Things Money Can’t Buy

Transcendentalist Theodore Parker once said, “Kodak sells film, but they don’t advertise film. They advertise memories.”

As a public relations student, I’ve taken marketing and other strategic communications courses that have taught the art of “selling” things money can’t buy. This is brilliant when it comes to memories and other warm and fuzzy things, but what about situations where the intangible item the product provides might endorse something a bit more controversial?

For example, many fashion advertisements have very sexual overtones, hint at violence toward women or straight up publish something shocking for the sake of drawing attention to a brand. It’s no secret that advertising (and public relations, while we’re at it) has the capability to bring out the ugliness of our culture. Advertisements have an effect on audiences and if advertisers are not careful, it can get them into trouble. Although there are many blatantly distasteful advertisements, sometimes the ethics of advertising aren’t simply as black and white as we might wish.

Several classical ethics theories lay out groundwork to help us better understand what is ethical and what is not.


Deontology is a rules-based approach to ethics. Similarly to the Ten Commandments, if you break a rule, regardless of circumstances, it is considered wrong according to this theory. Although many advertisers do all they can to avoid breaking the law for obvious reasons, sometimes targeting the public can go too far. In January, the Canadian court found Google, Inc. guilty of infringing Canadian privacy laws for targeted online ads that were triggered by sensitive information, according to Bloomberg News. Although this might not have been Google’s intention, other ethics breaches are not as black and white as this example.


Consequentialism, commonly referred to as ends-based ethics, is the ethical reasoning that actions are neither right nor wrong, according to my ethics professor. This reasoning means that if the consequences are good, the act is good. If the consequences are bad, the act is bad. An example of this in modern advertising is airbrushing models. Although airbrushing is not against the law, it often has an effect on the way women feel about their bodies and sets an unrealistic standard of beauty.  The video below shows an example of the airbrushing process models’ photos go through before being used for advertisements. The model’s before and after shots are shockingly different.

More and more brands are responding to consumers’ demands for realistic models in advertising. One of these brands is Aerie, which recently released the #aerieREAL campaign, which only features un-airbrushed models. Whether this was a clever PR stunt or a genuine interest in reversing the media’s manipulation of women’s bodies, Aerie made a splash and received countless positive media hits because of the campaign. Because the reaction was positive, consequentialism says this was a “right” move in advertising.


Egoism is the reasoning that favors whatever best promotes an individual, organization or corporation. This particular line of thinking places a brand’s long-term self-interest on a pedestal. Many brands are guilty of exemplifying egoism. One example is AXE’s “The AXE Effect” commercial. Not only does it make women look like brainless freaks, but it is highly blown out of proportion and completely unrealistic.


Lastly, utilitarianism is the most democratic of classic ethics theories. This theory of reasoning, fathered by Jeremy Bentham, views “right” as the path leading to the greatest pleasure or least pain for the greatest amount of people. A great example of this is Budweiser’s recent #SaluteAHero campaign. Although many beer advertisements use scantily clad women and parties to draw in their target audience, men in the 18-24 age bracket, Budweiser took a different approach to expressing masculinity. In the brand’s SuperBowl spot this year, the ad tied in patriotism, something nearly everyone in the brand’s target audience can relate with. This tear-jerker positions the brand as purely American. I think that’s pretty heroic.

Where’s the Bottom Line?

Although it’s easy to victimize advertisers as liars and distasteful creators of propaganda, it’s important to take a step back and objectively view the situation they face in their work on a day-to-day basis.  In Mixed Media, Thomas Bivins wrote, “…advertising is required by its very nature to paint such a picture-consumption leads to pleasure, which leads to happiness.” In our society, each product is bought to fill a tangible or intangible purpose. “Happiness” is not the same thing for everyone, but we all buy products that make us feel more beautiful, in control, fulfilled and accepted by our peers. Advertisers, who are humans too, know these reasons and position their brand’s products to consumers to affect purchasing patterns. As we all know, this is often taken a notch too far.

With so many ideas of ethics and what is right and wrong it’s easy for advertisers to be confused about where to draw the line. Although it can be tricky, it’s vital to have a finger on the pulse of your client’s brand voice and the industry standards to understand what is expected of you and do your job well without compromising professional values and provisions.

Which classical theory do you think is most ethical?

January Five

This is a new monthly series I will be starting on five new PR/advertising campaigns, observations or products I observe each month. These things might not all pertain to PR or current events, but I think this will be a fun way to document the year. Hope it’s just as enjoyable to read. Feel free to make additions in the comment box below.

1. CarMax Super Bowl commercial

If you know me, you know I love anything with puppies. This Super Bowl advertisement by CarMax is awesome because it has a people version and a puppy version for the Puppy Bowl. How adorable is that?

