What Are The Ethics For Agencies When A Client Is Doing ‘Science’?

What Are The Ethics For Agencies When A Client Is Doing ‘Science’?

We’re being bombarded with facts and figures from self-interested groups with a message to peddle. But in this opinion piece, CEO of Holler, Mike Hill, argues it’s agencies that are the ones that are forced to make the campaigns based on claims that often hold little substance at all…

Mike Hill
Posted by Mike Hill

As a proponent of GM technology and a natural skeptic, this ad by Forsman & Bodenfors caught my eye when it popped up in my feed 50 times in the space of two days. A swathe of top creative and ad execs perpetuated this nonsense on social media with an air of ‘I told you so’ arrogance. Meanwhile, the scientific community is looking at us like a pack of slack-jawed mental midgets.


The subject of my distain was commissioned by Swedish Supermarket chain Coop, to conduct an experiment to determine what happens to your body when you switch from eating conventionally farmed foods to organic.

They enlisted the help of a typical Swedish family (the Palmbergs) to take part in their three-week experiment. In the first week, the five members of the family ate their usual non-organic meals, and provided urine samples each day. In independent tests conducted by the Swedish Environmental Research Institute, eight of a chosen twelve pesticides showed up in their systems.

Then came the big reveal: for the remainder of the study the Palmbergs switched to 100% organic food. New urine samples were taken, and after a few days almost all of the pesticides had miraculously disappeared.

Sounds pretty harmless, right? Wrong.

Before I tell you why, it’s important we clear up the biggest Myth about Organic Foods: “Organic farmers don’t use pesticides”. This is just bollocks. Organic farmers use pesticide just like conventional farmers. This is not opinion, this is fact.

What was not clear from the Forsman & Bodenfors campaign, is that the agency omitted crucial data to fit their argument. They did not test for residues from the many pesticides used in organic agriculture, such as lime sulphur, pyrethrums or iron (III) phosphate, to name just a few.

The glaringly obvious conclusion to their study is that pesticides used in conventional farming do not show up in the body when eating organic food (just as pesticides used in organic agriculture do not show up in conventionally farmed foods). Who would’ve thought?

As Melanie Mallon points out in her excellent and damming expose of this experiment, this is the equivalent of proving that not drinking alcohol will lead to little or no alcohol in your system, compared with drinking alcohol.

This study is woeful in it’s scientific validity. It wouldn’t pass in a grade four Science Fair. It’s actually pseudoscience, perpetuated by unqualified quacks and passionate bloggers. It’s as bad as the ignorance of anti-vaxxers and chemtrail nutbags, and an experiment that has gone out of its way to skew the data to mislead the general public and create a story that is simply not true.

But so what? It’s not doing anyone harm, is it? So some people will eat more organic foods, who cares? Why has this Swedish ad agency’s flawed experiment got me so riled up?

I should be clear: I am not anti-organic, I am just pro-GMO. And while this experiment does not specifically tackle the GMO debate, the general public sees Organic and GMO as opposing forces. Good vs. Evil. Anything pro-organic is seen as anti-GMO and vice versa. This ad is inadvertently slowing or even reversing progression in the acceptance of GMO as a safe, environmentally friendlier way of doing big agriculture.

And fear mongering about macro issues like this kills people.

Take for example Greenpeace and green activists, who have continued to roadblock legislation and progress into the life-saving Golden Rice. A recent study suggested that the delayed application of Golden Rice in India alone has cost nearly 1.5 million life years since 2002, when it was originally shelved. This accounts not only for those who died, but also for the blindness and other health disabilities caused by vitamin A deficiencies.

In the age of (mis)information, the internet has become a breading ground for self-inflated, ‘experts’ on food and health. Bloggers such as Vani Hari AKA Food Babe, whose wild claims include that microwaves can cause severe health issues, have amassed armies of scientifically-ignorant fans only too willing to take her unqualified scaremongering as gospel.

For every Yvette d’Entremont, an analytical chemist who recently posted an article slating Food Babe, there are millions of people who accept the opinions of bloggers like Vani and supermarket chains as truth verbatim.

Which leads us back to our Swedish friends Forsman & Bodenfors. Should we just accept that this is the nature of advertising, and if an ethically-questionable study increases the sales of organic goods in Coop’s stores across Sweden, then surely they have just done their job?

I would passionately argue that we should not. I hope that we’re all better than this. I’m not talking about the blurry-lined advertising we’ve all been part of at a product or brand level. This is bigger. It’s a category job. It’s affecting millions of people.

Forsman & Bodenfors’ short video documenting the Coop campaign was as clever as it was deceitful, carrying all the hallmarks of legitimate scientific study. It included sound bites from a white coat professor tucked away in a lab and eye-catching ‘before and after’ graphics that attempt to leave you in no doubt that anything but organic food is effectively poison. If this wasn’t enough to stir the fear in your bones or tug on the heartstrings, they included the Palmberg’s children next to the graphs to remind you that not only are you poisoning yourself, you’re also poisoning your own children. For the love of God not the children!

It begs the question as to whether advertising is still stuck in the ethical dark ages of the 1950s (remember the ‘freshness of smoking’?) where agencies can brazenly cherry pick data and present something to the public that leaves out any inconvenient information.

Big data is certainly the buzzword of the moment and has an integral role to play in the world of advertising. At Holler, we use data to gather insights we can’t get anywhere else. As much as we depend on these insights to strengthen the causes of our clients, we are acutely aware of responsibility to use data correctly, and above all honestly.

None of us are squeaky clean in advertising. It’s our job to persuade, and to do so we’ll leverage emotions, embellish truths, invent needs and select facts. But when we start fixing the results and calling it science, I say we’ve crossed the line. As advertisers we have a moral (not to mention legal) duty to the truth, especially when it comes to macro trends like big agriculture, which can have far-reaching and potentially tragic implications.

Whether Forsman & Bodenfors lied or simply didn’t understand the data is debatable. They were either deceitful or stupid, and both are inexcusable when communicating such a significant message.