advertise you need a product, service or cause in which to share. If that item is not inherently "good" (which has not been defined through this debate) then you are limited in the messaging you can share about that item. I define "good" as something that without motive will raise the standard of living. I know this is a very broad definition but "good is a very broad word.

    Time to take a stance - advertising can be good for commerce and improve the betterment of the world as long as the product, service or cause you are advertising is intent to do the same. If you are trying to advertise a product that pollutes the environment, has major health risks and costs more well.... that's why spin marketing was created to engage but deflect from the flaws of the product.

    I think this is a great topic to debate but in my opinion the egg definitely comes before the chicken and the chicken can only be as good as the egg.
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      Jan 25 2012: You raise an interesting point - what is the definition of "good"? Many of the comments on this thread point to cause marketing as examples of advertising as a force for good. I think we can broaden that if we take it to a more personal level and think about things are sources of "good" in our own lives. For me, "good" can be range from something that makes me laugh to something that teaches me to something that inspires me to think differently. By those standards, there is a lot of potential for advertising to "grow the good", whether that be measured by societal change, or the spreading of new ideas or simply by good humor and laughter.
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    Jan 24 2012: Of course it can. But, of course, it isn't always.

    Advertising is nothing more than a highly public form of persuasion, one that has the unusual characteristic of being public because the advertiser BUYS the public forum.

    Advertising is almost always a force for commerce, because it's usually commercial entities that can afford to pay for it, and the equation is simple: if the advertising generates more money than it costs, you get to do it again.

    It's a force for good when the persuasion leads to a good change in the world. This is almost always a function of what is getting advertised, and less a function of the fact that advertising was the force behind it.
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    Jan 24 2012: I studied Marketing at the FLA Daytona Beach Jr Collage in 1995 August 20th for about 1 week and then I realized ..."this is not California" I can go where ever I want, just like Christopher Columbus and our founding fathers. But the Alcatraz-Sales-Pitch stuck with me like fresh plate of chines dog chow main , the humor is not to complain but to MARKET the invisible yet post-eternal flame. the Mojo Risin that is more than a game, let's play--- vegetarian? and CALCULATE THE NORMATIVE VALUES of space. demonstrate thet THE THREADS won't complain but the fabric ='$ true fame, the landscape that thought trains, the presence of hero's eXchanged Y brands are the dual way, why CEO's psychoPaths intentially are paved.

    You cannot "push a thread" you can only pull it, Captain Haywire definately knows it; now how about a treat? oh wait wait, it's self serve ;) ö (; you will forget this conversation ever happened, you will FORGET! (go get em Franky) mmm good.
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    Jan 24 2012: The revolution in data-driven solutions is really helping change the mechanics of advertising in positive ways. We are also seeing, however, the counter pressure of commercial interests. While Amazon and web-based ad companies are using data about me to target ads, the flip side is the "sponsored" placements from Facebook, et al that overrides the personalized stream. I am skeptical that a purely personalized ad mechanic will survive the pressure to generate demand from corporations for new products (without a clear tie-in to existing customer interests) or perhaps less wholesome products, that users may select against when asked, but buy in moments of weakness like junk-foods. To the extent that established linkage algorithms can be overridden at all, its likely to take large amounts of spending, placement and repetition that will suppress small innovators in favor of large firms with ad budgets. The tension between these two forces will always limit the utility of paid advertising to the mass market. There is no "sweet spot" between them.
  • Jan 24 2012: A simple answer: It provides targeted advertising that I am likely to find useful, and the amount of spam is minimal.
    I personally do not think it is within the advertising's company's power to be a force for good - that lies within the consumers. It is up to them to learn that advertising is a tool businesses use to maximize chances of success, and as such cannot be fully trusted. Ads can only be as smart as their audience.
  • Jan 24 2012: Part of the focus must be with whom the marketing/advertising firm does business. This relationship is vital in revealing how the consumer ultimately interprets the authenticity of the claims. If the trust for the company/entity is not strong or in existence at all, by extention, the 'peddler' of its message will be negatively linked. Misinformation has permeated the world of marketing since it's inception, and consumers are, in my view, becoming less malleable to the whims of marketing manipulation. I've recently removed TV from my life (as best I can) so for that medium, I can not fairly give examples of advertisers serving this duality. I did appreciate the campaign that Dove put out some time ago with regards to healthy body image for women called Pro-Age. you tube DOT com/watch?v=vilUhBhNnQc
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      Jan 25 2012: I believe the stigma of "advertising as misinformation" is lessening over time - and credit goes to consumers who, as you say, are "less malleable to manipulation". Technology gives individual consumers more power and stronger voice, which they are using to demand greater authenticity from advertisers. That's a great trend and one that I hope will continue.
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    Jan 24 2012: Not all advertising is good, and not all is bad.

