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Why Advertising Is An Ethical Problem

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Why is advertising an ethical problem?

* If it is, it is because it is often intrusive, deceptive, or manipulative -- or, at least, this is what people say about it.

* Another problem is the money and resources devoted to advertising; billions are spent each year (around $500 billion in fact) that, perhaps, could go to education, health care, research, reforestation, or other worthy causes. We'll come back to this, but first we look at the problem of deception.

* Could argue that it distorts our whole economy; it is not merely that we are bombarded by it all the time, but may even impede certain important functions such as free debate. What gets published in newspapers and journals often becomes a function of what advertisers are willing to support.

Advertising also has an indirect but powerful impact on society through its influence on media. Many publications and broadcasting operations depend on advertising revenue for survival. This often is true of religious media as well as commercial media. For their part, advertisers naturally seek to reach audiences; and the media, striving to deliver audiences to advertisers, must shape their content so to attract audiences of the size and demographic composition sought. This economic dependency of media and the power it confers upon advertisers carries with it serious responsibilities for both.


a) Economic Benefits of Advertising

5. Advertising can play an important role in the process by which an economic system guided by moral norms and responsive to the common good contributes to human development. Advertising does this, among other ways, by informing people about the availability of rationally desirable new products and services and improvements in existing ones, helping them to make informed, prudent consumer decisions, contributing to efficiency and the lowering of prices, and stimulating economic progress through the expansion of business and trade.

b) Benefits of Political Advertising

Political advertising can make a contribution to democracy analogous to its contribution to economic well being in a market system guided by moral norms. So political advertising can make its contribution by informing people about the ideas and policy proposals of parties and candidates, including new candidates not previously known to the public.

c) Cultural Benefits of Advertising

This they do by supporting material of excellent intellectual, aesthetic and moral quality presented with the public interest in view, and particularly by encouraging and making possible media presentations which are oriented to minorities whose needs might otherwise go unserved. Moreover, advertising can itself contribute to the betterment of society by uplifting and inspiring people and motivating them to act in ways that benefit themselves and others.

d) Moral and Religious Benefits of Advertising

In many cases, too, benevolent social institutions, including those of a religious nature, use advertising to communicate their messages -- messages of faith, of patriotism, of tolerance, compassion and neighborly service, of charity toward the needy, messages concerning health and education, constructive and helpful messages that educate and motivate people in a variety of beneficial ways.


a) Economic Harms of Advertising

More often, though, advertising is used not simply to inform but to persuade and motivate -- to convince people to act in certain ways: buy certain products or services, patronize certain institutions, and the like. This is where particular abuses can occur.

The practice of "brand"-related advertising can raise serious problems. Often there are only negligible differences among similar products of different brands, and advertising may attempt to move people to act on the basis of irrational motives ("brand loyalty," status, fashion, "sex appeal," etc.) instead of presenting differences in product quality and price as bases for rational choice.

a tool of the "phenomenon of consumerism," that is, to cause people to feel and act upon cravings for items and services they do not need. "If ... a direct appeal is made to his instincts -- while ignoring in various ways the reality of the person as intelligent and free -- then consumer attitudes and life-styles can be created which are objectively improper and often damaging to his physical and spiritual health."

b) Harms of Political Advertising

This happens when, for example, the costs of advertising limit political competition to wealthy candidates or groups, or require that office-seekers compromise their integrity and independence by over-dependence on special interests for funds.

Such obstruction of the democratic process also happens when, instead of being a vehicle for honest expositions of candidates' views and records, political advertising seeks to distort the views and records of opponents and unjustly attacks their reputations. It happens when advertising appeals more to people's emotions and base instincts -- to selfishness, bias and hostility toward others, to racial and ethnic prejudice and the like -- rather than to a reasoned sense of justice and the good of all.

c) Cultural Harms of Advertising

Consider also the cultural injury done to these nations and their peoples by advertising whose content and methods, reflecting those prevalent in the first world, are at war with sound traditional values in indigenous cultures. Today this kind of "domination and manipulation" via media rightly is "a concern of developing nations in relation to developed ones," as well as a "concern of minorities within particular nations."

In the competition to attract ever larger audiences and deliver them to advertisers, communicators can find themselves tempted -- in fact pressured, subtly or not so subtly -- to set aside high artistic and moral standards and lapse into superficiality, tawdriness and moral squalor.

Communicators also can find themselves tempted to ignore the educational and social needs of certain segments of the audience -- the very young, the very



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