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Ethics in Advertising
Joey L. Leffel, M.A.
We know the purpose for advertising - to persuade a consumer to purchase product. The advertisement may entertain, or educate, but the main goal is to sell product. How do advertisements motivate a consumer purchase their products? Do they resort to sly tactics such as misleading claims, puffery, or little white lies to intrigue you? Are these strategies ethical? What side of the ethics fence do these strategies sit - Kantian or Aristotelian? What are the opinions of American marketers about ethics in advertising? The goal of this paper is to educate the reader about the ethics mindset of American advertising agencies and how they rationalize their decisions sell the public the best hair product, the most slimming weight loss formula, or the next greatest thing in electronics. Is there an ethical checklist when a campaign is assembled? Do these agencies have ethical concerns during the formulation of these campaigns?
Finally, this paper will summarize my perception about the philosophical approach that agencies may be taking when formulating such campaigns.
What is the Kantian vs. Aristotelian mind frame?
What is ethics? The traditional term ethics is the term Aristotle used to describe such questions as, “What is justice? What is virtue? What is a good human being?”. Aristotle makes a distinction between two classes of human virtues. The first is called intellectual and the second is called ethical, (Harris, 1999, pg. 111). Aristotle named the term ‘ethics’ to mark a distinction. The root word, ethos, which referred to as “typical or customary,” defines the manners or customs of people. This word comes from the Latin word, mores, from which we get the word, moral.
Aristotle studied the customs and traditions of human society. He was concerned with examining the customary or characteristic aspects an individual’s life. Especially the distinctive habits of society which leads us to act in certain ways.
On the other side of the coin, Kant’s moral philosophy was more of a black and white perspective. He based ethical behavior on reason, not mere experience. Bowie (1999, p. 57) explains in his text that Kant’s ethics endorse duty rather than the ethics of consequence. Bowie further adds that Kant defines an ethical person as one that acts from his/her right intentions (a very different outlook than that of Aristotle).
Kant says that while experience is needed to apply such actions and help us obey it, the principals of that proposition derive their power from reason itself. Thus, he forms what he called the “categorical imperative,” (p.26). Kant states: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law,” (p. 27).
What Kant was saying is, if one feels morally obligated to do something, anyone else in the exact situation would also be morally bound to do the same exact thing. If one feels morally bound not to do something, anyone else in that exact situation would also be morally bound not to do it.
While Aristotle believes that contemporary societal norms jurisdict ethics, Kant’s approach is perceived to be concrete and should not change throughout time.
Unfortunately, as society changes, so do the norms and the ethical rules of behavior to live by, (Cigarette ads in magazines were completely acceptable in the 1950s, where not acceptable today).
Defining Advertising Ethics
Cunningham (1999, p. 500) defines advertising ethics as, “what is right or good in the conduct of the advertising function. It is concerned with questions of what should be done, not what legally should be done.” On the other side of the coin, there are those advertising professionals who believe what is legal is moral.
With those statements, there is evidence that proves there are two different camps of thought regarding ethics in advertising.
In one study conducted with advertising and marketing professionals, many professionals agree that they view the law as the moral minimum when they deal with an ethical issue in their advertising campaigns - if it’s legal, it’s ethical, (Drumwright 1993). A number of these advertising and marketing professionals believe that regulations exist because attorneys are involved; thus, they are off the hook.
However, the potential danger of this belief is that it can cause the industry to lean on the law as a ‘scapegoat’ to their ethical decision-making process. Lack of serious consideration of ethical issues in advertising shifts the responsibility to these attorneys and policymakers. This causes these professionals to assume that only observing the law or current regulations are sufficient. Preston, (1994, p. 128) asserts, “ethics begins only where the law ends.” Unfortunately, for those professionals who believe that the law is sufficient and stands correct within ethical guidelines, ethics never begins.
Studying the ethical mindset of advertising and marketing professionals
Few studies have been conducted to view the ethical decision making processes of advertising and marketing professionals. Studies that have been conducted utilized scenario-based questionnaires to assess study participants and their thoughts about how ethics play a role in their decision making process, (Davis 1994).
