Can Agency Culture Foster an Ethical Mindset? by TAI Professor Dr. Sidharth Muralidharan
Business ethics can be broadly defined as a brand’s moral obligations to their stakeholders, employees, consumers, competition, and society at large. Ethics operates at a higher plane than law and motivates brands to think beyond just meeting the minimal legal requirements. In advertisements, ethical considerations can manifest by providing honest and truthful information about products and services, by not being offensive, or culturally distasteful. Being in a position of influence, the expectation for a brand to abide by a moral code can never be perceived as a choice but a duty. This moral duty rests not only in the hands of the advertiser but also the hired advertising agency.
The ad agency is an organization where the blending of business and creativity occurs seamlessly. In such a competitive environment where both advertisers and agencies are driven by the motive of earning more profits, the emphasis placed on ethics, unfortunately, diminishes. Lapses in ethical judgment can negatively impact the brand in terms of lower sales, negative brand image, and can end the relationship between the agency and the client. For example, in 1991 Volvo and its agency Scali, McCabe, Sloves Inc. of New York was each fined $150,000 for their deceptive ad. The commercial depicted a monster truck that ran over a line of cars, and the only car to survive was a Volvo station wagon. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found the ad to be deceptive because the body of the Volvo was specially strengthened to withstand the impact and a regular Volvo was not equipped with a similar shell. Knowing that the demonstration did not truly represent the product, the agency still decided to move forward with the campaign, posing an ethical lapse. Granted, agencies are under the influence of their clients but the question remains, can an agency still come out with a creative ad that is both effective and morally sound?
The answer is yes. To overcome such setbacks, agencies need to foster a culture of ethics and responsibility. This should be initiated from the very top, where, leaders are setting an example and having employees not only be a part but also take ownership of the culture. A good example could be the agency ‘Enviromedia’ based in Austin, TX. The main mission of the agency is to make the world a better place to live in and help brands make profits. Championing this vision is the CEO and Founder – Valerie Salinas-Davis, who has created strategies for campaigns such as “Don’t Mess with Texas” and the eco-friendly Nissan Leaf, to name a few. Being a B-Corporation, the agency has set high standards to achieve both social and environmental goals. As per their website, the agency has contributed $1 million in pro-bono work and volunteer time to different charities. The agency headquarters has sustainable features like solar panels and water saving functionalities, while employees recycle and use recycled materials. Enviromedia is selective of who they work with, making sure their culture and values align with their clients and is propagated through the campaigns they create. From the causes they support to providing employees with paid time off, Enviromedia has shown that their belief system can foster an ethical mindset. If the industry is filled with more agencies that have a strong moral compass then it helps put pressure back onto brands to achieve their bottom line through ethical channels.
TAI’s Associate Professor Dr. Hye Jin Yoon has a paper forthcoming in the Journal of Business Research, which has an impact factor of 3.354. With Dr. Yoon-Joo Lee and Nicole H. O’Donnel of Washington State University, she explored how number of followers and valence of comments could affect the perceived legitimacy of corporate social responsibility campaigns on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
Title: The effects of information cues on perceived legitimacy of companies that promote corporate social responsibility initiatives on social networking sites
Abstract: Social networking sites (SNSs) are increasingly used to promote corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. Consumers can like, retweet, or comment on CSR messages on SNS pages, signaling public approval or disapproval and affecting perceived legitimacy of the organization. Especially for controversial companies, such as alcohol brands, both perceived legitimacy of a cause and consumer purchase intention (PI) might be enhanced by expressions of public support on SNS pages. However, few studies have explored this relationship. The findings from Experiment 1 suggest that the number of followers (low vs. high) affected perceived legitimacy and PI. Experiment 2 revealed that the effects of comment valence on attitudinal and behavioral intention interacted with the number of followers. These findings advance our current knowledge of factors associated with perceived legitimacy of companies that promote CSR campaigns on SNS pages. Implications for advertising research and practice are discussed.
This October, TAI Assistant Professor Dr. Eunjin (Anna) Kim traveled to San Diego to attend the 2017 Association for Consumer Research (ACR) Conference, a premier marketing conference. She presented a paper titled, “Narrative Advertising Effectiveness: The Role of Ad Relevance, Ad Vividness, and Ad Message Explicitness.”
