Questioning the messenger

While a money lender’s advertisement was legal, Executive asks if it was ethical

Ethics in advertising is a priority | CC BY 2.0

“Just five minutes,” the elderly man tells his waiting wife. He’s busy securing their financial future, he explains.

The advertisement by al-Lebananiyeh al-Arabieh lil Tasleef (LAT), a loan company, could not have been clearer: quick and easy money. At the end, the ad duly informed viewers that potential customers need collateral to receive their loans, such as a property or land deed, or a car or truck title. (This information was elaborated in a print ad the company took out in Al-Waseet, a free weekly classified ad newspaper). As the company is not a bank, it was not legally required to disclose the interest rate on the loans it offers. However, the company is now being sued by consumers who allege its owner was executing sales contracts on land and property before borrowers defaulted on their loans.

In focusing on an elderly man, the ad may have been particularly targeting the financially vulnerable. Lebanon does not have a state-run pension program. The National Social Security Fund is an end-of-service indemnity, not a pension. This means retirees receive a lump sum that is meant to last until death. For any number of reasons, retirees may find themselves needing cash but unable to secure a bank loan given their lack of income. When financially distressed, people often make bad financial decisions. LAT’s potentially predatory business practices prompted Executive to investigate non-bank lenders (see story Shark hunt), and the company’s commercial raised questions about ethics in the local advertising industry. The ad did nothing illegal, but preying on the vulnerable is undoubtedly unethical.

On its website, the global International Advertising Association does not have its own formal code of ethics. Rather, it links to the International Chamber of Commerce’s ethics code for advertising and marketing. Among the guidelines, the code includes: “Marketing communications should be so framed as not to abuse the trust of consumers or exploit their lack of experience or knowledge,” as well as “Marketing communications should not contain any statement, claim or audio or visual treatment which, directly or by implication, omission, ambiguity or exaggeration, is likely to mislead the consumer, in particular, but not exclusively, with regard to: […] the value of the product and the total price to be paid by the consumer.” Given the advertisement provides no information on the loan’s interest rate nor does it warn consumers that they stand a chance of losing their collateral, Executive sought to find out what consideration was given to advertising ethics when producing and airing this ad.

An employee at the advertising department of a prominent local television station that aired the ad tells Executive, “I have no idea” how it ended up on the station. This particular media outlet works with a media planning company (which buys airtime and then chooses which ads to run where, meaning the media outlet has no say in which ads get aired). A representative of the media planning company – who asked not to be named – says that because the company does not actually create advertisements, ethics are not a company consideration. She explains that General Security reviews all ads before they can go on television, but says they focus on considerations such as violence, keeping “inappropriate” products – like condoms – off the air when children may be watching, and screening for “more than what we are allowed to see” when it comes to the wardrobe choices of actors and actresses in the ads. Whether an ad encourages retirees to gamble with their homes is not one of General Security’s considerations, she says, thus it was not something the media planning company thought about either.

Executive proceeded to talk ethics with George Jabbour, head of the Advertising Association, Lebanon’s official syndicate for the profession. While Jabbour says ethics in advertising is a priority for local practitioners, he acknowledges the association has no written code of ethics, but hopes to begin drafting one in 2016.

Executive sits with George Jabbour, president of the Lebanese Advertising Association and CEO of the Middle East Communications Network, to talk about ethics in the local advertising industry.

E   What did you think of the al-Lebnaniyeh al-Arabieh lil Tasleef commercial?

If we want to talk about how the advertising was done – purely advertising without evaluating the [company’s business model] – I think it was effective. It was convincing. It was attractive. And it was, in a way, shocking, even.

Was it professionally done from a production standpoint?

No. It was not done by an advertising company. Looking at the production value, it was not really impressive at all. It’s basically a very simple, straightforward message: “You want money, ok, get it in five minutes.” So it’s shocking. Because to get money, if you have a bank mortgage, it will take five days to do just the paperwork alone. So there are people who are going to come in, to call and ask how it works.

E   The ad featured an older man who claimed to be securing his family’s future. Traditionally the business model is to trick people in order to acquire their property cheaply. Isn’t that misleading?

The ad was not misleading. It’s the nature of the business that’s misleading. Advertisers usually follow a brief. I can imagine the client said to whomever produced the ad, “I want to tell people that whenever you want money, you come here and get it.” Nobody told them what the conditions were. It’s like an ad for a new house; they don’t tell you how much the house costs, the quality of the materials in the house, or of the electrical and mechanical equipment. All of these are details you negotiate over once you are there. The purpose of advertising is to attract customers. In advertising you don’t give the full message – it’s not a brochure; it’s a 30-second spot where you attract the customers.

E   But there’s arguably a difference between not giving every detail about a new apartment and tricking someone.

Let me elaborate by jumping to other issues because this is very important. For example, Zein al-Atat and his herbal medicines that claimed to cure everything from pimples to cancer. One of his customers died. What did they do to him? They stopped his advertising, but he’s still selling very well. His products are everywhere in town. But the decision taken was to stop the advertising. We have to differentiate between the product itself and the message you deliver as an advertising agency. After all, the advertising agency is not an investigation committee. We have to trust the source – which is the client – and it’s up to the authorities – or the client who is bluffing the authorities – to check the product. So if the product of this 5-minute ad company is faulty, it’s up to the authorities to stop the guy.

