OPINION: Marek Prchal, the black conscience of the Czech advertising industry

Marek Prchal
Marek Prchal

The black sheep was Marek Prchal, a marketer for the ANO party. 

The voluntary association of creative professionals is, of course, free to choose who it wants among its members. It is not a professional body like a doctors' union or a lawyers' association.

The Art Directors Club's decision does not mean that Marek Prchal can no longer do his job. The club is one of the interest groups in the Czech communications industry and does not include all Czech art directors. As its charter states, it has a primarily educational role and its most visible activity is probably the annual presentation of industry awards for the best campaigns.

The advertising industry in our country has some similarities with journalism. Adherence to industry rules is more or less a matter of professional honour and personal moral boundaries. As with journalists, anyone who wants to call themselves an advertising creative can do so. It is up to their professional and personal integrity to back up such a claim with years of professional activity. 

There are similarities in the impact that the internet and the world of social media have had on the industry. Suddenly, campaigns are being created by a large number of amateurs who feel no particular connection to the industry. They are out to make a quick profit and produce semi-finished products that no one in their right mind would have published a few years ago.

In fact, the advertising industry's reputation is often damaged by people who have never been part of a professional organisation. They work in corporate marketing positions or run independent agencies that push highly regulated products to celebrities to promote on social media. 

Experienced creatives and established agencies guard their reputations and try to steer clients towards a result that respects industry rules, laws and general social norms.

But let's not pretend that the Czech advertising industry is some kind of chaste virgin. Money talks. At first it looks a little shy, but then it takes the banknotes and looks away just in time.  A demonstrative step in the form of the expulsion of Marek Prchal cannot hide the fact that the industry has no problem with contracts that also have a detrimental effect on society, especially on health.

Art directors don't blink when they're preparing an advert for gambling. Maybe they'll even arrange for a universally respected celebrity to be imaginatively and literally plastered with the logo. Presenting hard liquor as a great way to have fun with friends? Bring it on, the Advertising Council may object, but business is business. Electronic cigarettes with nicotine refills? We might have to warn about the health risks. But we'll still offer them as stylish accessories in upmarket boutiques and on stalls staffed by carefully groomed assistants.

Do you need to flood the country with virtual financial products before a police force specialising in white-collar crime comes to pick you up? Don't hesitate to call. Consumer loans with crazy interest rates? Who are we to judge, how many of these adverts do you want? A government campaign that would cause the Supreme Audit Office bureaucrats to tear their hairs out? We'll do it, we won't claim much credit, and it'll fizzle out in a few years.

Andrej Babiš's presidential campaign is not the first to use borderline practices. The ANO party did not shy away from fear-mongering in the run-up to the parliamentary elections. It tried to motivate its voters with the lie: "The Pirates want to put migrants in people's houses". 

But Marek Prchal became a symbolic scapegoat, his expulsion from the Art Directors Club paying for the entire ANO marketing team's activities. Why him? Because other prominent figures behind the ideas, concepts, design and planning of Babiš's campaigns simply do not belong to this club. 

In an interview with Deník N, the club's chairman, David Suda, said that Prchal had not distanced himself in any way from what ANO was doing, so the others almost unanimously decided to exclude him.

I can't think of a creative who would disassociate himself from a campaign commissioned by his client or employer. Maybe somebody has. But it's more likely that creatives suffer in silence.

It's also worth adding that Prchal's actual involvement in Andrej Babiš's campaign is not publicly known. It was not important for the professional club. It was enough that they were tired of Marek Prchal.

Now the Art Directors Club is promising to draw up a code of ethics for political advertising. This is a praiseworthy step forward. But it leaves us with the same problem: it will only be binding on those who want to abide by it. And there will be no consequences for those who do not.

Note: The Czech version of this text appeared as a regular Monday commentary in the daily newspaper Hospodářské noviny (30 January 2023).

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