    Just like anything else in business, and in life, the objective of a marketer should be to strike a balance between the primary objective of a business, be it maximizing profits, sales, market share, etc., and the social responsibilities of a firm.

    I believe clients can do a better job of marketing their Corporate Social Initiatives (CSRs) by involving advertisers early in the process. A good way to do that would be to brainstorm on CSR initiatives based on clients' existing product/service portfolio, or working with product strategy teams at an early stage, and embedding the need to highlight the social benefits of their offering in most or all of the products.

    To make a business case for such change, it's important to highlight the mutual short and long term benefits of the efforts, and get buy in from all the stake holders.

    Eventually, the success of such efforts depends on how people across different levels of management perceive the need and the value of bringing positive change in the society through their products.
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      Jan 24 2012: We had a fascinating and at times heated exchange here at TED Conversations on what, if anything, advertisers "owe" the public .It was hosted by very prominent advertising exec, Charles Porter, right after his award winning company did a very controversial spot for new client, Groupon.. one of those much watched Super Bowl ads. ( That ad made fun of many popular enviornmental and animal rights causes and the people who support them)

      It's a great read for anyone joining the further discussion and consideration here and was joined by at least one other prominent advertising exec.

      My recollection is that the general conclusion there was that although advertisers have a first obligation to their the return their clients get from their investment good will, good taste and good causes also bring benefit to clients. while not "owed", often effective.Included an excellent visit with the issue Kathy raises below about the purpose of advertising being to persuade,that is, to manipulate us and how that leads to distrust in both the products&messages as well as the creators of the ad.

      My uncle was creative director of a very distinguished international advertising agency in London in the 60's &70's, CPV International. He always went for a memorably fun, witty and uplifting approach ( I loved seeing big double decker buses roll by with his work the whole length) or a powerful aesthetic..superb photography at the level of high art..He often had to talk a new cleint into going with these positive and welcome public images but they were always glad when they accepted his suggestions for the campaign design and approach...

      My personal current favorites are the E-Trade Baby ads; the talking Gecko for Geico' and the Progressive insurance lady. They are full of humanity annd humor and truly fun to watch but also communicate very effectively what the product is offering.
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      Jan 25 2012: Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Vamsi. Here is an article you might be interested in. It echoes your sentiments about CSR and has some interesting stats about how the younger generation views it as a mandate, not a "nice to have". It makes me hopeful that advertising as a force for good is an achievable goal.
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    Jan 24 2012: I absolutely adore advertising, because for me, it is first of all an expression of creativity. And of course it is used in both good and bad ways - you have drinkaware campaigns to educate people, and campaigns promoting random crap you don't need. However, it's not about the advertising - I mean, I love a well-done campaign, even if it's for something I stand against. It's about making the right choices as a society. I mean, COME ON!, we know better than to buy stuff we don't need, most of us can see through advertising and realise that we're not bound to agree with it nor listen to it. And if you consciously make the choice to not be influenced by external stimulators.
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    Jan 24 2012: Advertising is interruptive by nature. A person is enjoying a piece of content (tv, print, web) and an ad comes up that disrupts their flow and takes them off focus. With DVRs penetrating at a very high percentage (something like 70%) people are skipping ads, so the model is starting to break. But love it or hate it, advertising is here to stay. And truth be told, we need some sort of advertising - consumers want to learn and they want to know what is new and different. So now brands have to be more clever and offer content that is both advertising and entertaining. I like what Activision did with the new Call of Duty ads. They had 30 second spots on TV but a handful of 90 second spots on the web - and they had serious star power. It was fun and entertaining and it helped them become the largest entertainment title in history.

