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Can You Leave Your Morals At The Ad Agency’s Door?

Call them morals, ethics, beliefs, principles, I don’t want to get into semantics here. You live your life by a certain set of rules, and we all have a slightly different set. Anyone who reads my column regularly knows I lean very far to the left on most issues, and that rubs a lot of people the wrong way. And I really don’t care. In the same way, you shouldn’t care if your views piss people off either.

But when it comes to doing the job we do, is the best creative work done by people who don’t give a flying fuck about their morals when they cross the agency threshold? Or by people who can, by some extreme act of willpower, disengage emotions and just get on with the job? There have been several times in my life when my morals were really pushed to the limit.

It started in my first ever job out of college. It was, by no stretch of the imagination, a job that was a million miles away from the glitz and glamor that I thought advertising was all about. Most of my time in the first six months was spent working on credit card mailers, slimming products, local car ads and other such crap. There were bigger, more glamorous accounts at the agency, but they were reserved for teams that were not fresh out of college. Those accounts were earned.

Then, one day, the creative director said he was giving us a chance to work on a big account. But it had one slight drawback. He knew both my partner and I were anti-smoking, and it was a cigarette account. To be precise, a cigarette account in a country that was very poor.

Hmm. Do we want to say no, and delay the chance to work on great accounts for another six months? Or do we do it, and sell poisonous shit to people who cannot afford it, and will go hungry in order to buy a pack?

We chose the latter, to our shame. And we did a cracking job on it too, with the campaign being loved by the client and outperforming any previous campaign by a good 20%.

YES! We had succeeded… in selling more death sticks to people in poverty than any previous team before us. Talk about a double-edged sword.

Over the years, other such challenges have raised their heads. Most of the time, I kick my morals or beliefs to the curb and just get on with the fucking job. I’m a professional, I get paid to keep the clients happy, and my personal beliefs have no room at the conference room table.

Being such a lefty liberal, I had to bite my tongue and advertise a Republican candidate on more than one occasion. He wasn’t even a moderate. He was the kind of guy Rush Limbaugh would consider a bit too right wing. And yet, I did it, and he got elected on the back of the work we did.

I still regret that one. Much like a lawyer who gives a criminal the best possible defense, I did the best job I could on his campaign. Should I have thrown it?

I’ve also been directly responsible for pushing ads that I knew, beyond a reasonable doubt, were “conning” people out of their money. Everything was legal, but my God, I certainly walked the line. Thankfully, that company is out of business now.

I could go on, but I am way more interested in what you have to say. Maybe this is some kind of catharsis for me, to see if I’m not the only one who says “fuck it” to my beliefs in favor of doing a good job (and keeping it).

Would you work on the “Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner.” campaign if you were a strict vegetarian or vegan? And could you really do a great job, even if you try and kick your own beliefs to the curb?

Could you advertise alcohol if you were on the wagon? Could you really convince other people to drink booze even though you’re off it for good?

What if you’re anti-war? Would you happily work on the Army or Marine Corps accounts? Would you do it begrudgingly? Would you “just say no”?

Could you ever work on advertising for the KKK? What if your job depended on it? Would you do a piss poor job if you had no other choice?

In the past, when it was easy to go from job to job, having morals was a little easier. It was possible to turn down some accounts, or raise objections if pitching for work that you believe the agency just should not have.

But these days, with the industry (especially in Denver) being so fragile and work being so hard to find, could you dare stand up for your beliefs and sacrifice a good job? Would that make you feel better, when you had no food to put on the table for your family that night?

We all, to some extent, do things we don’t like to do for money. No one really wants to work on shitty credit card mailing packs. No one likes doing god-awful radio spots for local clients. It pays the bills, and we know it.

But where is the line, and when do you refuse to step over it? Do we, as advertising professionals, have any right to let our own personal morals and beliefs interfere with the job we are being paid to do?

Go on then. Chime in.

Cover image and top image from Shutterstock and The Creative Finder.

This is a cross-post from The Denver Egotist.

Felix is a site contributor, ranter and curmudgeon for The Denver Egotist. He’s been in the ad game a long time, but he’s still young enough to know he doesn’t know everything. If he uses the f-bomb from time-to-time, forgive him. Sometimes, when you’re ranting, no other word will do. In his spare time, he does not torture small animals. He's been known, on occasion, to drink alcohol by the gallon. Do as he says, not as he does.

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