Why advertising is more than flogging toothpaste

It’s a funny old job this. About the worst that could happen on a nightmare day in my office is that I end up libelling somebody. When I used to work in the medical press, I used to feel slightly inadequate in comparison — when I messed up it cost my company a few grand; when my readers had a bad day in the office, somebody ended up dead.

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By  Tim Burrowes Published  January 8, 2006

Why advertising is more than flogging toothpaste|~||~||~|It’s a funny old job this. About the worst that could happen on a nightmare day in my office is that I end up libelling somebody. When I used to work in the medical press, I used to feel slightly inadequate in comparison — when I messed up it cost my company a few grand; when my readers had a bad day in the office, somebody ended up dead. So by comparison, the angst over magazine audits, or the latest dreadful piece of radio advertising can sometimes feel a little overblown. But in agonising over poor levels of advertising creativity or the region’s often rubbish media, it is sometimes easy to forget that this industry is doing its bit to change the world in lots of little — and not so little — ways. It came up at the Campaign Awards. You’ll see on our shortlist, work on behalf of social causes like Dubai Autism Centre (JWT) and Medecins Sans Frontieres (Tonic). And several other similar causes came close to the shortlist in the television and other categories. I’ve got a fantastic book sitting on my desk edited by Ed Jones, creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi in this region. It looks at some of the best advertising work for social change around the world. So powerful is much of it, that you have to stop reading before you are overwhelmed. Real work that changed the way people thought and acted. Further evidence will also be presented at the IAA World Congress in March - a centrepiece of the Dubai gathering will be an exhibition showcasing some of the great social ads. And advertising does help change the culture it’s in. It was a point made in our pages a month ago by Fathi Hadaya, boss of Impact BBDO in Jeddah, when he said that the growth of brands is playing a major part in the transformation of Saudi Arabian society. Media too. Sometimes in little ways. In Dubai, the letters page of 7Days has become the court of appeal for wronged consumers. The free newspaper has done more than any other in the region to create what feels like something approaching a democratic voice of the people. But that all pales when you look at the grim 2005 for Lebanon’s media and the sacrifices that were forced upon them. This week we report on the assassinations targeted at journalists who have been critical of Syria’s involvement in the country — and the plea to the UN from Reporters Without Borders for greater protection. None of these people who were killed and maimed last year were stupid. They knew they were at risk, and they spoke their minds anyway. The fact that they were bombed for mere words is such an affront it’s hard for it to actually sink in. It makes one feel all the angrier when one sees the craven, self-censoring approach of sections of the press in the far more (at least physically) risk-free media environment of the United Arab Emirates, for instance. If journalists were even half as brave as their counterparts in Lebanon then the media would be immeasurably better. And this is not just an abstract freedom of the press issue, by the way. Without a thriving free press, you have no thriving advertising market. And that means no route to the consumer’s mind. So this is a business issue too, and important to everyone in this industry, whether a journalist or not. As we report this week, when it comes to standing up and being counted, Saatchi & Saatchi Beirut’s boss Eli Khoury has done his bit, with the publication of a powerful book, The Beirut Spring. It’s a classic example of an advertising agency using its muscle to contribute to social change. Too often this is an industry that is cynical about itself. But, thank God, despite what we sometimes feel, this is a business that is about more than flogging toothpaste.||**||

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