    Just some thoughts
    • Jan 24 2012: Your thoughts are very aligned to my own. Advertising companies need to recognize that they are interrupting something that we are enjoying. I've never seen someone turn on their television or read a magazine for the express purpose of watching advertisements and looking at ads.

      "So now brands have to be more clever and offer content that is both advertising and entertaining." Exactly. I've grown accustomed to changing the channel or muting the television when commercials come on except if I find the beginning of the first commercial either visually exciting or funny. And as soon as another commercial comes on, I will change the channel.

      I personally didn't care for the Call of Duty ads mainly because I really don't like Jonah Hill, but my eyes were still glued to the screen the first time I viewed it because it was so visually exciting and entertaining. If advertisers want to be a force for good and they don't have an easy out like Dove(cleaning up our environment), or Greenpeace(self explanatory), they need to make people smile and laugh. Is it not admirable to make someone happy?
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      Jan 25 2012: Not only do we need to evolve the time & place of advertising, but we need to re-imagine the purpose of advertising. You're right - nobody wants to be interrupted, but people do want to be informed, entertained and inspired. I believe advertising at its best can answer to a higher purpose. Those of us in the advertising industry need to refuse to settle for the status quo.
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        Jan 25 2012: exactly....the challenge is that the ad agencies are stuck in the status quo while the consumer has moved on to newer things. they are much more savvy and expect more. the funny thing is that all of the people who work in the ad agencies are consumers - don't they see that!
  • Jan 24 2012: I recommend this report on the insidious nature of advertising in its impacts on our very culture - and the knock on effects of this, particularly on the environment, but also on our human relationships and social fabric:

    "Think Of Me As Evil? presents evidence that advertising may increase overall consumption; that it could promote and normalise a range of behaviours, attitudes and values, many of which are socially and environmentally damaging; that it manipulates individuals on a subconscious level, both children and adults; and that it is so pervasive in modern society as to make the choice of opting-out from exposure virtually impossible.

    The report calls on the advertising industry and its clients to take responsibility for demonstrating that the impacts of commercial advertising are benign, and to support precautionary measures until such time as this is demonstrated. It also calls upon civil society organisations to pay much greater attention to commercial advertising and its possible impacts in frustrating delivery on a wide range of social and environmental outcomes."
    It can be found here:
  • Jan 24 2012: I think bunches of the copywriters and companies that make deceitful ads must not make people fall for their shallow tricks in the ads. For loyalty to their customers and for their own good ultimately.
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    Jan 23 2012: I doubt we are in a position to really answer your question of "what
    advertisers are doing the best job of serving this dual role in a genuine

    The ones who really know the answer to that question are the actual
    companies whose product is being promoted, don't you think?

    Some ads will continue to be deceiving. It is up to consumer to determine
    if he wishes to believe their promises or not.

    Still, "You can fool some of the people, some of the time,
    You can fool some of the people, all of the time
    But you cannot fool all of the people, all of the time"

    I think one of the best ads I have seen in my life, which touched my very being, was when I was a small child watching an Indian come up to a river, and seeing it contaminated, then a tear rolling down his cheek. I have always loathed pollution of any kind, and have been very aware of not leaving trash anywhere. Can the same thing be said for large companies polluting the earth today? What effect did such a wonderful ad have on the world?

    I think alot of us have seen too many people fooled by false advertising to think good advertising can ever exist. I am also suspicious of the motivation behind the good intentions of some advertisers.

    "A good ad should be like a good sermon:
    It must not only comfort the afflicted, it also must afflict the comfortable."
    -Bernice Fitz-Gibbon
  • Jan 21 2012: "Can advertising be both a force for commerce AND a force for good?"

    Sure it can. Just not at the same time. It is companies that need to be more honest, more fair, more informative. They pay the advertising companies. They direct the course of the ad. They make decisions about how misrepresentative their advertisements will be in order to sell the product.

