Creative Review cover, February 2007.
The current issue of Creative Review is "guest edited" by hip British advertising agency Mother. As is the way with "guest editors," Mother hasn't actually edited the magazine; instead, they've commandeered the cover, 29 pages in the center of the publication and a pile of inserts, to make an idiosyncratic examination of the ethics and morality of advertising. It's what you might call a sort of editorial intervention.
Mother approaches the subject with a knowing wink. As they note in their introduction: "Does the presence of money diminish our creativity? The Sistine Chapel was a commissioned work. Was Michelangelo less of an artist for taking the Vatican's money? Some would argue painting the Pope into a fresco is more noble then putting a Ford in your Bond movie. Some wouldn't. We're not here to decide. After all, 'We sold our soul and it feels great.'" Subscribers to Creative Review received advance warning of Mother's approach; the magazine was mailed in a brown envelope containing the crudely handwritten legend: your mother is a whore.
Introductory spread, Creative Review, February 2007.
Mother paid Creative Review's publishers £15,000 (about $29,500 by today's exchange rate) for the privilege of "editing" the February edition of the magazine. In his editorial, Creative Review editor Patrick Burgoyne explains Mother's involvement: "The content was arrived at after a series of meetings between ourselves and Mother and was developed in collaboration between us, with Creative Review retaining final editorial control. The theme, suggested by Mother, is I Sold My Soul And I Love It a vastly contradictory statement, but one that invites debate over what it means to work in visual communication."
Mother can't be accused of using their editorial real estate for self-aggrandizement. They make no mention of their clients; they don't show their work; they don't list their awards; they tell us nothing about themselves. But how successfully do they analyze the question of ethics?
They oscillate between cool art-world detachment and a serious-minded desire to cut to the heart of the matter. Lurid visuals and Barbara Kruger-like sloganeering sit alongside interviews with British philosopher A.C. Grayling and designer Peter Saville, and an article by music writer Barney Hoskins on Tom Waits' famous battle with Frito-Lay. The visuals and sloganeering make the reader think s/he has strayed into a catalogue for a contemporary art show a visual essay by artist Alison Jackson showing British ad guru Trevor Beattie having a "tissue meeting" with a Kim Il Sun look-a-like sets the tone. The texts offer more substance.
Spread with photograph of Peter Saville, Creative Review, February 2007.
A.C. Grayling is a popular philosopher: almost a household name in Britain, he appears on TV and in newspapers. When asked by Mother if it is possible to work in advertising and be an ethical person he takes a pragmatic line: "Given...that any reasonably intelligent human being is going to know that [advertising] is a tendentious message, then advertising is a perfectly straightforward and useful service. So, yes of course it is possible to work in advertising and be an ethical person just as it is possible for the whole advertising industry to be so."
Grayling is asked if designers who work for cultural organizations and charities do more good that designers who work for multinational corporations. The philosopher notes: "This goes back to the long-standing tradition that money equals bad, no money equals good. We've moved beyond that in a way. Even those on the left politically recognize that we have got to create wealth and it is wrong to downgrade those involved in that. It is really a question of individual choices and attitudes. It would be wonderful to work for a small art gallery with all the satisfaction that must bring, even if it brings no money, and you have to admire those who forfeit benefits because they believe in something, but I reject the idea that they have the moral high ground."
It's not often that we get the benefit of a thinker of Grayling's stature commenting on design and advertising. His laissez-faire approach seems to correspond to Mother's cavalier attitude on the question of ethics in advertising, and would doubtless disappoint hardliners and outright anti-capitalists. Both Grayling and Mother seem to acknowledge the fundamental impossibility of developing an unequivocally ethical approach to advertising and design. They seem to be saying that since the two professions are so deeply embedded in the commercial fabric of society, we have no choice but to negotiate a rapprochement. Grayling occasionally sounds like an apologist for advertising: "You've got to recognize the responsibility on the other side," he urges. "The idea that the great unwashed are just a herd who will do whatever Machiavellian advertisers want them to do is nonsense. The reason that the advertising industry needs to be skilful in the way it communicates its message is because the masses are so obdurate, they are resistant to these messages."
For their part, Mother point us to a rather unexpected source: The Vatican. Here, we find an ethical code that wouldn't be out of place in a copy of Adbusters. Under the title "What God Says" appears a list of 10 points which amount to a sort of Pontifical code-of-conduct for advertising. The list, as it appears in Creative Review, is a heavily-edited selection from a lengthy text called Ethics in Advertising.
THE VATICAN: ETHICS IN ADVERTISING
1. ADVERTISERS ARE MORALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR WHAT THEY SEEK TO MOVE PEOPLE TO DO.
2. IT IS MORALLY WRONG TO USE MAINPULATIVE. EXPLOITATIVE, CORRUPT AND CORRUPTING METHODS OF PERSUASION AND MOTIVATION.
3. THE CONTENT OF COMMUNICATION SHOULD BE COMMUNICATED HONESTLY AND PROPERLY.
4. ADVERTISING MAY NOT DELIBERATELY SEEK TO DECIEVE, BY WHAT IT SAYS, WHAT IT IMPLIES OR WHAT IT FAILS TO SAY.
5. ABUSE OF ADVERTISING CAN VIOLATE THE DIGNITY OF THE HUMAN PERSON, APPEALING TO LUST, VANITY, ENVY AND GREED.
6. ADVERTISING TO CHILDREN BY EXPLOITING THEIR CREDULITY AND SUGGESTIBILITY OFFENDS AGAINST THE DIGNITY AND RIGHTS OF BOTH CHILDREN AND PARENTS.
7. ADVERTISING THAT REDUCES HUMAN PROGRESS TO ACQUIRING MATERIAL GOODS AND CULTIVATING A LAVISH LIFESTYLE IS HARMFUL TO INDIVIDUALS AND SOCIETY ALIKE.
8. CLIENTS WHO COMMISSION WORK CAN CREATE POWERFUL INDUCEMENTS TO UNETHICAL BEHAVIOUR.
9. POLITICAL ADVERTISING IS AN APPROPRIATE AREA FOR REGULATION: HOW MUCH MONEY MAT BE SPENT, HOW AND FROM WHOM MONEY MAY BE RAISED.
10. ADVERTISERS SHOULD UNDERTAKE TO REPAIR THE HARM DONE BY ADVERTISING.
Source: Ethics in Advertising, a report by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, 1997.
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