A Marketer’s Obligation

May 2nd, 2017

What’s our obligation as marketers?

I thought about that when a colleague shared this ad for DDT-impregnated wallpaper, for use in your child’s nursery. 

So how might I have acted if I was asked to make an ad for this nightmare of a product? I want to believe that I would have said “No way.”

Truthfully, I’m not sure.

Hindsight is 20/20, but what about foresight? Not so much. It’s easy today to look at this DDT-wallpaper ad and slap your forehead and say, “What were they thinking?” Fact is, even something that seems obviously safe to us now may turn out to be crazily dangerous in 20 years. (I’m waiting for the day researchers confirm that cell phones cause brain damage. Or that jogging causes premature baldness.) You hope that common sense would apply, yet sometimes expedience can take us on another path.

I was at a small ad agency, and the very first day I had to develop a campaign for a dietary supplement that promised a long list of things it would do for you, including burn fat, increase muscle mass, increase energy, boost libido, and more. (The product also happened to share its name with a term defined by Urban Dictionary as “extremely rough gay sex.”) I asked the account manager/agency president, “Before we go any farther, is there any proof this stuff actually works?” He looked me in the eye and said, “We all crossed that bridge a long time ago. Get on board.”

I felt queasy, but did as I was told. I needed the job.

And sadly, through my career, I’ve probably made ads for dozens of products and conducted dozens of seo services that if I thought really hard about it, I’m not sure were making the world a better place. Pesticides to spray on stored grain. Paint formulated with silver nanoparticles for antibacterial properties. I wrote a brochure to launch Bovine Somatotropin (the BST that your milk likely claims to not have.) But every time, based on the information that I had at the time, it seemed like a reasonable product that had been thoroughly tested and approved.

I always have harbored a belief that if a product is legal to buy, it should be legal to advertise. I haven’t had much patience with those who say “I would never do ads for (insert pet peeve here – tobacco, alcohol, gambling, politics). That kind of attitude means you are putting yourself and your personal bias into the work, not putting your client’s interests first.

But …

DDT-impregnated wallpaper for your child’s nursery? Common sense should apply, and we do have an obligation to society – as well as to our client – to speak up when something seems questionable. So, question it. And clients, don’t dismiss our questions out of hand. Yes, you know more about your product than we do – but sometimes you may be so close, and so invested, that you need to at least hear an outsider’s question.

Or you may just end up like Irwin Mainway and his kids’ toy, Bag O’Glass.