“This project departed from a basic premise, such that it is highly unlikely that all narrative ads produce equal amount of effectiveness (e.g., positive affective responses and positive cognitive responses),” Dr. Kim said. “Nowadays, advertising plays in a very competitive attention economy where consumers’ attention span is very short like that of gold fish. Storytelling has emerged as a new currency for capturing customer hearts. Marketers and researchers have been trying to understand the power of the storytelling in order to move their customers through their branding/sales objectives. I believe my research makes a significant contribution to the topic of narrative advertising effectiveness.”
Dr. Kim has two co-authors on this project, Dr. Sidharth Muralidharan, TAI Assistant Professor, and Dr. Eunseon Kwon, Assistant Professor of Strategic Communication at Texas Christian University. A paper based on this project is currently under review at Journal of Business Research, a premier academic journal.
“I really liked this conference because it offered me an excellent opportunity to showcase my research and to meet other seasoned scholars in my research area,” Dr. Kim said. “This conference has recently started to publish the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research (JACR) exploring consumer behavior topics with a thematic approach. I got some cute gifts from the journal at the conference. At the end of the conference, we visited San Diego Air & Space Museum.”
Dr. Kim has published her research in the Journal of Advertising, Marketing Letters, Psychology and Marketing, International Journal of Advertising, Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, Mobile Media & Communication and others. She teaches Digital Media Strategy 1, Consumer Insight and Persuasion, Strategic Brand Management 2, and Media Measurements and Metrics.
TAI Faculty are among the most productive advertising scholars worldwide. Their research interests span current industry topics of interest, including narrative advertising effectiveness, humor advertising, socially responsible advertising, and virtual product experiences, to name a few.
Below are pictures from Dr. Kim’s time in San Diego.
This July, TAI Professor Dr. Hye Jin Yoon travelled to Tokyo, Japan for the 2017 American Academy of Advertising Global Conference. With her co-author Dr. Hongmin Ahn, she presented a paper titled, “When Two Worlds Collide – The Dark Triad Personality and the Humor in Comedic Violence Ads.”
“AAA partnered with Waseda University and held sessions on its vibrant campus,” Yoon said. “The conference started with a keynote speech from Yoshito Maruoka, President and COO of Dentsu Digital Inc. and ended with a tour of Tokyo with a visit to Mt. Fuji. Many advertising and marketing scholars from the United States, Europe, and other Asian countries attended the conference.”
Dr. Yoon has been published in the Journal of Advertising, Journal of Business Research, International Journal of Advertising, Journal of Health Communication, Health Communication, Journal of Advertising Research, and Journal of Current Issues & Research in Advertising, among others. She teaches Advertising Media, International Advertising, and Quantitative and Qualitative Research at SMU.
Since graduate school, TAI Professor Suzanne Larkin has had a relationship with Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children and prototyped a program to aid learning for children with dyslexia. Professor Larkin got her Masters of Fine Arts degree in Visual Communication from Texas A&M Commerce (downtown Dallas), a program that combines Curriculum Development, Design Research, and Business.
“My inspiration came from a challenge as I was acquiring an MFA,” Professor Larkin said. “The challenge was to connect with a ‘giant’ and create something that could benefit them, and do what we call ‘move the needle,’ which means collect data that shows efficacy of what we do as visual communicators. In that challenge I kind of conducted a search, like what people do for thesis topic development. And that started with talking to others to find problems in major organizations where visual narratives or visual solutions could be beneficial. So part of my talking to people came out of tools that we use in the creative industry, like mind maps. I created maps to focus on who to talk to, and in which organizations. I kept running into the same response, and that was that children with dyslexia don’t have enough of the proper resources to help them grow at early diagnosis point, like 2nd and 3rd grade. I was inspired because I love to have fun in my work, and I like to do whimsical concepts. I used to design greeting cards. I’ve done radio, broadcast, outdoor, print. I’ve done it all in my career. So I thought this was a great opportunity to touch a target audience and provide something that hopefully benefits them.”
“I met with Karen Avrit, who is the Education Director,” Professor Larkin said. “We got together during therapy time and talked about what the patients were doing. I asked ‘Why are the children trying to read stories from text when they have reading challenges? Have they ever seen these stories?’ Of course, I’m thinking about this as a visual communicator because pictures say a lot. Karen thought that was a valid question since they didn’t have a visual representation of the fluency stories.”
