Advertising is A-OK
// Jeff Maertz

Ever since I considered going into marketing as a career, I couldn’t stop asking myself if it was an ethical profession. Basically, in the end, does marketing make the world a better or a worse place? After speaking with Peter Kambo, a successful director at one of Canada’s top marketing companies, I feel that there is a net benefit to the world from marketing. For the record, I acknowledge that I was persuaded by a professional persuader.
When asked whether he thought advertisers were deceptive, Mr. Kambo replied, “I think when you look back to the old days of advertising, there definitely was some deception, and advertisers could get away with a lot more. But in this day and age, with ASC (Advertising Standards Council) and other advertising standards boards, there are good regulations in place to ensure advertisers are as truthful as possible in their communications.” It’s not an industry where anything goes; there are rules to be adhered to; rules that are especially strict (and rightfully so) surrounding the marketing of potentially dangerous products.
For example, tobacco advertising is severely restricted in Canada. Tobacco advertisers are forbidden to associate their products with young people or any sort of lifestyle in their promotion (like showing a snowboarder smoking a Marlboro), they can’t advertise on television, outdoor banners, or in any publication that has a primarily young audience, and they can’t use any endorsements or testimonials.
Promoting alcohol also has a long list of restrictions regarding advertising that is laid down by each province. Tobacco and alcohol are far from the only items that have advertising regulations: cosmetics, natural food products, and even “Made In Canada” stickers are all required to obey federal and provincial laws.
Unfortunately, government regulation is sometimes the only thing that can make advertisers more truthful in their promotions. Take the recent case of deceptive airline advertising: left to their own devices for years, airline companies have advertised the prices for flights way below what they actually cost. This week, however, they will be forced by the Department of Transportation to fully disclose the full price of a flight (price + all applicable taxes). Thanks to government intervention, consumers are no longer being misled.
Going beyond the issue of promoting harmful products, I have always been captivated by this argument: advertising creates false wants and forces you to buy what you don’t really need. Mr. Kambo addresses this by saying, “Human beings are consumers by nature, and the more we make, the more we will consume and spend on goods we may not really need. If you think about it, all humans need to survive is food and shelter, yet we desire to accumulate as much wealth and goods as possible.”
We buy things that we don’t need, there’s no controversy there. But does advertising really cause this? If we have the extra money, why not satisfy a few wants? When you see an ad, it’s not as if you’re controlled by it – people have free will. It is human nature to desire more than what we need to merely survive. However, sometimes our desires start to consume our life and put us in the work/spend cycle. It’s the idea that we buy a car so we can get to work to pay for the car. I always get a chill down my spine when I hear Tyler Durden from Chuck Palahnuik’s Fight Club say, “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need.”
This is especially true these days, when people pay for expensive lifestyles with money they don’t even have. Canada is seeing record levels of household debt, with a 2010 debt-to-income ratio at 150 per cent. That means that for every $100 a Canadian earns, they on-average owe $150. Advertisers can assume some responsibility for this vast over-consumption, but in the end, individuals are responsible for living within their means.
Imagine a world without advertising: you would drive across the Lion’s Gate Bridge listening to the waves crashing below and peer out into the ocean blue instead of listening to radio ads and being distracted by a giant digital billboard. In this ideal world, there would be no radio (well, maybe the CBC would still be playing), television would suck, and the Internet would not exist as we know it. Oh, and that bus shelter that keeps you dry? It probably wouldn’t be there. Money from advertising supports media, entertainment, events, and all kinds of other good things (the Vancouver Olympics received an estimated $760 million dollars from corporate sponsorships – covering just under half the cost of the games). I’m just as annoyed by banner ads and sponsored links as the next guy, but I accept this as a small price to pay for using Google. Advertising dollars drive technological innovation by providing a payout for the entrepreneur who sacrificed years of their life to get their internet start-up running. 

Mr. Kambo summarizes it nicely: “Advertisers are merely trying to create demand and consumer desire for their products.” The job of a marketer is to tell the people about what’s available, and whether or not they act on their desire, is up to the consumer.

Jeff Maertz is a fourth year student of the Capilano school of business with a focus on marketing. Over the next few months, he will touch on topics ranging from small businesses to examining the effect current events may have on students. He is aiming to make the business world accessible and relevant, regardless of their field of study.

//Jeff Maertz, columnist

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