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— by Karl Tischler – 8 min read

This article will not appeal to everyone—nor is it intended to. This article will be about the two most important issues of our time; Climate Change and Capitalism—and a lament about the sector that I love most, advertising.

Late last year, I attended a seminar, ‘Professional Obligations in an age of Climate Change’. It featured three speakers; Anna Krien (journalist and author); David Ritter (CEO of Greenpeace) and Ian Cummings (Department of Defence).

Each brought their unique perspective. Anna, a personal perspective of what her obligations were as journalist; David’s on the obligations that our community and economy have; and Ian on the obligations he has to the many custodians within the Defence Department, to the Australian public more generally and the personal balance he must walk to ‘tell the truth’ and implement government policy.

Despite the unusual alliance of speakers, they shared a common view; that Climate Change will undoubtedly and profoundly impact everything.

Climate Change is no longer a fringe issue bedeviled with the complexities of science. It is mainstream; and every organisation that participates in our interconnected system simply must be more aware of this and of their contribution to it.

Ever since; I’ve been thinking about our role as an agency—and more broadly, the role of the advertising, marketing and communications sector.

I’ve always believed that advertising is an incredible power. I’ve always been absolutely fascinated with persuasion and its influence over movements and contribution to collective social change. How it fails, it’s entirely predictable course, it’s occasional wins, how our audiences can be so easily persuaded by the many messages coming from our desperately sad politicians and the desperately sad businesses that ‘sell them useless rubbish, useless products and useless ideas’.

The place that I’ve arrived at is one of deep shame, disgust and panic.

If we are part of this sector—part of an industry that uses persuasion—then what personal and professional responsibility does advertising and communications have in forming and shaping our personal consumption decisions? What responsibility does advertising have in manufacturing demand for products, services and ideas that no-one really needs and that perpetuates a system of unending consumption?

What responsibility does advertising have for the ‘growth for growth sake’ insanity of mindless materialism?

And if you don’t think this is insane, please consider two recent campaigns.

It is entirely understandable that the Minerals Council of Australia would conduct their campaign, ‘Our Story’, to counter the ‘carbon tax’ a few years ago. It is their purpose to do so. That campaign was very successful and no doubt the Minerals Council would have been delighted that their relatively modest $20 million investment resulted in billions of savings in forgone levies.

However, every year since Australia’s CO2 emissions have increased.

Whilst it’s not true to say that Australia’s increased yearly emissions and the fact that we’ve had three of the hottest years on record are directly related… neither are they not.

But what about the advertising agency that delivered this incredibly effective campaign—surely they also have a longer-term responsibility for what they created?

In a similar vein, what of the advertising agency that did Telstra’s ‘Get that new phone feeling…’; a campaign directly promoting the needless replacement of mobile phones?

I can just see the subtext; ‘Sure, get that ‘new phone feeling’, and whilst you’re at it, here’s a side-serving of child slave-labour and Coltan being mined in the Congo to deliver that new phone feeling for you…’.

What is advertising’s responsibility for this?

I’m not talking of ‘obligations’—everyone has an obligation in some way, shape or form. But a responsibility; that’s deeper. Responsibility infers a recognition of behaviour and a self-awareness of action.

Nor do I believe that it is a matter of ‘protecting free-speech’ and ‘don’t shoot the messenger’. When that messenger is so complicit in continuing what is fundamentally unsustainable, I think there lies a deeper responsibility and if found, then there is no question that the messenger should be shot.

And yet, there must be a limit.

There has to be much more than ‘individual ethics and morality’ that drives the decisions agencies make. At present, it is as if much of the advertising sector has completely shirked any responsibility and not actually considered that there is such a limit. That the industry I love and admire now feels like it has ‘carte blanche’ over the messages it creates without questioning the ethics, morality or consequences behind them, saddens me.

The optimistic part of me believes that advertising is sufficiently aware that in a few years from now, advertising for the fossil fuel industry will have the same pariah status as tobacco had many years ago.

The pessimistic side of me thinks that advertising—and every agency as they’re currently structured—has no chance as long as they continue within the current economic system and if we continue as ‘business as usual’ we will all go to hell in a handbasket.

So, what can one do?

Firstly, we have a choice.

I know how incredibly difficult our industry is. In some ways my agency, Marlin Communications, is fortunate that the clients and niche we specialise in—the Australian for-purpose sector—means that acting ethically and being responsible is easier and simpler; it is entirely expected of us as an agency.

Yet, we are still a business; we still need to make money to pay the bills.

The natural tendency of market-based businesses is to have profit as the prime objective over purpose, to concentrate wealth, glorify the individual—and an individual’s efforts— and inevitably, miss-price social externalities.

Overtime, pure capitalism’s very nature is designed to concentrate wealth into ever-increasing, but fewer owners. It turns us all from citizens to consumers. It is a system that ultimately benefits just a very few and amplifies wealth. It is designed that way.

However, it’s also pretty much the only economic system that kind of works.

It is with this lens that in late 2016 Marlin Communications made the decision to become a B Corp.

B Corps are about a balanced business model that still retains a profit incentive, yet it also prices social externalities—the things that our staff, our clients and our community value. Things like fair and decent conditions, time with family, a responsibility to the environment, sustainability and our community.

We still have the same business metrics to meet. However, what becoming a B Corp does is define how those metrics are met, and it’s this that makes all the difference.

I humbly submit, that if every business met this standard then almost overnight our whole economic and social system would change. Every ‘bigger than self’ issue that we now face—whether that’s local, such as gender pay-parity or global, such as Climate Change—would dissolve.

It’s here that I’d like to come full circle; to returning to the question about advertising’s role and responsibility as the ‘messenger’ between Climate Change and Capitalism.

Advertising is far too important and powerful to think that it can be left unto its own devices. It is far too important to be run by charlatans with little or no social conscience. Advertising does have a choice. We can choose the standards about how our agencies are run as businesses and the communications we create. Above all, we can choose who we create these for.

These standards represent what we wish for ourselves, and what we want future generations to think of us. They are the ideals that each of us wants to be remembered by.

When I think of Climate Change, there is simply no way I can accept that ‘business as usual’ can continue—nor that there is simply any way that anyone can survive in a four-degree hotter world.

Karl Tischler is Founder and Idealist of Marlin Communications. An agency that he, and his business partner, have created that serves the Australian for-purpose sector. Please contact him if you’d like more information about becoming a B Corp — [email protected]