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On Copywriting, Cultural Influence & the Ethical Responsibility of Advertisers

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I’ve been reading What the Dog Saw by Malcom Gladwell. In the chapter “True Colors: Hair Dye and the Hidden History of Postwar America,” Gladwell writes about influential copywriters who transformed the hair coloring market. Their work not only paralleled a changing culture, but influenced it and was integrally a part of it.

First, there was Shirley Polykoff who helped Clairol launch the first home coloring kits with her iconic line, “Does she or doesn’t she?” While this was a step forward for women, by making hair coloring culturally acceptable (where it had not been previously), it was still focused on what others think.

Almost twenty years later, Ilon Specht began writing copy for L’Oréal and penned the famous tagline, “Because I’m worth it.” Soon Preference hair coloring kits by L’Oréal were overtaking Clairol in the marketplace. The new line put the emphasis on the woman and her perspective. And to be clear, Specht had to push her viewpoint and convince others. She still functioned in a workplace where men didn’t fully understand what she was trying to do.

I’m not certain as advertisers that we are always aware of the influence we have on the culture, on our audiences. But I believe, just like artists anywhere, we have can have a tremendous influence, and thus we bear a tremendous responsibility. Yes, we have to help our clients sell their products with our messaging. That’s what we’re paid to do after all. That’s the contract. But we should do so ethically. We should give thought to how our words and images can change cultural perceptions – or even a single person’s perception. It’s not enough to simply earn a paycheck. We must create ethically, promoting positive outcomes and outlooks, present the truth with clarity and show respect for all humans always.

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