    My evidence? Advertising companies can make, and have made, brilliant, exciting advertisements that are honest, informative and very persuasive in encouraging people to do good, to contribute more, to live better and be more responsible. Those ads are always public service announcements, ads for charities, etc. They are never for corporations with a product to sell. The ad companies can be a force for good. They just tend to be when they are not making any money out of it.
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    Jan 20 2012: I read a very interesting article in HBR back in Jan 2011 " Creating Shared Value" talking about how companies must take the lead in bringing Society back together, and the solution lies in the principal of shared value which involve creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society. (Shared value is not to be confused with CSR, as it is not in the Margin of the companies success but rather at the center).
    To go straight into the point, Capitalism is getting redefined, it is evolving and the market's invisible hand is shaping it, those corporations who resist this change are going to be left behind.
    Creating Shared value lies in one or more of the below points: 1) Re conceiving products and markets, 2) redefining productivity in the value chain 3) and building supportive industry clusters at the company's locations.
    Now as Communications agencies host a number of different clients from different industries in which no 2 brands in its portfolio compete with one another. Comm Agencies could find areas of intersection between its various clients, which allows these clients to share a shared value economically and with the societies. any thing that serves one of the above 3 pillars. It could serve anything: Efficiency on distribution (when brands and companies merge their distrbution channels), Employees skills, Employees health, work together to decrease environmental impact...etc
    Build department in an Agency that goes beyond Just CSR, but be the initiator of finding solutions that concerns all its clients, and see how cross clients from several industries could contemplate to solve a bigger cause.
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    Jan 19 2012: We are talking marketing. As in politics the essential is name recognition. The product / cause must be presented in such a manner to be recalled and discussed as the final goal is word of mouth. Each blitz must have a target population. That will determine the presentation format. The most expensive and most talked about are the super bowl ads. Timing is everything. After 911 Budwiser had an ad that showed the Bud horses going to one knee outside of the NY skyline. That combined the product, national pride, and unity. The company came off as being respectful, sincere, and American. That appeal was to all age groups and demographics. A real kudos to the agency.

    The latest ad that promotes goodwill and humor is the ads featuring Santa as a car salesman when a customer remarks that he is a big hunter and the Santa asks what he hunts and the customer says deer and looks up to see Santa and sheepishly changes his answer to fish. That made the word of mouth circle.

    So yes ads can breach both worlds. You, better than most, know how much work goes into 30 seconds of air time. As an instructor I pose to students the following problem. Your at a convention and get on an elevator another rider asks what you do and who you represent. Gain his interest in your product in the next 30 seconds to the extent he wants to hear more. I supply the product and company they must use.

    Good luck ..... Bob
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    Jan 19 2012: Your original post brought to mind Amy Lockwood's TED Talk, in which she discusses how condoms are advertised and sold in the Congo, and how the government/big brand sponsored programs have a worse time distributing free condoms compared to generic condom brands, who see profits. It's an interesting video that touches on taboo, culture, and the ways that organizations can adjust their advertisements to help their consumers. Check it out!
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      Jan 24 2012: Thanks for sharing. Understanding your audience is rule #1 for advertising, and I find it especially interesting in this context. It’s a good reminder for advertisers whose ambition is to do good, that they must remember to desires of the audience whom they want to do good for.
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    Jan 18 2012: advertising is not stupid or insulting at peoples intelligence at all. we can learn important things by ads. people love stories, we define our life, our relationships, our personality by stories experienced and changed sometimes in our memory. stories are way more important than arguments or discussions. people are motivated by emotions and construct their selve and the world around them, make sense of life with stories.
    So if we have an important issue, if we want to change the world, we should talk more in stories to motivate people, using the principles that work on people and that marketing agencies working for the corporate world discovered.
    concerning corporations: i think its no bad thing that they want to position them positively by associating them with green technology, charity etc. in our social era with social networks everywhere we can create pressure on companies by detecting nuisances and demand green, fair products. if they advertise with these qualities, we can make a background check if its really true what their aiming by using social networks. we can also promote green companies by ourselve, eg. user-made ads for green, fair companies and by that creating a pressure on them and their competitors to reach these expectations. the goal would be to create this pressure by user made ads and campaigns, and create a global social network so that a company not being green and fair is not acceptable anymore on the market.
    creating stories about making the world better instead of stories how to be more cool and sexy. changing the world is sexy.
  • Jan 18 2012: As long as business is driven by its obsession with short-term profits, the role of advertising and marketing will remain suspect.