The hashtag #slowbark is too funny! I’m looking forward to seeing the Super Bowl commercials tomorrow.

(If the frame above doesn’t work, click here to watch.)

2. Edelman’s “Show Up Differently” Campaign

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Image from

Full disclosure: I spent last summer at Edelman, so maybe I’m biased, but I think this new campaign is awesome. I love the artwork, the message and the meaning it carries for companies and individuals. The campaign focuses on innovation, collaboration and creation. Check out an infographic explaining more here.

3. Jelly

Biz Stone, the founder of Twitter has created a new platform called Jelly. Although I haven’t personally used this platform, it’s a very interesting approach to answering questions. Jelly users can answer questions posted by others and ask their own about photos.

Have you used the app yet?

4. Starbucks Flan Latte

My barista roommate despises the new flan latte, or as I like to call it, the flatte. I happen to think it’s amazing and I liked it even more since Starbucks sent me to get a free one the day it was released (Gold card perks!). Everyone should go try it. You can thank me later.

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Image from

5. Facebook’s New App Paper

Paper, Facebook’s new-and-improved set-up is supposed to be available Monday and I love the clean layout. Do you think it will be faster than the super-sluggish Facebook app?

Why We Love & Hate Brand Mascots

Guess what day it is!

Guess what day it is!

Only one thing can cause middle school principals to ask kids to tone down the camel nonsense every Wednesday, give my boyfriend the inspiration to dress up as a “hot babe out jogging” for Halloween in a suit and a pink sweat band and replace Chuck Norris jokes with “the most interesting man in the world memes.”

Brand mascots are often effective communication tools for consumer brands. They create ripples on social media sites and spark conversation, but evidence suggests the hype is much more than just talk.

According to USA Today, brand mascots add more value to companies than celebrity endorsements. In addition, associations are so strong even toddlers can make judgments on brands based on mascots alone, according to Slate Magazine.

I grew up with the Energizer Bunny, Captain Crunch and Mickey Mouse, but as social media  has grown more and more important, many characters are now popping up on YouTube (Remember Mr. Six from the Six Flags commercials?) and Twitter, engaging with consumers and fans and generating even more direct conversation between brands and consumers.

Some of the brand mascots that have gone digital include Aflac duck, Tony the Tiger, Flo from Progressive, Mr. Clean, The Green Giant, Travelocity’s Roaming Gnome and Mayhem, of course. (Fun Fact: Mayhem has a handsome, Spanish-speaking partner in crime, Mala Suerte)

Of the most notable brand mascots, many represent insurance companies, making them more attractive to consumers and bring them to life. For example, Business Insider named Allstate’s Mayhem as “The Man Who Made Insurance Interesting,” and Aflac used a duck to skyrocket revenue. The Harvard Business Review refers to the Aflac duck as a rock star in Japan.

The idea was born when a colleague at Aflac’s creative agency pointed out that “Aflac” had a similar sound to a duck’s quack. After some experimentation and planning, the CEO fell in love with the idea and after only one year, the company’s profits shot up by 29 percent. The Aflac duck put the company on the map for insurance in the United States and Japan, its two major markets. Today, Aflac covers 25 percent of households in Japan.

It all started with a quack.

What can we learn from success of brand mascots?

All of the mascots that have taken off and changed a company’s brand recognition involved a company taking risks. Aflac’s CEO was taking a huge leap of faith when he went forward with the idea for the duck commercials as well as the other brands whose mascots are equally quirky.

If all else fails, move on to what’s next. GEICO is a good example of a brand that has evolved from mascot to mascot, creating tremendous buzz and triggering mass renditions, although not all were popular in the public eye. (Check out NBA All-Star Dirk Nowitzki’s rendition of GEICO’s hump day advertisement.)

When Brand Mascots Go Wrong

According to Business Insider, consumers only like a small percentage of brand mascots. Top reasons include creepiness, obscurity, vagueness and just plain stupidity. Many of the mascots that meet the “most hated” criteria belong to fast food brands. Although McDonald’s mascot, Ronald McDonald, has lasted for decades, he is much less loveable than mascots of other industries that have better engagement with consumers. A possible reason for Ronald McDonald’s lack of success since his 1963 debut might be that clowns are not generally seen as likeable.

What makes a good brand mascot?

  • Humanization of the brand (Or animalization in some cases.)
  • Recognition
  • Humor
  • Uniqueness

The best brand mascots make you feel something. You might hate a company’s attempt at creating a mascot, but chances are, you still recognize the brand and respond to advertisements with a positive or negative response.

What is your favorite brand mascot?