Should a design company work for competing political candidates?
October 25, 2012 4:39 PM   Subscribe

Is it ethical for a graphic design company to do advertising work for opposing political candidates at the same time?

I work for a design company in my town that is highly regarded among local advertising agencies, so these agencies tend to come to us first when they want to execute high quality graphic design for them.

But our cash flow is directly affected by our client's cashflow, so when our agency clients dont have much work, we don't have much work.

A few months ago, we started doing work for a local Mayoral candidate (a extremely heated and contentious race in my town), not necessarily because we believe in his cause, but because we've had a long, fruitful relationship with the ad agency who brought it to us.

Recently, an agency who is doing work for an opposing Mayoral candidate approached us to do work for them. The partners at my company accepted this work, on the basis that "we need the work", as well as the fact that we also have a well established relationship with this agency, and don't want to say "no" to them.

Yes, we need the work, but we aren't anywhere near close to going bankrupt. Not even in the same neighborhood. Personally, I despise the ethics and viewpoints of one of the candidates, and should he win in November, I'd hate to think that my company had a hand in his success. I believe that designers are responsible for the work they put out into the world, even moreso when working on things like political campaigns. It just feels sleazy to be taking money from people who are running against each other, esp. when our creativity is supposedly being leveraged to help the success of their respective campaigns.

Am I being too idealistic here? And if not, how can I convince my partners that we shouldn't be doing this?
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you don't feel it is ethical, you should quit. If you think that is going too far, I think you need to re-examine your feelings about the relationship between a designer and client.
posted by mzurer at 4:54 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sounds like you've actually got two questions here. 1: It it ok to do work for opposing candidates at the same time? 2: Is it ok to do work for a candidate you don't agree with?

For question 1, I think the biggest issue is whether both campaigns know you're doing work for the opposition. There are potential conflict of interest issues, but it's possible that from the campaigns' perspectives any risk there is outweighed by the fact that your shop is the best in town.

For question 2, I think it may come down to how much you are becoming a vessel for the message (creative work crafting an ad campaign), rather than providing a more value-neutral service (layout for yard signs). If it's more the former, then it's a tricky issue. If it's the latter, you can ask yourself -- if you were a dry cleaner, would you refuse to clean the suits of a candidate you disagreed with? Would you turn down that candidate's business because your cleaning of his/her suits would make him/her look sharp in TV appearances?
posted by the jam at 4:56 PM on October 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

Companies service clients with competing interests all the time. In this case - I'd say that that your company needs to take steps to make sure that the same people do not work on both projects (Chinese walls). As long as they disclose to each client that they do work for the other - but steps have been taken so integrity of client confidentiality is maintained - then they are within their rights to take on the work.

If they have not disclosed this fact - they are opening themselves for a whole world of potential legal hurt.
posted by helmutdog at 4:59 PM on October 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't know if it's ethical or not, but it's potentially dicey in the eyes of the other political professionals involved. The consultants and staffers working for the respective campaigns (at least in the US) are highly likely to think it's unethical, or at least something that's not to be done. For example, if you were a firm that specialized in design for political stuff there's no way you'd be able to build a client base working both sides.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 5:20 PM on October 25, 2012

Assuming the firm knows how to separate competing work, it's just a personal issue for you. If you want to bring your politics into your work, then you will find yourself constricted in acceptable employers. At the same time, you might find some good opportunities at firms that brand themselves as partisan.

That said, if that's what your partners said, they sound like they might not be able to achieve the ideal level of dispassionate neutrality here, so I think there's a case for not taking both jobs this time around.

In my town, there tends to be firms that take republican or democratic work because most firms are connected in one area or another and don't have the staff and/or processes to pull off the separation and I'd imagine this to be the more common arrangement.
posted by michaelh at 5:23 PM on October 25, 2012

I wonder which national overnight delivery firm the Republicans use vs the Democrats.

Or whether a restaurant would allow Obama's campaign staffers to eat there the night after Romney's had.

But think about this a different way: political parties are not the only lines along which one might segregate clients, and if you start taking those combinations into account, what you end up with is that every person or entity basically needs its own provider for every professional service offered, which is untenable.

If you have serious ethical misgivings about the work you do, go work somewhere else, but let's not pretend the reason is that your company is doing something shady.
posted by toomuchpete at 5:25 PM on October 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

If your company can keep the two sides' work and information separate and confidential, with different employees working on each project, and no one involved on either side is worried about any perception of conflict of interest, were it to get out that your firm had worked for both sides, then you're OK. But if both of those conditions aren't or can't be met, your firm should choose one side or the other.
posted by limeonaire at 5:45 PM on October 25, 2012

I used to work in campaigns. Every vendor I have ever used also worked for the opposition. Here in Portland there is one firm that does all of the printing, one firm that does all of the book keeping, and a couple of people that do all of the websites.

As long as you are not being forced to put out a substandard product because your boss doesn't like the client you are in no ethical quandary.
posted by munchingzombie at 5:50 PM on October 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

I work for a t-shirt company, and I can't imagine turning down work from one or the other or both of competing candidates, nor would I feel a need to disclose, because I'm not advising them on how to run their campaign and I'm not learning anything from one camp that complicates my relationship with the other. The only thing I'm really learning from either camp, period, is how many t-shirts they want and what they're putting on them. The first piece of info is clearly confidential both ways, the other is no secret once they're delivered anyway. And in most cases I'm not even doing the design decisions - they're just handing me a design.

