In this episode of the Innovation Ramble, our Marketing & Innovation Director Tom Ollerton looks at the saints and sinners in the advertising industry.

From time to time, agencies have to represent businesses whose ethics don’t match their own, and this creates a gnawing tension. But we all have a choice, and when it’s possible we can choose to make the world a slightly better place, even if it is in the realm of advertising and marketing.

In a 1974 American TV documentary, 42-year-old ad exec, George Lois, described advertising as “poison gas”. At the time, the booming advertising business in the US had just 4,000 agencies turning out 40,000 TV commercials a year. The ad men behind them were largely anonymous – they didn’t sign their work and rarely appeared on screen. However, the age of innocence came to an end and the public started to see advertisers as manipulators.

Today, we’ve heard online advertising referred to as the “exhaust fumes” of the internet, even if this isn’t entirely true, online ads are certainly not always welcome. According to the Guardian, a wide range of studies give statistical evidence that exposure to higher levels of advertising leads to working longer hours, saving less, borrowing more. Advertising leads us to normalise the pursuit of status; financial success, sexual prowess and self-interest over societal goals. The future is only going to be good if we do good things today, and this creates a conflict for us agency types.

It's encouraging to look at the brands and marketers doing good. One of my favourite campaigns in years was WeChat’s Voice Donor, which solved the problem of there not being many audio books for the deaf in Chinese. Through the app, users could make sound recordings of them reading passages from a book. The app collated all of these recordings and turned them into audio CDs – brilliant!

In France, dog food brand Pedigree partnered with dog adoption shelters and created time-sensitive adverts that had the animals follow users. This turned the oft-maligned practice of retargeting into a positive – “the most loyal banner ever”.

Of course, there are sinners too - Jobs and careers web site were blasted for using fake homeless beds to direct users to their site. Imitation homeless cardboard signs were placed on pavements across London suggesting the homeless person was no longer there because they’d found a job on the website in question. Several commentators labelled the campaign as “offensive”.

The dark side of the industry can often rear its head through gaffs, and there was none more brutal than Walmart having a section on their website called ‘Fat Girl Costumes’ - this was clearly a mistake, but it didn’t do anything to make digital marketing look any better.

What happens on the internet stays on the internet, and the marketing campaigns you run today will be part of your digital legacy. We can't always choose the brands we work for, but we can choose to try and make our campaigns have a positive benefit when possible.