As Amped-Up Ad, Data Privacy Laws Near, Self-Regulated Programs Matter More

As we prepare ourselves for federal (and state) legislation around privacy and advertising, it’s worth taking account of our own industry’s self-regulated programs — both those here at home and worldwide.

As we prepare ourselves for federal (and state) legislation around privacy and advertising, it’s worth taking account of our own industry’s self-regulated programs — both those here at home and worldwide.

Why? Because even in an age of regulation, self-regulation — and adherence to self-regulatory principles and ethics codes of business conduct — matter. One might argue that legal compliance in industry is good enough, but business reputations, brand equity and consumer trust are built on sterner stuff.

Having a code of conduct is exemplary in itself, but I’d like to address a vital component of such codes: enforcement.

Self-Regulated programs
Transparency & Accountability in Advertising Self-Regulation Matter Greatly. | Credit: Chet Dalzell

Credibility in Codes Requires Peer Review & Accountability

Behind the scenes, every day, there are dozens of professionals in our field who serve — as volunteers and as paid professionals — to monitor the ethical practice of advertisers, who devise and update the codes we adhere to, who educate companies that proactively reach out to them, who work with companies and brands that go astray to resolution, and who enforce and refer non-compliant companies to government agencies, when necessary.

They may take complaints directly from consumers, competitors and industry observers. They may employ technologies and their own eyes and ears to monitor the marketplace. They may meet regularly as volunteers as a jury to deliberate on any need for corrective action. And, usually, they have a “contact us, before we contact you” operations effect: brands and businesses can proactively ask ethics programs questions about the “right” way (by the consumer) to execute a marketing practice, so it doesn’t prompt a formal query after a mistake is made after the fact.

Importantly, credibility depends, too, on reporting publicly on outcomes — potentially to “name and shame,” but most often to work cooperatively with businesses and to serve as an industry education vehicle in the reporting of correction and the resolution process. Generally, “punitive” is when a non-cooperative company is referred to a government agency for further action. Government agencies, for their part, tend to wholeheartedly welcome any effective effort to keep the marketplace aligned with the consumer. It helps when brands and consumer interests are in sync.

Accountability Programs Deserve Our Industry’s Expertise & Ongoing Financial Support

All told, these important players in our field serve us well, even as we face what might be referred to as co-regulation (government regulation on top of self-regulation). While any potential business mishap — for example, in the handling of consumer data or the questionable content of an ad — has its own set of facts and ramifications, a demonstration of good-faith efforts to adhere to ethical business practices might be seen as a mitigating factor, even as a brand finds itself needing to take a corrective action.

Agility, flexibility and responsiveness … these are all attributes of successful self-regulation — as well as successful accountability. Effective self-regulation serves to keep pace with innovations in our field, and “point the way” for other companies, as issues arise. (The rigidity of laws rarely can accommodate such innovations.)

While industry professionals may serve as volunteers on juries and review panels — it can be fascinating to serve on such panels — there is almost always an infrastructure of programs and staffs underpinning self-regulation success. Trade associations may finance some of these efforts with membership dollars — but usually businesses can lend their own resources directly, too. It’s great to have a seat at the table.

Marketing Ethics & Self-Regulation Programs — A Partial Listing

In all likelihood, there are potentially many more codes of conduct — particularly in vertical fields (pharma, travel, non-profit, retail, etc.) — but here is a brief listing of advertising-related codes and programs that may be helpful to catalog, bookmark, research and support, with some of which I’ve had the honor to be associated:

Please feel free to use the Comments section to suggest others. And thank you to every volunteer and staff person who serves or has served in an industry accountability capacity. It makes a world of difference, with marketplace trust of advertising and advertisers being the ultimate goal.