Ethics of Advertising
Nature of Advertising
- (#2) a public notice meant (a) to convey information and (b) invite patronage
or some other response. Inform and persuade ("stimulate demand").
From a marketing context, advertising could be defined as "a paid form
of nonpersonal communication about an organization and/or its products that
is transmitted to a target audience through a mass medium." Therefore
one kind of promotional activity, separate from publicity (free), sales promotion
(not forms of communication), and personal selling (not impersonal nor through
a mass medium).
- Morally neutral: neither in itself good nor bad.
Reason: Advertising is a tool.
Main Objections to Advertising
- Advertising is deceptivein whole or in part.
- Advertising weakens or undermines personal autonomy; that some kinds of
advertising are immoral. Advertising plays on human desires for security,
acceptance, self-esteem to influence consumer choices. John Kenneth Galbraiths:
the Dependence Effectindustrial production turns out goods to satisfy
wants, and at the same time creates the wants. Ex: mouthwash, anti-persperant,
So production is no long justifiable, the market is no longer self-correcting,
and human autonomy is undermined.
- F.A. von Hayek: almost all wants beyond primitive needs for food, shelter,
and sex are the result of cultural influences. Desires for art, music, and
literature are created by painters, musicians and novelists. Non sequitur
to hold that wants created by the forces that also satisfy them are less
urgent or less important. Worth of a want cannot depend on its source, but
on some other criterion.
- Advertising should not cynically exploit deep-seated emotions or short-circuit
logical thought processes. Good advertising appeals on many grounds, aesthetic,
intellectual, humorous, heart-warming. But it shouldnt deprive of
freedom of choice.
- Advertising promotes consumption as way of life (Christopher Lasch); it
empties communication of its content, destroys credence in the written or
spoken word (Robert Heilbroner); it is (often) tasteless and irritating, and
lowers culture in general
- [Economic objection] Advertising is a waste of resources (adds nothing to
the value of consumer products and diverts resources from the production of
more valuable goods) and inefficient (enables large firms with well-established
brand-name products to create and maintain monopoly conditions), largely a
nonproductive activity that stifles competition. Which would mean that it
actually harms the system in general.
- advertising increases value of a product by creating buyers of the product,
creates an expanding market, and actually has been shown to lower prices.
And there is no guarantee that dollars saved on advertising could be utilized
more efficiently, especially in a surplus economy
Ethical Principles especially relevant to Advertising
- Principles of the moral order must be applied to the domain of media
- Human freedom has a purpose: making an authentic moral response. All attempts to inform
and persuade must respect the purposes of human freedom if they are to be moral.
- Morally good advertising therefore is that advertising that seeks to move people to
choose and act rationally in morally good ways; morally evil advertising seeks to move
people to do evil deeds that are self-destructive and destructive of authentic community
- Means and techniques of advertising must also be considered: manipulative, exploitative,
corrupt and corrupting methods of persuasion and motivation
Three Specific Moral Principles
- RESPECT TRUTHFULNESS (deception objection)
- Never directly intend to deceive
- Never use simply untrue advertising
- Do not distort the truth by implying things that are not so or withholding
- "Puffery" is acceptable where it is consonant with recognized
and accepted rhetorical and symbolic practice
- RESPECT THE DIGNITY OF EACH HUMAN PERSON (attacks autonomy objection)
- Do not exploit our "lower inclinations" to compromise our
capacity to reflect or decide either through its content or through its
impact: using appeals to lust, vanity, envy and greed, and other human
- Give special care to the weak and vulnerable: children, young people,
the elderly, the poor, and the culturally disadvantaged
- RESPECT SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITIES (promotes consumption, empties communication,
- Example: Concern for the ecologyadvertising should not favor a
lavish lifestyle which wastes resources and despoils the environment
- Example: Advertising should not reduce human progress to acquiring material
goods and cultivating a lavish lifestyle
Benefits of Advertising
- Economic: useful tool for sustaining honest and ethically responsible competition by
informing people of the availability of rationally desirable new products and services and
improvements in existing ones
- Political: helps counteract tendencies toward the monopolization of power by informing
people of the ideas and policy proposals of parties and candidates
- Cultural: can exert a positive influence on decisions about media content; contribute
the betterment of society by uplifting and inspiring people and motivating them to act in
ways that benefit themselves and others. Importance of witty, tasteful and entertaining
advertising, even to the point of becoming art.1
- Moral and Religious: communicate messages of faith, patriotism, tolerance, compassion
and neighborly service, charity, health, education
Harms of Advertising
- Economic: misrepresent and without relevant facts; subvert the media by
pressure not to treat of questions that are embarrassing and inconvenient;
tout harmful or useless goods; move people based on non-rational decisions;
become a tool of "consumerism"; particularly harmful in economically
less developed countries
- Political: costs of advertising can limit political competition to wealthy
candidates or to those willing to compromise their integrity; distorts the
views and records of opponents
- Cultural: corrupt culture and cultural values by contradicting sound traditional
values; can create superficiality, tawdriness, and moral squalor; ignore educational
and social needs of certain segments of the audience; contributes to stereotyping
of particular groups
- Moral and religious harms: deliberate appeals to motives of envy, status
seeking, and lust creates vulgar and morally degrading advertising; treat
of religion in obnoxious and offensive manners; can promote morally suspect
or perverse products and practices
1. This is an interesting
point. Art is good, as are tasty, witty, entertaining things, as opposed
to tawdry, superficial things, full of moral squalor. But can we believe
an advertiser has a moral duty to provide such things?? I think so: by
- We all have the moral duty to do
good when reasonable and to avoid evil when possible.
- Advertisements (and media in general)
that are tasty, witty, entertaining does good for our culture, making it
more pleasant and humane, while tawdriness, superficiality, and moral squalor
harms the culture.
- Advertising has a great effect on
our culture in general, making this moral duty is all the more serious.
Therefore, advertisers have a moral
duty to create tasty, witty, entertaining advertisements when this is reasonable,
and to avoid tawdry, superficial and morally squalid advertising when that
can be avoided. The burden of proof would be upon the advertisers to
show why in any particular case the demand to make advertising tasty, witty,
and entertaining was an unreasonable demand, or why tawdry and superficial
advertisings couldn't have been avoided.