Advertising ethics Advertising has always been part of American culture. From colonial times, this country has promoted itself.
Advertising ethics Americans generally support extensive advertising in their culture. We believe rational people can be savvy enough to sort out advertising appeals.
Advertising ethics We know advertising has powerful effects in society. We don’t often know when, and how, however. Advertising’s supporters say self-interest brings buyers and sellers together so everyone is happy. Critics say ads exploit the public and appeals to people’s worst side.
Advertising ethics Advertising relates to media ethics in a variety of areas: Stereotypes. What is appropriate to advertise? How to make appropriate advertising pitches? What kind of ads should appear, in what media? How far should advertisers invade privacy?
Advertising ethics Ethics philosophers say one standard doesn’t apply to advertising: truth. By “truth,” in this case, we mean, fair, unbiased accounts. Advertising does not generally provide that. Most advertising can be called “opinion”: the tastiest beer, the sexiest perfume. These claims can’t usually be verified as “true.”
Advertising ethics The Federal Trade Commission regulates most advertising for outright lying or deception. You can’t make false statements in an attempt to deceive. But this often is a gray area.
Advertising ethics Fair and balanced doesn’t apply to advertising. Advertising plays up strong points, and plays down weaknesses. We presume the public knows this, but some people really don’t quite remember that.
Advertising ethics Rationally it would be good to demand that advertisers use clear, relevant and truthful evidence to support a claim. But most advertisers don’t appeal to a rational side. Instead they try to create an appealing lifestyle around a product. “Evidence” is irrelevant.
Advertising ethics We can identify special cases regarding advertising that are worth closer examination in a discussion of media ethics.
Advertising ethics First is political advertising. Should political candidates, central to the democratic process, be advertised using evidence and rational appeal? We know they are not. Political advertisers may argue that the goal is persuasion, and if they stray from the truth, the “marketplace of ideas” will sort out misleading information.
Advertising ethics So, once again, those in favor of advertising shift the burden of sorting out the good from the bad to society. But should not advertisers share that burden?
Advertising ethics Second case: advertising from groups professing an ideology. Ecology, animal rights, abortion, gun rights, anti- smoking, etc. Do these groups have some ethical responsibility to tell the truth? Many groups argue their cause is critically important. But where do we draw the line?
Advertising ethics Third, advertising for harmful produces. What is the ethical standard for things that can hurt people? Cigarette ads, of course, have been carefully controlled. Since 1971 they have been banned from television. These clearly were the kind of ads that appealed to children, and today, it is hard to defend their ethical use. [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYvOgnabABU]defend their ethical use.
Advertising ethics Okay, so cigarette advertising today is fairly tightly controlled. But what about ads for alcohol, guns, pornography, strip joints, term paper companies…all legal, but not necessarily always healthy to society.
Advertising ethics What about movies and television? Humphrey Bogart smoked all the time. (He died of throat cancer.) Many young people were encouraged to smoke based on this suave, sexy movie star. Smoking was widespread in the advertising world of the 1960s. But should it be depicted in a popular program today, such as “Mad Men?” Will people attracted to the retro chic pick up that habit?
Advertising ethics A fourth area concerns separation of advertising and news. Most newspapers label advertising as such, and clearly separate it from news. In magazines, it’s not so certain. Should media reveal when it does a story on an industry based on the amount of advertising it bought? Should programs feature brand-named products whose placement was obviously paid for?
Advertising ethics What about news celebrities? Should people who present news shows also do advertisements? If not, should sports or weather presenters also do advertising? Where to draw the line?
Advertising ethics A fifth special area: dishonest, deceptive content. Is it ethical to mislead people in advertising? While the FTC requires truth, advertisers can nevertheless get buy with misleading to an extent, and extent some would call deception. Is it ethical to advertise credit cards for people with little income or poor credit, while not divulging large fees and penalties?
Advertising ethics Is it ethical to advertise “work at home” schemes (Make $20,000 a year!), despite that most of these are scams for gullible readers? What about weight-loss products that promise to “melt fat away,” or give unreasonable results? What about exercise products that are useless?
Advertising ethics Does the medium itself have some responsibility to protect its readers or viewers from misleading advertising? Some editors believe so, and more did in the past; many would not accept advertising for liquor, guns, abortion clinics or “gentlemen’s clubs.” But does their refusal constitute a limit on free speech?
Advertising ethics What about ads that don’t necessarily try to sell such services, but do enhance photos to make the product or service look better than it really is? Is it ethical to use Photoshop to improve skin, make people thinner, make wrinkles vanish? Is it unethical to make clothes or food look better?
Advertising ethics Sixth: Using sex, fear, or violence to sell. Sex sells, the others also appeal to primal emotions. That makes them effective sales tools. You seldom see models ad ads who look like real people. Does this lead to unrealistic goals of thinness and beauty?
Advertising ethics A seventh area: placement. Have media which include material emphasizing social responsibility, healthy or good behavior some ethical consideration regarding placement? What about an ad which seems to promote the opposite: a story about healthy eating next to a “supersize” fast food ad? Some media try to avoid this conflict by going ad-free. Consumer Reports is an obvious example.
Advertising ethics But many media have tried that, and have gone out of business. Public television is supposedly ad-free, but what about considerations of sponsors? Public broadcasting has become more and more obtrusive in its fundraising efforts and credits to corporate donors. Is this in effect advertising?
Advertising ethics What would the great philosophers say? It seems most advertisers would argue from the teleological perspective: the ends justify the means. Pressure groups do this all the time. They will argue that can show color close-ups of aborted fetuses, cancerous throats, beaten animals or abused children because “the cause is just.”
Advertising ethics Politicians use lies and half truths “to get that scurrilous opponent out of office.” But is this kind of advertising destructive to a democratic society? What would Kant say? “Just tell the truth.” But what if the truth meant displeasing your employer, not promoting a product that could do good for others, or failing in your advertising?
Advertising ethics The question, then, as one media ethicist said: truth or consequences? Do we generally expect advertisers to tell the truth? We say no, we say we are jaded, savvy consumers who can read through advertising claims.
Advertising ethics But are we deceiving ourselves? Many people love advertising, the entertainment, the industry. We happily wear walking advertisements for soft drinks, beer or athletic shoes on our clothing—and in fact usually we happily pay for the privilege.
Advertising ethics America accepts more advertising in more places than any country in the world. In fact, in this more difficult economy, many Americans are willing to accept it in more places than ever before: on school buses, applied to school lockers, in parks and in other public places once closed from commercialism.
Advertising ethics We don’t seem to be nearly as cynical regarding advertising as we like to profess. While we say we are sophisticated Americans who can sort through it all, it’s at least worth asking ethical questions regarding what should be advertising, where, when, and how.