At that point Ms. Avrit and Professor Larkin realized that there could be a way of using visual narrative to help in teaching punctuation.
“Their fluency program already has a brand called ‘Take Flight,’” Professor Larkin said. “So I thought, if I’m going to create intellectual property for the punctuation, I’ll need to give it a brand too. And of course I got really excited, because I love to create brands. Then I started thinking about color, typography, style of graphics, and on and on.”
From there Professor Larkin developed Ellah’s Tools. Ellah, standing for Experiential Language Learning At Home, could act as an at-home supplement to “Take Flight,” a fluency program developed by the Center for Dyslexia.
“Karen asked me if there was a way to allow parents access to the tools so they could use them at home for supplementing what was being done during therapy time at school,” Professor Larkin said.
Professor Larkin did extensive research and concepting in the process of creating Ellah’s Tools. She had to find a way to animate and teach six basic punctuation marks to children with learning differences, in a way that would keep them engaged.
“Just like with branding, when things are always the same sometimes consumers get tired of it,” Professor Larkin said. “So of course these consumers would be second and third grade children so I want to make it exciting. Every week I gave them a different genre. The comma is based on blues. And I thought, okay, who is someone that inspires me when it comes to blues; well that was BB King. So the song was the style of BB King’s music.”
Throughout the creation process, Professor Larkin never had any sort of budget. She used a combination of her own talents, friends’ talents, and purchasing inexpensive stock music to create prototypes. She used Garage Band to create and edit the music, and Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and Flash to create the final product.
“One of my Professors at Texas A&M actually has a blues band,” Professor Larkin said. “They’ve been around for years, and so Bill Ford was gracious to sing the lyrics for the comma. And sang it in his style to music that sounded like typical BB King blues. Because I don’t have a budget, I used a high definition recorder that I purchased. And we recorded in closets and small office spaces, so that there was limited echo. All of that came together in Flash and what we decided to do was instead of flushing out everything at the beginning, because it’s research…and things change, we thought…let’s do it in segments.”
Ellah’s Tools is designed to be a visual curriculum that reinforces what students learn in therapy. In creating the first prototype, Professor Larkin got parents involved through solicitation with therapists at schools in Wiley, Texas. Each week, she gave the therapists a package that include a DVD for parents to use at home and games to go along with the fluency stories.
“Parents were excited to participate. One parent told me that her daughter kept reminding her not to miss the meeting! I met with them for coaching on how to use the prototypes that we were putting together,” Professor Larkin said. “One of the stories was about different types of animals on a farm, so I [created] a scavenger hunt [game]. Another story was about some kids at the beach, so I created a word and image match game. The parents had that to play with alongside a list of prompts that they could use to excite their kids, what kind of conditions that the environment should be in when the kids are interacting with the tools for best case scenario.”
Professor Larkin was able to get feedback from the parents as well as the therapists collecting data. She created a pre- and a post-test for the therapists to evaluate the students. Both tested students not only on their fluency, but on prosody, and their comprehension of punctuation.
“The post-test revealed encouraging data,” Professor Larkin said. “All of the students showed improvement in their reading abilities and comprehension in at least one area. That was really exciting for what it meant to have children experience learning in a different way. It was multi-sensory and reinforced their therapy at home but in a fun way. When the study was done the parents participated in a survey on Survey Monkey. The feedback was great.”
Professor Larkin is hopeful for the future of design research. Last semester she met with the Budd Center at SMU, looking for the potential of sharing the punctuation prototypes with public schools in Dallas. She is also waiting to hear back from a unique school in Dallas that was created specifically for children with learning differences.
“My hope is that there is a way to be able to share these tools, and create more,” Professor Larkin said. “Right now there still isn’t a budget, so that means grant writing, begging, and convincing. I think visual narratives can assist all learning styles.”
TAI Assistant Professor Sidharth Muralidharan has been published in various academic journals, with five more publications forthcoming. His main research focuses are cross-cultural studies and advertising’s impact on mitigating social and environmental issues.
