Between ethics and daily bread: A creative’s moral dilemma

whiskas growing kittens print adThe “creatives” umbrella covers a lot more that the following, but in this writing it will primarily refer and apply to graphic designers, art directors, copywriters, and photographers.

Regardless of how one decides to look at it, creatives are in the business of selling. Be it a product, service, idea, message, point of view or belief.

The food chain financial chain is rather straightfoward.

The creative employs their expertise with a objective of, in almost all cases, increasing a company’s bottom line. The company is then an x amount of (enter your currency here) poorer, while the creative’s bank balance realizes an increment of the very same amount of money — basic rule of economics.

In the context of branding, marketing and advertising, businesses are the main sponsors of creatives’ talent, be it as a team (agency) or on a personal capacity.

Entrepreneurs spot needs that are common amongst a large number of people (consumers) and then they work on means to fulfill those needs or as some may call it to fill in ‘the gap.’ That’s how businesses most business were born. And the bottom line is that businesses exist to make profit, by offering a product that’s in need or demand.

Some products are ‘needs’ while others are ‘wants’ painted as needs.

In 1964, a group of creatives gathered together and First thing First 2000 manifesto came to being. Creatives were demanding a more meaningful and socially useful usage of their expertise and imagination, instead of what they’re be hired to sell: cat food, toothpaste, cigarettes, aftershave, sliming diets etc. I totally agree with the concerns, I mean people with very little or no education have changed the world and here we have schooled people used only to sell a can of air freshener.

I’ve also came around writings by fellow colleagues questioning the moral obligations that creatives are (or should) be dealing with.

I’m writings this as both a creative and a so-called consumer, so I’ll try to be as neutral as possible.

Some people view businesses as huge evil monsters and, like with other things, there are those with conversing opinions.

The art of persuasion predominately use psychology and it is the biggest tool used in luring people in to buying things, mostly things they don’t really need, esp. in advertising. With just a few seconds of air play, an ad can leave you feeling like a failure, unattractive, a not-so-cool piece of flesh and a nightmare to the opposite sex.

Think of this type of advertising as peer pressure from ‘peers’ who like you for the depth of your pocket, not who you are.

Now this is where the questioning of morality should come into place.

Is it morally wrong to exploit human desires? The answer to that will depend on your beliefs. And since the subject matter is subjective, do we continue forcing our take down the other person’s throat or do we excuse the morally right or wrong debate and argue based on the law of the land, if we are to conclude the argument fairly?

Is it illegal for advertisers to exploit people’s insecurities and desires?

And let’s be fair enough to acknowledge that even campaigns with a good social cause make use of psychology.
How many times have you donated money simply because someone ensured that you’d feel inhuman should you have not?

As creatives we feel that our expertise should be utilized to create cultural and social projects like: street (and buildings) signs, books, catalogues, instructional manuals, educations aids, films and television features and the likes.

I applaud the creatives behind the First Thing First Manifesto for being wo/men enough to stand up against the hands that feeds them.

But let’s be objective for a second, apart from the street signs, all other projects that the manifesto demand creatives’ expertise to be used on are in one way or another selling something.

Books are not free: someone has to pay for the writers, printers and distributers. Someone will have to sell those books. Catalogues: showcasing what? Instructional manuals: whatever that the manual is intended to help the user operate is unlikely to be free.

You can argue that the instructional manuals are for educational purposes and that the education is free, but even if education was free… education equips people with skills so they can go work for profit seeking corporations — ultimately something needs to be sold to someone.

The human race faces natural disasters, crime, rape, women and child abuse, global warming etc.

Such challenges could be what we as creatives focus our energy on as suggested by the manifesto. As ‘human’ as it sounds, reality is that a living needs to be made.

Again, for one to earn, something must be sold. Skills are designed to enable one to partake in the jungle of economics.

Graphic design is also a commercial art. And in that context, it’s perpetuation is dependent on clients who has something to sell.

The challenge is that the answering to a brief is how most creatives make a living. Emphasis being on answering, and not choosing which briefs to answer to.

Are all businesses that sell to consumers evil? And isn’t the selling that qualifies an organization as a business? If so, are we as creatives also evil because in someway those businesses are our consumers? Are we less evil because our products are intangible, because we’re less manipulative in attracting our clients to hire us or is it because after work we go home and help those we’re hired to lure consume the advertising?

What is immoral? and whose definition do we judge against? The seller or those sold to?

Is the exploitation of human needs and desires an art to be celebrated or something to be ashamed of?

Is “making a living” and “financial security” dangled to creatives so they unconsciously play puppet to the so-called evil corporations?

Is the “business world” bigger than creatives? And how feasible is the “anti-selling silly things like cat food” ideology?

<off topic> This reminds me of a line in some movie where a bank robber asked a bank teller “do you want to be a dead hero or live coward?” </off topic>