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Ethics - A Place to the East of London?

15/08/2013 13:59 BST | Updated 14/10/2013 10:12 BST

We don't often get to think about ethics so it is an interesting departure for the silly season to be dominated by them. To some minds, pornographers, usurers, rapists and racists, rage unfettered through the media. At the same time, giant monopolies garner swathes of our personal information and, in addition to exploiting it for commercial gain, disseminate it to shadowy governmental organisations without so much as a by your leave.

What are ethics and how do they concern us?

Ethics are the moral principles that govern a person's behaviour or the conducting of an activity.

There are many schools of ethics that provide plenty of variations on the theme. By way of flavour, here are some examples. The ancient Greeks believed that the virtues - things like justice, charity and generosity - are acts that benefit not only the individual that possesses them but also, by dint of their application, society as a whole. One might call it a kind of pyramid of goodness. With the Enlightenment, we get the idea that duty is central to morality. People are categorically bound, as rational beings, to respect other rational beings. And then there is the utilitarian view that the guiding principle of conduct should be the greatest benefit for the greatest number. And so on.

With that in mind, how on earth did the Home Office get to run the "go home" mobile billboards? Notwithstanding that the use of moving poster vans is of doubtful legality, what were the staff of the media agency, the printers, the media buyers, the media owners, the billposters and so on thinking? Did any of those involved stop and say that they wanted no part of this - either on the grounds of incitement to racial hatred or of the use of public funds to promote a party-specific agenda? Presumably it was just nodded through, thoughtlessly.

One can hardly blame them. What happens if someone does take a stand? Papiss Cissé's (a football player) objections to wearing a shirt emblazoned with the logo of a pay-day loan company were soon quashed after his private life had been scrutinised and he was exposed as an occasional gambler. Hypocrite, they say. Well maybe, but it doesn't negate the original objection to usurious interest rates. Nobody at his club came to his aid. He now wears the shirt.

And we have the soft shoe shuffle of the social media brands. It ought to be evident that if you take the cash for the site you are responsible for what is on it. "Not me guv" is not an appropriate response to hosting illegal threats and language, no matter how monopolistic and global one might be.

How does it feel to be a client of the companies that promote this stuff? The "Publicom" merger may well result in some client fall-out due to "conflict". We can be certain that no brand will refuse to share a stable with gamblers, loan sharks, tax dodgers or government snitches.

Sometimes it is hard not to think that we live in a void, untroubled by morals and content to cower in a crowd. There is a disparity between outrage and deeds. We do not take individual action and abandon those that offend us. Instead, we gather together with, for example, a "twenty-four hour Twitter boycott". It is a self-conscious act with little meaning and no threat.

The way to change things is to take personal responsibility. Channel a bit of Aristotle and refuse to participate in things that do not seem right. Don't work on the brief, book the ad or accept the money. So often we rage at the inadequacies of this regulator or that. It is the cover under which we hide. Why don't they do something? To which one might say - why don't we?

Exeter - a place in Heaven?

There are sunny uplands of righteousness.

Next summer's football World Cup coincides with the centenary of Brazil's first outing as a national team. Keen students of the game will know that their debut fixture was against Exeter City, who had been despatched to Rio to represent the English professional game.

Next July, immediately following the final, the Grecians will again appear at the stadium where the first match was played. They will face a Fluminense team that will feature players from other Brazilian sides.

What is amazing is that it is not the brainchild of a TV company or a sponsor but purely a result of the vision of the officials at the two clubs. They are determined to commemorate the occasion and are pressing ahead with only a rough idea as to how they can cover costs. Enough to warm the most heartless moral cockles.

James Whitmore is managing director at Route, the out-of-home advertising research body. He is a leading thinker in media, with a background in advertising agencies and strategy. This blog post first appeared in the online industry publication MediaTel, where James is a regular blogger.