The only way is ethics


The newly formed Advertising Business Group promises to promote responsible marketing. Austyn Allison finds out what that will entail

An industry body launched last month to promote responsible, ethical advertising, first in the UAE and then in the wider region.

The Advertising Business Group is made up of major clients, media and agencies. Its chairman, elected at the end of November, is Sanjiv Kakkar, Unilever’s executive vice-president for North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. He sums up the purpose of the body, which has advertisers including P&G and Biersdorff among its founding members, as well as agency holding groups OMG and MCN and media vendor Choueiri Group: “It is to promote responsible and ethical advertising, and to serve as  a body for self regulation among the advertisers as well as the agencies.”

Kakkar tells Campaign he sees responsible and ethical advertising as “advertising that is positive, does not promote negativity, does not offend consumers, and does not denigrate competitors”. He emphasises that advertising should not mislead, harm or offend.

The group’s guidelines will initially be based on an International Chamber of Commerce code of conduct, but it is already working on its own, tailored to the region.

“Then,” says Kakkar, “we will appoint a body that will work as a regulatory body using people from the industry, eminent public personalities, and so on, who will sit on the committee that looks at any disputes that arise or any complaints that come up. Their recommendation would then be binding on the members.”

Morally binding, that is, as the ABG is an industry body that lacks the legislative power of a state organisation.

“It’s always better for industry to self regulate,” says the chairman. “That’s always a very good starting point. I think it also builds trust within government that this is a responsible industry, and it ensures that there is an open and transparent dialogue with authorities.”

This can help prevent heavy-handed restrictions from the state, which have been a complaint of advertisers in the past. An ABG white paper highlights 2007 regulations on health advertising. According to the paper, research from the UAE cosmetics industry found the legislation  “placed unwarranted restrictions on cosmetics manufacturers and operators in the country [and] hindered their ability to ‘intuitively and swiftly advertise their cosmetics products in the country’.” The UAE is the only country, says the paper, where cosmetic products are regulated by three government bodies.

L’Oreal is one of the ABG’s founding partners.

Stéphane Martin, chairman of the European Advertising Standards Alliance, and an advisor to the ABG, says: “If you have a strong code in place, you can help advertisers improve themselves with good advice. And you can prove that you can handle and adjudicate complaints and that the results of the adjudications help the industry to improve.

“Then it becomes easier to show governments and federal commissions that [self-regulation] is a virtuous way. Then it costs nothing from public finances, and at the end consumers are happy.”

Kakkar adds that self-regulation also helps shape government policy: “It makes sure that any regulation that governments evolve is regulation that has been evolved through a process of discussion rather than a heavy-handed approach. In my experience it is always better that the industry self-regulates and promotes trust within that, as that promotes better evolution of regulation.”

The formation of the ABG is significant in its focus. Other industry bodies such as the International Advertising Association exist, but follow a wider remit. IAA board member (and managing director of FP7 Group UAE) Sasan Saeidi says: “It is in our mission statement that our purpose as the IAA UAE chapter is to encourage the growth and development of the advertising and marketing communications industry in the UAE and to be its unbiased advocate. In the uncompromising pursuit of its objectives the IAA UAE chapter shall promote integrity and best practice. This means pushing and endorsing the pursuit of ethical advertising at all times.”

However, the IAA also has other focuses, including youth development and the promotion of more behind-the-scenes best practice such as ensuring consistency and fair play in the pitch process. This means its resources – it too is run by volunteers from the industry – are too tight to provide the policing function the ABG promises.

Kakkar says he hopes the ABG’s code and its complaints panel will be active within three to six months.

Leo Burnett’s executive regional managing director, Kamal Dimachkie, welcomes any debate on the ethics of advertising, but cautions that any body of advertisers will have vested interests.

“It is naive to expect the members not to be representative of major brands, and whether these representatives are actually representatives of brand owners or the people who speak for them, I think it is also naive not to expect that there is going to be self-interest. And wherever you have self-interest, you have a lot of money backing it. … Perhaps the only thing that you can do is certainly encourage the conversation, make it public, invite participation, and ensure that there are opposing forces of equal strength and capability.”

Complaints and disputes are more likely to come from rival advertisers than consumers, at least initially, says Kakkar. “A large body of the complaints is actually between advertisers,” he says. “There are regions where consumer complaints have a fairly high percentage, but the MENA region does not seem to be a place where consumers tend to complain about advertising.”

However, he acknowledges that this could be due to a lack of channels to do so. Part of the ABG’s remit will be to allow consumers a way to challenge advertising that they feel is inaccurate, unethical or offensive, and the group will welcome feedback from the wider public.

The current method of dealing with complaints is bilaterally between the contending advertisers. This can either be done by mutual conversation or through legal process. But as well as being expensive, legal action takes time, and agreements are often arrived at long after the campaign in question has run its course. The ABG’s panel will be faster and should reduce legal costs.

While the ABG will have no hard power to regulate its decisions, members will have a moral obligation to comply, says Kakkar. He adds: “If [the panel] says, ‘Look, we believe that the advertising violates the code, and you need to change it or withdraw it or modify it,’ then the member has to agree to that. Otherwise the member has no place within the ABG framework.”

Kakkar doesn’t expect the number of complaints to be overwhelming – Unilever generally deals with one to three a month, some of which are ongoing or recurring – and says they are to be expected in a competitive market.

“You have a lot of brands and you have a very high volume of advertising,” he says. “So there could be issues related to claims brands are making, or comparative claims that brands are making. So it’s a fairly common occurrence that you have advertisers writing to each other saying that, look, you need to re-look at what you are putting out on media.”

“Perhaps the first rule, tenet or principle that we should all keep in mind is that honest brands beget honest advertising,” says Dimachkie. “So when you want to start looking at the integrity of claims you may want to look at the integrity of the brand or the product itself. Twisted products and what they stand for will always find ways to reach consumers, to shape public opinion, to shape awareness, to reach whether they are supposed to or not.”

Saeidi says that advertising’s role as a means of communication is to inform and influence a purchase decision. But this needs to be done in an honest and ethical manner at all times.

“We need to state the facts, but do it with creativity,” he says. “We are not supposed to bend the facts or tell untrue stories.”

However, he cautions that common sense, as well as regulation – self, or otherwise – must play a part too. “There is a limit to which we can blame advertising for being misleading,” he says, citing stories of beauty brands being sued because their products don’t transform consumers from average Joes into glowing Adonises overnight, or customers taking issue with aftershave brands because they still can’t get the girl.

“I think expectations need to be grounded in common sense and need to be applied on a case-by-case basis,” he says.

But when common sense doesn’t remedy irresponsible advertising, the ABG will provide a welcome avenue to address the issue. And to promote the debate.