Award presented by the American Academy of Advertising recognizes long-term commitment to ethics in the field
by Caroline Pritchard
In March, Temerlin Advertising Institute professor Dr. Carrie La Ferle received the Kim Rotzoll Award for Advertising Ethics and Social Responsibility.
The award given by the American Academy of Advertising recognizes individuals who have demonstrated an outstanding commitment to advertising ethics and social responsibility throughout their careers. It has only been given eight times since its inception in 2004.
La Ferle has been teaching advertising ethics for over 20 years and also conducts research on how culture impacts advertising effectiveness and consumer behavior. She has more than 50 published articles on culture and a recent book on preaching and advertising. Prior to academia, she worked in the private sector in an advertising agency in Toronto followed by four years in Japan with a licensing and merchandising company.
La Ferle holds a Ph.D. in advertising from The University of Texas at Austin, an M.A. in advertising from Michigan State University and a B.A. in sociology from the University of Western Ontario.
Receiving the Kim Rotzoll Award is especially meaningful to La Ferle because she had a personal connection to the award’s namesake. Rotzoll, who died in 2003 and received the first award posthumously, spearheaded ethics in advertising research. “Kim was a pioneer in the field of advertising ethics,” La Ferle says. “We would frequently discuss ethics at conferences.”
Former recipients are close colleagues of La Ferle’s. “The people who have received the award before me are pretty amazing,” she says. “We use each other’s research or books to further our understanding of advertising ethics and in teaching to impact students entering the field.”
La Ferle was inspired to pursue advertising as a career by her father, who also worked in advertising. But at the time in Canada, advertising degree programs did not exist.
“I had planned on business school — thinking that’s where I would take advertising classes. However, I found two classes in sociology related to advertising,” she recalls, “and this launched my pursuit of advertising and later ethics.”
La Ferle is currently conducting studies in several different areas. A special interest of hers is cultural intelligence.
“The more people know about different cultures — and not just race and ethnicity —the more opportunities there are for messaging that is broader, has a bigger reach and is more effective,” she says.
She’s also studying how consumers respond to religious symbols in advertising, and how both advertising professionals and consumers think about advertising ethics and deception in advertising.
La Ferle came to the Temerlin Advertising Institute in 2007 to help design and grow a master’s program with a focus on social responsibility. She began teaching international advertising and ethics in advertising right away. When the master’s program debuted in 2009 it was one of the first of its kind.
“It just took off and soared,” she says. “People in the industry really appreciated that new perspective — that you can market a product, but do it in a way that is still socially responsible.”
Today, advertising majors at SMU are required to take advertising ethics and minors are encouraged to take it. Some schools have followed suit. The University of Oregon now has a similar program led by fellow Rotzoll Award recipient Dr. Kim Sheehan. However, at many schools advertising ethics is still not offered as a core course.
“There are other classes that are thought to be more important to get the students out with the skills they need, like a media class or a campaigns class,” La Ferle says. “But at Temerlin, we feel it should be at the core of everything students learn.”
La Ferle starts her classes by exploring why a person should be ethical. “You can’t expect an ad agency to act ethically if individuals do not understand how ethics impact their lives more broadly,” she says.
Her philosophy is that being ethical has benefits not just for society, but also for the advertising industry, brands — and individuals themselves. “I’m a full believer in the win-win-win,” she says. “Research shows that you are more satisfied with who you are when you follow your own morals and beliefs.
“It’s a win for an individual who behaves ethically and when brought to the profession, brands can then hold their heads high and build stronger relationships with consumers,” she continues. “You don’t want to be friends with someone who’s not honest and truthful. So why would a consumer want to build a relationship with a brand that’s not honest and truthful?”
The same goes for fair representation. “You sell things to people if you’re resonating with them and recognizing what’s important to them,” she says. “Ads selling products for 60-year-olds must understand and then represent the experience of people who are 60 to be most effective.”
Early in La Ferle’s classes, students must contemplate advertising as an institution and how it originated. “We ask, ‘What use did it have? Why did it come about and what problem did it solve?’” she says. “Because that’s usually how an institution arises.”
La Ferle explains that advertising was first used to deal with greater supply than demand: Mass communication created an opportunity to alert broad swaths of people to products that were available and to raise demand for them.
A lack of demand is no longer an issue, but La Ferle says advertising still solves problems by educating consumers and aligning products with a greater purpose important to those consumers.
“Procter & Gamble does it quite well,” she says. “Advertising for the Always feminine hygiene brand helps girls be confident and stay in school, so they can go on to do amazing things.”
In her career, La Ferle has witnessed plenty of changes to the advertising industry and public perception of it. Today, there is more awareness of the concepts she teaches, like fair representation and unconscious bias. And consumers have started expecting brands to be more socially responsible.
“While we grew our program in social responsibility, brands were jumping on the bandwagon with cause-related marketing,” she says. “Students don’t question the need for a class like this today. But I still don’t think they come in understanding the whole range of topics covered in advertising ethics.”
Although consumers are savvier today and more aware of ads that invade their space — by interrupting a show they’re streaming, for example — La Ferle says they aren’t always aware of how pervasive ads are.
“People don’t generally know how much ads influence them,” she says. “I’ll have some students say, ‘Ads don’t really affect me.’ And meanwhile they’re wearing a Gap T-shirt. I’ll say, ‘Well you’re an ad right now.’”
One of the main things La Ferle hopes to impart to students before they graduate is that advertising can be powerful in it messaging ability, yet it is inherently neutral.
“It’s a tool to communicate information and grab attention — and the outcome of an ad can be good or bad. It really depends on the source that’s using it,” she says. “I tell my students to go out and create ads that have great messages, move market share for your brand and move society in a positive way.”