Yesterday, NPR reported a story about some powerful federal government agencies wanting to regulate how junk food marketers advertise to kids. They’ve developed voluntary guidelines that apply not only only to kids 12 and under, but to teens, as well.

Teens constitute a huge market for fast food, and the marketers know it; a recent study by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obestity says that fast food marketers spent $4.2 billion on advertising and promotion in 2009, and teens see an average of 4.7 TV spots a day for fast food. And that’s just TV–and just fast food. The NPR story also noted this Doritos campaign aimed at teens. It’s a slick, sophisticated, and smart. (And gross. And disturbing. But I’m not the target.)

You know what else we know? That we have a major problem with childhood obesity in America, and a diet high in fat and sugar and

“I decided I’m going to get a head start on clogging my arteries.”

carbohydrates is a big contributing factor. According to Fast Food F.A.C.T.S., teens ages 13-17 purchase 800-1,100 calories in an average fast food meal–roughly half of their recommended total daily calories. And–guess what?–teens notice calorie information, but don’t care about it.

Should we protect teens from themselves by limiting their exposure to junk food advertising? I don’t see how that can happen–and I’m not sure it should. There’s too much overlap with adults. As a spokesperson for the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative said, “…we let kids drive and we let them hold jobs when they’re 16. They can get married in some states, and they can join the military with permission, and they can be held criminally responsible for their actions in a number of situations. So I think that the notion that…you can’t let a kid see an ad for a french fry but you can let them join the military doesn’t really make a lot of sense.”

But I’m more interested in the ethical question posted yesterday by Neal Brown on Twitter: how do we in the advertising industry justify promoting products we know are bad for our customers?

There’s really only one answer, and it’s identified above. (Hint: there’s a 4.2 in it.) Junk food companies spend a crazy amount of money on advertising because they’re trying to move massive numbers of units; the creators of the aforementioned Doritos campaign, for example, cited 5 million units sold as a result of the previous year’s campaign aimed at teens. Lots of advertising types are more than willing to rationalize the fact that junk food really isn’t good for teens; after all, nobody’s telling kids they should eat this stuff every day. (They’re just telling kids every day that they should eat this stuff.)

McDonald’s…Frito-Lay…Coke…Snickers…Red Bull…huge advertisers who hire the smartest advertising people in the world to spend billions of dollars on their behalf. To entice people–including children–to buy more of their products. Would you walk away from that kind of money?

And where do you draw the line? Major polluters? Cigarette companies? Politicians? How much does it depend on the money?

It shouldn’t depend on the money at all. But it does.

Have we ever worked for a client whose product gave us moral doubts? The honest answer is yes–but not for long. Did we do it for the money?

Of course, we did. We do everything for the money*. It’s business.

But, ultimately, if you’re doing something you’re not proud of, it’s bad business. You’ll become cynical. You’ll sleep badly. Your work will suffer, which won’t do your client any favors. You shouldn’t have to sell your soul to sell your clients’ products.

It’s something we have to consider every time we take on a new client–and continually over the course of our relationships. Do our clients produce their products in a socially responsible way? Are they honest about the benefits? Is what they do consistent with what we believe is right?

The first of our eight guiding principles says, “We are here to tell the world about how your product makes the world a better place. If your product does not, in some way, make people’s lives better, we can’t help you.” We take this very seriously. We think everyone involved with marketing should.

*Actually, we have a long track record of not doing everything for the money. Few companies do as much pro bono and cut-rate work for not-for-profit organizations as we do. We’re suckers for a great cause.