I'd feel the need to disclose if I were handling things like a website, which would likely be receiving/storing/handling information like visitors, and I could see where layout could be a grey area. If it gets into copy writing or editing services, then you'd be open for charges that one side got the A game and one didn't, or one side learned campaign points from the other. If one copy writer did both pieces and you're having to deal with charges and rebuttals and wordsmithing that, that could turn into a mess. OTOH, at the other end of the spectrum, if you're just doing yard signs, meh.

I think I'd disclose to the second candidate that you're already working for the first candidate before taking him or her on if the work is pretty simplistic, and I think I'd probably refuse the second candidate if I had to do Deep Thinking about writing copy, as I just don't see that as fair to either side. Unless, as others have suggested, you have the resources to firewall the creative.
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:52 PM on October 25, 2012

It'd be ethical to work for both if, and ONLY if, both campaigns know and accept the arrangement, preferably in writing, plus all the work is done by two entirely unconnected and autonomous teams: absolutely NO overlap between them. No shared designers, graphic artists or other team members, and not even a shared workspace.

But perhaps the need for such a sharp divide would make it possible to gracefully convince your partners that it simply wouldn't be possible to split your limited resources like that, while still being fair to both campaigns and producing work that is up to your usual high standards. (Sort of an "aw shucks, I really wish we COULD, we'd certainly be honored to help, but we just don't have the manpower. Sorry!")
posted by easily confused at 5:59 PM on October 25, 2012

There is a conflict in my mind for working for opposing candidates, which can be dealt with by disclosing it and/or walling people off.

On the issue of creating content for someone you disagree with, that's a personal call. If you're not willing to quit, though, it's hard to expect the firm to turn down the business on that basis.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:04 PM on October 25, 2012

I don't think there is a problem with a company doing work for the two opposing candidates, provided that the work is given to separate teams and kept confidential within them. It's a compliment to your firm that both candidates chose you.

You can certainly stress that you would prefer to work on the campaign of the candidate you favor and your employers may respect that. If they don't, though, you are still obviously going to want to give the sleazy candidate your best work, because you are a professional, and that is what professionals do for the clients.

So you are going to have to find a way to reconcile what you will be doing at work with your own ethics and your own political stance.

Ideally, if you feel your work gives the "bad guy" an edge and it's bothering you, you can adjust for that edge by doing something for the "good guy"'s campaign outside of work.

Why not volunteer for the "good guy", put signs on your lawn, post flyers, or do whatever you can to equal the playing field that way? That way, you keep your job, the firm looks good and the clients are happy.
posted by misha at 6:20 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is it ethical for a vendor to do creative work for two competing restaurants? What about competing law firms? Hospitals? Dry cleaners? Car washes? Radio stations?

How would these things ever get done in very small towns if every business or politician in competition had to use different vendors? It's completely untenable once you do the thought exercise.

Yes, of course it's ethical to have clients who are in competition. No Chinese wall necessary.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 6:23 PM on October 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

To me the issue here is how you feel about *one* of the clients, not whether you're doing work for both.
posted by radioamy at 6:35 PM on October 25, 2012

Color, design and layout are color, design and layout.

Since what you are doing is graphic design, I see absolutely no conflict. As a professional you should be turning out quality work no matter what soap or candidate your graphics are pushing.

If you were actually the one coming up with, say, political slogans or other copywriting jobs, I might feel differently.

(My husband has actually ordered, had printed, and/or sold campaign signs for himself and for other candidates. The people doing the work do it for everyone and no one gives it a second thought.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:57 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I always say that the only people I won't work for are Holocaust deniers, because I look at images all day long, and I can't unsee the photos of the camps. Your ethics do you credit, but I doubt that your firm's efforts are really going to play a huge part in the election of either party.If you're an employee, you can quit. if you're a partner or a founder of the company, you have to balance your personal views against the needs of the entire organization--things look very different when you have to pay rent and make payroll.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:59 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not a problem. You are a service company, and you are professionals.
posted by gjc at 7:40 PM on October 25, 2012

I think I just saw a tv commercial for either kinko's or some such outfit where both opposing candidates are at the counter picking up their merchandise. They are trying to be friendly while stabbing each other in the back. One printer, one designer, one firm does work for multiple candidates simultaneously all the time.

As for helping a candidate your oppose, that is a personal decision.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:52 PM on October 25, 2012

You are way too idealistic. This is something that shouldn't even be given a second thought.
posted by JJ86 at 5:41 AM on October 26, 2012

Is your company doing any of the conceptual work or just visual design? If you are coming up with ideas for the advertisements you'd want to at least make sure each team is well firewalled so that any inside info you get on one candidate isn't used for the opposing candidate's work. But if you are just executing visual design based on the concepts provided to you by your partners the conflict is not as great.

Word to the wise, though. If you guys have a signature style it will be dead obvious that the same firm did the designs for both candidates. Even if you don't, it could still come out. If it hasn't already been disclosed that you were working with both sides it could be very embarrassing for your agency partners. The candidates have no guarantee that your partners didn't share any important inside info with you. You could lose the business relationships with one or both partners over this.
posted by rocketpup at 6:58 AM on October 26, 2012

It is ethical for the same reason that it is ethical for, say, a computer manufacturer to sell to clients in both Israel and Saudi Arabia. Or Greece and Turkey. Or the US and Cuba (in the case of a non-US firm that doesn't have to comply with American sanctions).

But it is good practice to separate the teams working on this to avoid conflicts of interest, the appearance of conflicts of interest, and any inadvertent leakage of confidential information from one client to the other.
posted by plep at 8:21 AM on October 26, 2012

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