Advertising and marketing professionals face ethical issues that are common to all professionals. However, these professionals encounter issues related to factors that are unique to advertising.
Despite some popular discussions of ethics in advertising, (ranging from its broad social consequences to consumer’s perceptions) we knew little about how advertising practitioners react to ethical issues when they arise. Until now.
For that matter, in a survey sent to advertising agencies around the United States, Rotzoll and Christians (1980) asked open-ended questions to advertising and marketing professionals and asked to describe ethical dilemmas they had encountered in response to open-ended questions. Most of these respondents reported that they did encounter ethical decision making in their work.
Some professionals considered consequences, and some of them did not (the law suffices). Furthermore, a study revealed that 67.5% reported that ethical problems were common at work. However, 74.1% said that these ethical problems did not, (or very little) affected their decisions regarding ethical decisions.
The findings of the ethical mindset of advertising and marketing professionals
There are two groups of thought that exists in the advertising industry. The first group of industry professionals agree that ethical issues can and do arise in advertising. They believe when issues arise, they are acknowledged and dealt with in what would be considered an ethical way.
However, the second group of individuals are very different. This group possesses justified thinking to drive their decisions. Ethical issues did not appear to be on their radar screens. Ethics is something that does not apply much to them and they do not really consider the consequences much. When ethical issues surface, they often were not discussed. Ethics is not a high priority in comparison to higher sales.
Morally muted and myopic views of ethics in the industry
The second group of professionals are defined as morally mute and severely myopic in identifying and addressing the ethical aspects of their campaigns. Many advertising and marketing professionals are considered morally mute when they do not choose to recognize or express their moral concerns when it would be fitting to do so,” (Bird and Waters, 1989, p. 27). When expected to express themselves regarding ethical concerns, “they either voice no moral sentiments or communicate in ways that obscure their moral believes and commitments,” (p. 16). These individuals moral myopia distorts their moral vision; ranging from shortsightedness to near blindness of ethical issues that might result in consequences as result of their campaign. Moral myopia hinders moral issues from coming clearly into focus, particularly those that are not in front of their face. It can be so severe that it renders this type of person ‘morally blind’. Because these moral issues are not identified, (or at least distorted) the probability of making sound ethical decisions are minimal. Their myopic outlook dismisses potential ethical concerns or responsibility. Most of the time, multiple rationalizations are used to support their decisions (i.e. depending on the audience, give the people what they want). Their rationalizations vary from socially acceptable outlooks to having faith in the consumer’s mindset. This faith asserts that consumers are smart and therefore cannot be fooled by unethical advertising messages. Since consumers will not be misled (if they do not want to be), the advertising messages does not need to be ethically evaluated.
Unintended social consequences
Advertising messages that lack ethical consideration are affected by this myopic outlook to ethics. The result? Unintended social consequences. Unintended consequences can be grouped into roughly three types. First, a positive unexpected benefit may be a result of a decision. A second type, a negative unexpected drawback, occurring in addition to the desired effect of the decision. Third, a perverse effect that may be contrary to what was originally intended (when an intended solution to a problem only makes the problem worse).
Unintended social consequences are the result of moral shortsightedness at the societal level (An Aristotelian perception that will be explained later in this paper). This group of morally and ethically myopic professionals believe that advertising is important, worthy and effective in selling products or services. However, at the same time, they also accept that advertising is harmless and mostly likely will not lead to a harmful outcomes, (i.e. the second type of social consequence).
Additionally, these marketers believe that they are not creating the images, but merely reflecting the images that already exist in society. Furthermore, in their opinion, responsibility and blame should be placed on society beliefs, not what the advertising industry creates.
The Syndromes of ethically questionable advertising professionals
Drumwright (1993) details the syndromes that advertising and marketing professionals habitually use to justify their creative positions.
Going native syndrome
When a client tells you that their product is the next best thing, and the demos are revealing that it is not as great as it is made out to be…the creative team will believe in the good things about the product. This product is your life (and livelihood); it does not feel like anything is wrong with using puffery to enhance the honest aspects of the product.