    The reason is simple – we pit everything against our short-term profit objective, favouring it in most circumstances because, this is what we are measured against.

    As a consequence, we chase the “fast buck," taking a short-term, myopic view of the environment, suppliers, staff, wider community and even customers. It’s an imbalanced approach which is unsustainable.

    Only when business realises that sustained, long-term profitability is achieved through adopting a value creation perspective, which at its heart acknowledges that long-term sustained profit is only achieved through adopting mutually beneficial relationships in all its dealings. This is pretty self-evident - you cannot destroy or exploit what will sustain you over the long haul.

    The only problem with adopting a value creation approach is that we don’t have a universally accepted measurement standard by which to gauge and compare performance across all business sectors. This should be business’s number one priority, not just in rectifying the current financial crisis but as being the next important developmental phase in business management and measurement.
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      Jan 18 2012: There was a great article recently in the Harvard Business Review titled “How Great Companies Think Differently”. The author’s point-of-view was that great companies create goals that benefit society as well as their own financial position. In order to achieve those goals, companies must be willing to sacrifice immediate returns in exchange for long-term benefits - often a difficult, but worthy action.
      • Jan 18 2012: It makes little difference what individual companies do to address the imbalances of a purely financial perspective. We need a paradigm shift in our measurement standard towards a more balanced and inclusive measurement standard. A standard which foster long-term sustained profit creation, and one we can all be measured against. As long as our short-term financial perspective prevails, suspicion of sales and marketing objectives will remain. “Are marketers simply attempting to move product just to meet short-term objectives, and will I become a victim.” As you said, the advertising industry has certainly played an eminent role in fostering this impression, because that has been the objective of many businesses in the past – make a “fast buck” because that’s how we are measured. Until we change this culture through a more balanced and inclusive measurement standard, some businesses will continue to try and make a “fast buck” and in the process hoodwink the public.

        Our Accounting Model, with which we measure business performance, creates an adversarial “either or” situation, forcing us to make decisions either in favour of short-term profit or some other activity. Short-term profit wins most times because that’s how the business world judges us. This is unsustainable nonsense!
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    V Raj

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    Jan 18 2012: There was a blind man sitting on the steps of a building with a hat by his feet and a sign that read: "I am blind, please help".

    A Publicist was walking by him and stopped to observe he only had a few coins in his hat, he dropped a few more coins in his hat and without asking for his permission took the sign, turned it around, and wrote another announcement. He placed the sign by his feet and left.

    That afternoon the publicist returned by the blind man and noticed that his hat was full of bills and coins. The blind man recognized his footsteps and asked if it was him who had re written his sign and he wanted to know what did he write on it? The publicist responded: "Nothing that was not true, I just rewrote your sign differently".

    He smiled and went on his way. The blind man never knew but his new sign read: "TODAY IS SPRING AND I CANNOT SEE IT".

    Like many other modes of communication, advertising today is used mainly to sell something worth a Dollar for Five or Maybe Ten. And in true parlance if one really analyzes the present day advertising, one will feel nothing but CHEATED and INSULTED. Yet one must forget that an Old Hindi Adage 'JO DIKHTA HAI WOH BIKTA HAI' which would loosely mean 'Something That's Seen - Sells'

    We have the ability to use whatever means possible to attain what we wish to achieve!

    Advertising Is no different and though it may appear as if it is being used mainly to belittle & mock our intelligence at most times.

    It may also appear that making Profits and doing less for the betterment seems to be the norm of the day but one must not overlook the fact that ADVERTISING is nothing but another media tool – way of reaching out to a larger population and the very same tool would be doing good or bad depending on the side of the fence we are at looking at it from!