His most recent accepted publication is titled “‘Green’ with guilt: Assessing gender differences in ownership messaging efforts in support of England’s plastic bag charge.” The paper will be published in the Journal of Advertising Research, one of the major academic journals in the advertising field.
“There have been plastic bag ordinances where shoppers have the option of either buying plastic bags or avoiding the charge by bringing reusable bags,” Professor Muralidharan said. “One such law came into effect in England, UK. My co-author and I were interested to test the effectiveness of the law by exploring the interplay of guilt appeals in ads and gender on shoppers’ green attitudes and behavior.”
Professor Muralidharan and his co-author did a two-part study exploring gender differences in consumers’ feelings of guilt relating to reusable grocery bags in Study-1 and how each gender responded to guilt appeals in Study-2.
“Survey findings from Study-1 showed that guilt was more impactful on women and helped generate favorable green attitudes and behavior,” Professor Muralidharan said. “Based on these findings, Study-2 was designed to examine how men and women would respond to guilt appeals for green messages framed by egoistic (focus is on the self) and biospheric (focus is on the environment) concerns. Two ads were designed that elicited a moderate level of guilt related to egoistic (personal savings from bringing reusable bags) and biospheric (saving the environment by bringing reusable bags) concerns. Findings showed that egoistic concerns were more effective and that this effect was stronger for women than men.”
Professor Muralidharan believes that this research has managerial implications, saying that the UK government and green advertisers could change their messaging to appeal to egoistic values instead of emphasizing on the more typical environmental benefits.
“Guilt elicited by ads seems to motivate shoppers, especially women, to engage in pro-environmental behavior,” Professor Muralidharan said. “Using gender as a segmentation strategy, advertisers could elicit guilt by incorporating ownership messages in egoistic ads that credit shoppers for behaviors they have yet to begin (e.g., contributing to their personal savings by carrying reusable bags). For pro-environment attitudes and behavior to follow, advertisers should highlight egoistic solutions to the problem: benefits such as personal savings and positive emotions such as happiness. By doing so, advertisers will initiate coping mechanisms that allow consumers to mitigate emotional dissonance and encourage them to pursue pro-environment choices.”
Along with his research, Professor Muralidharan teaches four courses at SMU, including undergraduate (Survey of Advertising and Advertising, Society & Ethics), and graduate (Advertising as a Cultural Force and Responsibility and Social Entrepreneurship) courses.
“Ethics lacks importance in both college curriculum and the advertising industry,” Professor Muralidharan said. “On reading past student evaluations, I can say that my greatest accomplishment is when our students at the end of the semester realize the value of ethics and social responsibility in advertising.”
Research is a passion of Professor Muralidharan’s. Although it can be very time consuming to be both a professor and a researcher, he uses his love for research as motivation to balance the two.
“I’ve been teaching at SMU since 2012 and will complete five years by end of this semester,” Professor Muralidharan said. “I try to give equal importance to both teaching and research and being organized and strategic can help maintain a healthy balance. For my balancing act, I begin with teaching first since it is more structured and has a schedule in place, while trying to weave in my research endeavors whenever there are no teaching periods in between. Though research is more malleable, I still organize my research projects for the year, including deadlines and target journals. This is imperative in order to achieve my annual research goals.”
Professor Muralidharan has three other publications forthcoming in both the Asian Journal of Communication and the Journal of Promotion Management. Working on so many research projects has taught him the proper equation for doing research as well as improving his patience.
“I always try to work on research projects that explore advertising’s ability to help mitigate social and environmental issues,” Professor Muralidharan said. “During my tenure as a researcher, I have been fortunate enough to work with accomplished researchers and through collaborations I was able to learn new research methods and statistical analyses while at the same time improved my skills as a storyteller. A strong narrative and appropriate method/analysis go hand-in-hand and both are equally important to a study’s publication success. The multiple research projects I have worked on over the years have taught me a major lesson, which is patience. It can take months for a study to transform from an idea to having it published in a journal but the key is to view the journey as a marathon and not a 100-meter dash.”
Her most recent accepted publication about narrative advertising will be in the Journal of Advertising. She was motivated to start this research to create a more integrated framework to decipher what makes storytelling and narrative more effective.
