Mad Men and the shaping of industry ethics

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Season 4 of the wildly popular AMC drama Mad Men debuted this week, sending Don Draper wanna-bes and Betty-esque ice princesses into a tizzy across the country. On Sunday, anxious viewers sat at the edge of their couches, remote in hand to see what became of the men and women of the once fabled, now fallen Sterling Cooper office as they launched their own boutique firm.  Moving from their lavish office with a roster of impressive heavyweight clients, the former “big boys” of advertising will now be forced to scramble for new accounts, new digs and a new identity.

I’ll spare you the full-on entertainment review and come to the point.

The theme of this season’s Mad Men is evident: it’s all about identity and appearances. In the aptly titled Season 4 opener “Public Relations,” our Mad Men get a glimpse of how important image is to securing successful business. I’ll venture that AMC knows just how strongly this season will resonate within modern-day advertising and broader industry alike.

Not surprisingly, the image of advertising took a hit with the popularity of Mad Men. The show is everywhere, inspiring clothing lines, themed dinner parties, hairstyles, cocktails, pop culture vernacular – you name it. But with its ubiquitous reach, Mad Men has also instilled a particular image of the ad industry, say, as booze-swigging, philandering males (save one female) who get their big money ideas over cigarettes and scotch and peddle persuasion as the highest art.

Some veteran ad men argue that this was just the state of the industry in the early 1960’s. Regardless, the ill-intentioned undertones remain, giving advertisers a rough go of it when it comes to a squeaky-clean image. It’s a business based in persuasion, but it’s a leap to conclude that persuasion requires deceit; certainly it can be accomplished in a fair, reasonable, dirt-free way. When practiced professionally, it most often is. But there’s no defense of what bad ethical conduct has done to the image of advertising.

According to a 2007 Gallup survey, advertisers ranked among the least trustworthy professionals. That’s right, lawyers and members of Congress scored higher than advertisers on the “trust” list. In the wake of the FTC levying eight-figure fines for deceptive advertising and the unscrupulous image engendered by the profoundly popular Mad Men, ethics has become a front-line issue in advertising.

The gist is this: it’s time for a makeover. A recent AP article announced the creation of a first-of-its-kind Advertising Ethics Institute at the University of Missouri. The goal of the Ethics Institute is to improve the public’s image of advertising, one of the highest spending industries that should fall under the highest level of scrutiny. Similarly discussed is the creation of an ethics code, not unlike the Hippocratic Oath. While Docs vow “to do no harm,” the same AP article explains an advertiser’s ethics code would profess practitioners “provide commercial information that will assist consumers in their purchase decisions in a truthful, fair and cost-effective manner.” Of course, there’s always a wide gap between talking such talk and walking the walk.

As brandchannel.com points out, this superficial “ethics movement” in advertising is similar to what the financial services industry went through in the wake of our recent economic meltdown. It reads the same across the board: in an attempt to save face, whether investors on Wall Street, BP oil execs or Tiger Woods, companies heralded new codes, boards and agencies of ethics to regain the respect and trust of the American people. Is it working?

Watching our beloved Mad Men try to reshape their identities and create positive images for their business, I can’t help but draw a parallel to the problem facing ad agencies and financial firms around the country. Slowly the guys (guise?) of Mad Men are learning that their images and the practice of public relations are essential to selling themselves, selling their company and in turn selling products for clients.

For the Ad Men of 2010, a superficial attempt at creating brands built on false ethics won’t cut it with consumers. Indeed, in the onslaught of modern media messaging consumers are more apt to recognize the lie and demand the truth – or root it out themselves. The Washington Post deems advertising as such: what was once the art of persuasion has become the struggle for engagement with a discerning audience. As a result, our modern-day Mad Men are sure to discover that ethical advertising practices and the creation of sound images are crucial to turning creative success into business. And for Mad Men, that’s all in a day’s work.

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One Response to “Mad Men and the shaping of industry ethics”

  1. The good ol’ fashioned social network – maintaining a personal touch in a digital world « EZG Blog Says:

    […] in isolation and defeat as Park’s account of urban life psychosis might suggest we would be. But in an industry so often tainted by cynicism and suspicion, genuine firms who pride themselves on maintaining authentic client relationships need a way to […]

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