In his book Corporation 2020, environmentalist Pavan Sukhdev argues that “ethics in advertising are at best an inspiration, most often an option to be exercised when it suits the client and at worst, an oxymoron”.

The UK public relations (PR) agency Bell Pottinger’s actions are a clear illustration of this. It took on a contract from Oakbay Capital, a holding company owned by the controversial Gupta family of South Africa, designed to place them in a better light. The Guptas are accused of having undue influence on, and possibly corrupting, the government led by president Jacob Zuma, although both parties have denied the allegations.

The agency has in the past represented what many would see as unsavoury regimes, taking as clients the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, the Pinochet Foundation, Asma al-Assad (wife of Syria’s president Bashar Al-Assad), and the Sri Lankan government when it faced worldwide condemnation for alleged war crimes.

In South Africa, the actions of the agency appear to have been intended to deflect attention away from the activities of the Gupta family. The agency is alleged to have deliberately stoked racial tensions in a country that is still coming to terms with a post-apartheid society. By building a campaign that sought to emphasise a racial dimension – including allegedly inventing the phrase “white monopoly capital”, according to a report by law firm Herbert Smith Freehills – Bell Pottinger crossed the line of morality to indulge in behaviour more often seen in extremist politicians.

In a statement in July, the company’s chief executive (who subsequently resigned his post) said the firm believed much of what had been alleged about its work was not true, “but enough of it is to be of deep concern”. Bell Pottinger said it wished to issue “a full, unequivocal and absolute apology to anyone impacted”.

The firm has received its comeuppance, having been thrown out of its industry association. As a PR firm claiming to be able to help its clients develop more positive public relations and protct reputations, the fact that it could not handle its own suggests that its days may be numbered.

The Bell Pottinger case raises deeper questions. Is it possible to work ethically for morally ambiguous people or to sell products that cause harm?

Maybe the issue, as Sukhdev argues, is a wider one relating to the accountability of advertising in general. We live now in an era of well-publicised “fake news”. The UK’s Brexit campaign promise of saving £350m (€385m) a week in payments to the EU, to be instead spent on the National Health Service, was a clear example. However, US president Donald Trump’s tirades against news channels whenever they report facts that he does not like also illustrate the dangers of an amoral approach to dissemination of information.

Advertising, marketing and PR agencies play a fundamental role in market economies – even though, as a sector, it may be relatively small. Advertising agencies and practitioners, says Sukhdev, see themselves as consultants assisting their business clients. They understand the ethics or externalities of their clients’ businesses but generally do not take a stand; they are there to carry out their clients’ will.

Great historical successes, according to Sukhdev, have included: a 1968 Leo Burnett agency campaign to introduce Virginia Slims, the first cigarette designed specifically with the female consumer in mind; Saatchi and Saatchi’s campaign for the tobacco brand Silk Cut, which avoided the letter of the law in banning tobacco advertising but not the spirit when it left out the logo for Silk Cut; and perhaps most notoriously the campaign to promote powdered baby milk instead of breast milk amongst very poor mothers in developing countries, which ultimately led to many avoidable deaths.

Advertising doyen David Ogilvy has said: “Advertising reflects the mores of society, but does not influence them.” But, as Sukhdev argues, mothers had been influenced and their babies were paying the price.

Sukhdev raises the question of why advertising should change now if it has not changed much over the past 100 years. His answer is that because “if it does not change, it faces extinction”.

That may be hopeful thinking, as it is not clear what in a free society – beyond overpowering and unacceptable state intervention – could force it to change. Yet when social media has effectively removed the ability for many to differentiate between what is truth and what is fiction, the ethics of advertisers and related practitioners require even more scrutiny than before.