“In previous studies, experiments used fake advertisements where consumers would watch and then judge [them],” Professor Kim said. “Most of storytelling advertising is in a video format. If you have to create the stimuli [ad] then it will be artificial. I tested with real TV commercials that aired on CBS over a two-week period from 5:30pm-11:30pm (2/20/2015-3/6/2015). Out of the 312 unique commercials aired, those ads were drawn into a random sample of 25 narrative and 25 non-narrative commercials. Four hundred and eighty-four participants were recruited from an online panel system; each participant was randomly assigned into either a narrative condition or non-narrative condition, watched a single commercial, and then answered a set of questions. I evaluated the responses for each category, comparing the two groups to see how storytelling [commercials] performed compared to non-storytelling commercials among criteria I created.”
This research means a lot to Professor Kim, as it started as her doctoral dissertation. She considers publication in the Journal of Advertising as one of her greatest career accomplishments to this point.
“It is a big accomplishment since Journal of Advertising is the top advertising journal, with an 8-9% acceptance rate,” Professor Kim said. “This paper is one of my dissertation studies that I won a doctoral dissertation proposal award from American Academy of Advertising in 2014. Narrative persuasion is one of the major research areas that I am focusing on. I want to build my reputation on the topic of narrative advertising. So, I say it was a very good start. My first narrative advertising study in the top advertising journal.”
Professor Kim teaches four courses at both the undergraduate and graduate level throughout the year, including Digital Media Strategy 1, Strategic Brand Management, Media Measurement and Metrics, and Theories of Persuasion. Since she started teaching at SMU last fall, Professor Kim has had to learn how to balance both her teaching and research responsibilities effectively.
“Balancing the two is not easy as a junior faculty [member],” Professor Kim said. “I try to set [aside] a time for research only. For example, I focus on teaching from Monday to Thursday and then try to work on research from Friday to Sunday. I teach four different classes per year, two per semester. Since three of them are newly created courses, it takes more time for me to prepare them. The other one is a graduate class. This was not a new course, but it was new to me since I started to teach the course last fall for the first time. Hopefully, next semester I can spend more time on research.”
Through her many years of research, Professor Kim has learned and gained a lot from her various research endeavors. Aside from theoretical and statistical methods and trainings, she considers patience and endless curiosity to be her biggest gains.
“Research is not a simple process,” Professor Kim said. “It takes long time to publish one paper. Conducting a research, including ideation, takes at least a year. Often times it takes more than a year if your data don’t cooperate. Once you conduct research, writing a research paper takes about six months depending on your time availability. Then you submit a paper. The review process takes about a year [sometimes longer]. After you submit a paper, authors usually go through 2-3 revisions until they publish. Now you can see why I have to be patient. [And] one research is not the end of the research on a specific topic. Usually, research at my hands inspires me a lot and makes me curious about why people behave in a certain way and why and how they arrive a certain choice. So over the years of research experience, I’ve got lots of research questions that I want to pursue. I create research idea documents and saved [them] in a folder labeled ‘Research ADD’ on my computer. There are so many interesting phenomena and research questions that I want to explore/solve. Believe or not, sometimes I can’t sleep because I can’t stop thinking about them.”
Because of this endless curiosity, Professor Kim will have many future research projects ahead of her. Her next project is a subsequent study about why some narrative ads are more effective than others. She is hopeful that the next paper will also be accepted by the Journal of Advertising.
“As we know, not all stories are equally interesting and fun,” Professor Kim said. “Likewise, not all storytelling ads are equally effective. For example, a story in an ad itself might not be interesting and attention capturing. Even if a story is very good (e.g., fun, interesting, moving, etc.), if the ad contains no brand information, the ad is not effective in terms of branding. If an ad contains too much brand information and the information is not well integrated into a story, this will interfere with the story flow and viewers would get easily get annoyed, thereby developing negative responses to the ad and the brand. Another case could be a situation where consumers cannot relate the ad or brand with themselves. Let’s say an ad story is very interesting/entertaining and brand information is well integrated in the ad. As an advertiser, you feel like you couldn’t do any better than this. You would expect very positive responses from target consumers; however, things could turn out badly if consumers cannot relate themselves with ad characters, situations, and/or advertised product or brand. Ad relevance is another big factor contributing to the effectiveness of narrative advertising.”