Georges Jabbour, head of Lebanon's Advertising Association, sees the need for a code of ethics | Greg Demarque

Georges Jabbour, head of Lebanon’s Advertising Association, sees the need for a code of ethics | Greg Demarque

E   When you read famous quotes by advertising great David Ogilvy, such as you should never write an ad that you wouldn’t want your family to read, one may wonder if it is true that no advertising executive ever lies to their spouse. From a legal perspective, it is not a problem when advertising people and media people just do their jobs. But with regards to the ethical aspects, Ogilvy also said not to advertise anything evil, right?

Basically, you are right. When it comes to the ethical part, unfortunately, it’s subjective. How? It can differ from one country to another. What is ethical in Lebanon may not be ethical in France. You cannot have an ethics practice around the world that’s the same. If we take Lebanon as an example, the Advertising Association is fully in line [with the idea] that no advertising message should be unethical. And when we say unethical, we mean misleading the consumer. But if you have an unethical message, we don’t have the means and tools to stop it right now because this needs either an ethics protocol agreed to by everybody – which is not easy to achieve – or you need measures you can take against the advertiser or advertising agency, as well as a committee to decide what is ethical or not.

E   As we agree that a big problem with financial advertisements arises when they are likely to mislead people who are not well informed about risks and pitfalls of borrowing, could ethical leadership perhaps start from another point? For example, should the advertising industry be a stakeholder in educating the public on financial literacy?

We [at the agency I manage] have started this with [a large Lebanese bank]. It was a project I initiated myself with [the chairman of the bank that is our client]; we have started a program we call financial literacy through which we inform the masses. It is not addressed to professionals, we’re explaining to people how to get a car loan, what it will cost, what [interest cost] is high, what is low. We have a program of everyday messages after the news at 8:30 p.m.

E   Should the Advertising Association be more proactive in this field?

For sure. We have the intention to be, but unfortunately we don’t have the staff. The Advertising Association today has a board of 12 people, all of whom have their own businesses. And we have only one secretary. We do not work full time for the association. And we have many topics to tackle – one of which is ethics. But to do it, we need funds and we need staffing. Today if you tell me, “Look this is an unethical ad,” we will take a decision to stop it. But sometimes we don’t know, because we don’t have a committee supervising every ad being aired. In principle, 100 percent yes [we care about ethical advertising].

E   In Lebanon the state has set a few clear rules for advertising, but there’s a lot of ambiguity, especially concerning whether or not an ad is ethical. Does that not increase the responsibility you as the advertiser have?

Yes, I think the private sector is doing too much on behalf of the state. The state is almost absent. In principle, what we preach in terms of inspiring excellence or the right to choose, yes, we all do respect this and I think today most of the advertising agencies are in line with this practice. If you have any examples of where we need to take a position, I’d like to know them.

E   There are certain ads where the message immediately sounds fishy. This 5-minute ad was one of them.

If you take this ad, even after the court decision to stop the advertisement, many stations continued running it. Even after a court decision. I’m not talking about an advertising agency’s opinion. So what are the measures we can take? We are not here as a dissuasive organization. We’re an advisory organization.

E   Doesn’t it risk reputation harm if ads like this are put on the air?

Sure, but more than 30 percent of advertising goes directly to the media. And most of these are the tricky ones. These ads did not go through advertising agencies.

E   In conversations we had with the TV station and the company that booked the ad, neither seemed to understand the idea of having any ethical obligation of oversight. The ad booker said as long as General Security approves an ad, it’s fine and the obligation ends there.

I understand what you’re trying to say and I believe in it, but how can we find a way to apply what you’re aiming for? We all aim for that.

E   We got close to it with a code of ethics. Do you have one?

No. And I ask you, is there any written code of ethics that would be relevant for Lebanon? Also, we’d need a committee. What you’re talking about is great, but when it comes to implementation – you need a process, you need a vision, you need people, and – before all – you need money. Since I took over the [Advertising Association], I’ve tried many ways to raise money. We need a river, a flow of money coming always. I’m trying to do that.

E   What is your program for 2016 for giving ethics more space?

The first thing I will share in our next meeting with all our board members is this discussion. We will discuss it. Perhaps an advertising campaign would give more information to the consumer. If we raise awareness, we can go from there to write a code of ethics. But I’m not sure it will end in 2016. There are so many people who will give their opinions and we’ll have to amend some things here and there, but we can begin the process.

E   Are ethical considerations a part of the industry today or does everyone know General Security’s red lines and leave it there?

No. It’s a case of just getting the money whenever General Security gives the license. But I think this is more on the media level. When you have a known product, you go to an agency. When you want to sneak in, you do a production for $10,000 and do a deal with a media outlet to run a bulk of ads. The media today are in need of money and they don’t care about ethics. It’s like everything else – whether littering or driving crazily – the media outlets will say everyone else is doing [something unethical], so why should I stop? We don’t have moral values anymore in this country.

Matt Nash

Matt was Executive's Economics & Policy Editor and Real Estate Editor from May 2014 to November 2017. He began reporting in Lebanon in April 2007, and his coverage focused on oil and gas, public policy and human rights.