    It's Just The Perspective... :-)
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      Jan 18 2012: As in Simon’s comment above, you bring to light a good point. Advertising, like anything else, is a tool. It’s up to those that wield the tool to determine whether it creates positivity or negativity in the world.

      I viewed another TED Talk recently by Nate Garvis called “Change Our Culture, Change Our World”:

      Nate talks about how tools can be designed to change our values. For example, we can make our world a greener place if we design “green” as something that is fashionable. The same theory can be applied to advertising. If we design advertising to be a force for good as well as commerce, we can change how our culture values advertising.
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    Jan 18 2012: I think Seth Godin said it best when he stated that "The idea that spreads wins."

    There are many non-profit organizations that utilize all forms of media to promote healthy living (such as the American Cancer Society campaign of "More birthdays"). Advertising, like any other form of media, is simply a tool...that tool can be wielded for good or for commerce (or both). I enjoy supporting companies that are supportive of great causes and aren't afraid to show it in a respectful, sincere manner.
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      Jan 18 2012: “More birthdays” is a fantastic campaign – and most certainly a force for good. While non-profit organizations are generally not in the business of being a force for commerce, I do believe for-profit companies can learn a lot by examining the approaches of successful cause-marketers.
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        Jan 18 2012: Agreed! And I think non-profits can learn more from for-profit companies on how to take advantage of new technologies, trends, and branding.
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    Jan 17 2012: I personally believe that advertising is a powerful tool of post-modern era to promote economic growth in an industry. In my personal experience I think Procter & Gamble is a worthy representatives to implement the good practices of advertising. In Mexico, the communications industry employs 1.55 million people, so I Think is for good.
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    Jan 17 2012: I personally believe that advertising is a powerful tool of post-modern era to promote economic growth in an industry. In my personal experience I think Procter & Gamble is a worthy representatives to implement the good practices of advertising. In Mexico, the communications industry employs 1.55 million people, so I Think is for good.
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      Jan 18 2012: My company, Starcom MediaVest Group, has had the privilege to partner with P&G for several decades. I too think P&G is a great example of a marketer who pushes the envelope in being both a force for good and a force for commerce.
      I also like your point on employment – but of course, one can say this of most large industries. As someone who has been employed in the advertising industry for more than 20 years, I’m grateful for all the doors that have been opened to me and for all of the genuinely big-hearted people that I’ve worked with.
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    Jan 14 2012: Commerce and good are not necessarily two different things.
    Good is lost when advertising uses deception to influence consumer's buying decisions.
    Johnson and Johnson seems to value truth in advertising their products. Their ads tell about the product and the company in a clear, factual way, free of fantastic promises and not-so-gentle persuasion.
    QUOTE: "We grew up founding our dreams on the infinite promise of American advertising. I still believe that one can learn to play the piano by mail and that mud will give you a perfect complexion." (Zelda Fitzgerald)
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      Jan 16 2012: That’s a great point of view. Commerce and good can be one and the same, and many times it starts with Brands that value truth in all aspects of their business – from their company culture to their marketing.
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    Jan 14 2012: To tell you the truth I can't think of any advertisers that are serving both roles in a genuine way. Is there something I'm not seeing?
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      Jan 18 2012: Hi Austin. I’ve just posted a video on this topic via Ted’s youtube channel:
      In the video, I talk about a couple recent campaigns – Secret’s “Mean Stinks” and Coca-Cola’s “Arctic White-out” – that I think do a good job of blending “good” and commerce. I’d love for you to check out the video and then let me know your thoughts.
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        Jan 18 2012: I like the examples you give. Tell you the truth, I had never seen an ad of the "Arctic White-out" campaign or any of the "Mean Stinks". I may have grown very cynical of advertising. I usually chose to ignore it. However, if I think about it, recent anti-smoking ads in magazines and on TV have had a huge impact on the perception of smoking, informing the potential and current smokers of its dangers. That would be an example of advertising as a force for good.
  • Jan 13 2012: Yes. Where there is a will, there is a way.