Ethics in Advertising

The Article

These are ad campaigns designed by agencies to promote awareness or create attention, even media attention, which may ultimately provide more public relations.

New York, never at a loss for self-congratulatory words, regards itself as the most tolerant of cities, a place where one may express any thought freely. It is true. In New York, one may articulate any idea whatsoever — as long as that idea parallels popular opinion.
Stray too far from generally accepted wisdom, though, and you are asking for trouble.

The latest to discover this reality is a Texas group called Life Always, which bought billboard space in SoHo to deliver an anti-abortion message rooted in recent statistics from the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. They showed that in 2009, 41 percent of all pregnancies here ended in abortion. The abortion rate for black women was even higher, almost 60 percent.

Up went the billboard on a building at the corner of Avenue of the Americas and Watts Street. It showed a black girl with these words above her head: “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.”

Was this anti-abortion statement subtle? Hardly. Accurate? Depends on your politics. Offensive? For some people, yes. Out of step with mainstream thought in New York? For sure. And so, a few days ago in this most tolerant of cities, a raft of elected officials wasted no time calling for the billboard’s removal.

Lickety-split, the sign came down.

The reason given by the owner of the space, Lamar Advertising Company, was that workers in a Mexican restaurant beneath the billboard had been harassed in some unspecified manner and there were fears for their safety. Maybe. But the fact remained that the message had annoyed some very important people. As soon as they squawked, action followed.

Some who objected to the sign complained that it was provocative. Of course it was. Since when is the American concept of free speech confined to opinions that are nice and safe and unlikely to cause a ripple?

Some also saw the message as racist. Clearly, it was racial. But racial and racist are not one and the same. (A question has also arisen as to whether use of the girl’s image was authorized, but that is a side issue.)

This plain act of censorship was not isolated. Rather, it fit into an established New York pattern of squelching unpopular opinions. Examples over the past decade abound.

A group called Project USA put up billboards along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway questioning the wisdom of mass immigration. Politicians in this city of immigrants protested. The billboards came down.

A Nigerian-born pastor rented billboards on Staten Island and filled them with various translations of Leviticus 18:22, which in the King James version says, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” The signs did not call on people to attack gay New Yorkers or even make faces at them. They merely carried the biblical verse. But politicians complained, and those billboards, too, were taken down.

Almost as a counterpoint, strong objections in powerful circles killed bus-shelter advertisements in the Bronx that promoted a free health information line for gay men and lesbians.

During the Republican National Convention in 2004, a provocative antiwar message was not allowed on a Times Square billboard. A year later, a labor union’s campaign likening Wal-Mart to a menacing Godzilla was rejected for a Staten Island billboard. Two years ago, Christian-themed books denouncing homosexuality in strong language were removed from the racks of a CVS Caremark store in Chelsea.

The impulse to censor shows no sign of withering.

Bill de Blasio, the public advocate and one of the influential figures who demanded removal of the anti-abortion billboard, saw no assault on free speech. There should never be a law prohibiting this sort of sign, Mr. de Blasio said, “but to have a serious debate, to have people express their outrage, and then to have a private owner of the advertising space decide that it was ultimately not appropriate, that to me is a functioning democracy.”

Not quite, said Norman Siegel, a leading civil liberties lawyer. To him, freedom of expression took a hit.

“The principle of free speech is easy when the speech is something that’s popular and noncontroversial,” Mr. Siegel said. “The real test is when you disagree with the content of the speech and you still defend the right of someone to articulate the message.” The city, he said, just flunked that test.

The Discussion

What do you think and why? Even in advertising, don’t we have freedom of speech? How does advertising, ethics and decency often play out in marketing campaigns.

This article discusses a controversial anti-abortion billboard in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City that was removed. The billboard featured the image of a young black girl and the words “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb”. Had the wording been different, I would support leaving the billboard up. Every person is entitled to her/his opinion, whether I agree/disagree. However, when it comes to advertising, I have a problem with subjective words like most, safest, and best. These are opinion words and difficult to prove. Using their source (NY DHMS vital statistics), one can make the argument that you’re actually more likely to die if you are a white person in New York. In 2009, 118,289 white people died versus 19,617 deaths for blacks. Comparing those numbers, it seems obvious one is much more likely to die if one is white than if one is black, so the words “most dangerous” aren’t necessarily supported. Also, in the article, the writer states that the abortion rate for black women was almost 60%. It was in fact, closer to 50%. What the writer fails to mention is the number of pregnancies for white women was more than double that of black women. Out of 224,797 white pregnancies, 51,388 ended in abortion. For black women, out of 98,521 pregnancies, 49,667 ended in abortion. Looking at this, one could make an argument that possibly black women are being more responsible than white women, with fewer pregnancies and fewer children born to mothers unable/unwilling to support them. Again, this would run counter to the “most dangerous” statement.

The real question when it comes to controversial public displays is determining whether or not it is advertising or speech. I find a marketed difference between the two. Each serves an important role, but each has its own limitations. Advertising, in its truest form, is meant to sell a product or a company or an idea. Advertising doesn’t always allow for free speech. One cannot advertise things that do not exist. One cannot make broad sweeping assertions without proof. For instance, the Nutella brand marketed itself heavily as a healthy breakfast option. The company was subjected to a lawsuit after research proved otherwise. This forced Nutella to create an entirely different marketing campaign. False advertising proven to be such should be removed and corrected. Speech, or just putting a message out into the world, has fewer restraints. While one might not always like the message, people are entitled to voice their opinions, even if it is in poor taste. I would also recommend avoiding subjective language in public displays meant to sway opinion. As long as one’s message isn’t threatening and doesn’t enter the realm of libel, it should be allowed to stand to create conversations.