This type of justification is called ‘going native’. Going native results in a professional being less able to make critical moral judgments because campaign becomes part of their lives (native). The campaign itself becomes ‘their baby’ and they are simply sticking up for their bad child.
The Ostrich Syndrome
More often than not, advertising and marketing professionals do not have a lot of time to sit and think if the client (making the product) is evil. The reality is, you create a ‘wowing’ campaign that results in product sales. It is better not to dig to deeply to find the negative aspects of the product.
Like an ostrich with its head in the sand, when the ethical issues are out of sight, they are easily out of mind. Ignorance is bliss, and taking on the ostrich syndrome justifies this ignorance because of the hectic pace of the advertising business and the transient nature of the projects. It makes it easier to ‘stay ignorant’ and adopt the ostrich syndrome than to research the consequences and put the project on hold.
The compartmentalization syndrome
Advertising and marketing professionals are close enough to the product or service campaign to know if it is not ethical to endorse. However, because of the nature of the advertising industry, their ethical view of the product is sidelined by the creative excitement of creating the campaign.
The compartmentalization syndrome occurs for a few reasons. One of which is driven by positive forces. The enjoyment of the work itself, particularly in the creative aspect, encourages this syndrome. When a creative person is pursuing something that is good to them—being creative, entertaining the public, increasing wealth, etc., compartmentalizing the issue justifies this type of conditioning. The compartmentalizing behavior separates personal ethical standards from the ethical standards that should also be practiced in business.
Ethics are bad for the creative thought process syndrome
It is perceived by industry creative teams that the consideration of ethical practices results less interesting and exciting campaigns to create. The zest that an advertising creative team feels uniquely feeds off opportunities to create the next ‘buzz’ campaign. Following an ethical approach would simply bore this type of professional.
Ethics are not necessarily bad for business, it is bad for those that want to push the envelope of creativity - to impress, to ‘wow’, to lead an audience to crave for that product or service. Unfortunately, the firm that employs these types of creative professionals take ethical risks and chance the consequences in pursuit of a creative tour-de-force. This type of syndrome surfaces because any consideration of ethics are viewed as a creative stranglehold. What consideration could be worse for an industry professional that thrives on promoting unique and memorable messages and earn top dollar in doing so?
Pandora’s Box Syndrome
When one starts looking for ethical issues, they will find them everywhere. That person becomes stressed wondering if what they are doing is right; they remain stationary in their decision-making. In business, staying stationary does not pay the bills. Discovering ethical issues, but avoiding them for fear something may be ruined because of the discovery, is fear of opening a Pandora’s Box. As a result, potentially harmful effects to the consumer are not confronted or discussed. These professionals justify ignoring ethical issues because it possibly creates hiccups in the creative process. Hiccups in the creative process are considered very dangerous to the business.
First Amendment Misunderstanding
Advertising and marketing professionals frequently misunderstand their First
Amendment rights (censorship of advertising messages). The part they understand is the desirable aspects of glamorizing ideas knowing they free from governmental control. The justification assumes that an unpopular idea should not be prohibited by the government because they may contain some truth to them. They also believe they have the right to convey any idea or image that they wish and should not be stopped for doing so.
The part these professionals did not understand (or conveniently failed to remember) is the marketplace metaphor assumes that bad ideas are supposed to be exposed for the lies that they are and the damage that they do to the truth. Ethically, it would be the moral and ethical responsibility of the agency to refuse to promote such ideas. Once these unethical ideas are revealed, the agency should constitute these ideas as bad, and not allow them to enter the mindset of the marketplace.
Many of these advertising professionals misinterpret the free speech law by
assuming that they are exonerated from personal and professional responsibility because they are deemed ‘creative’. In addition, they know that they may always market to an audience that appreciates their daring messages.
Advertising typically plays upon emotions. It uses desire to lure people into the purchase. Creating that desire is a task that requires a certain amount of illusion created by the advertising industry. Advertisers create scenarios that heighten our emotional state. No matter what strategy is used, advertising and marketing professionals are always building ‘the fantasy’ - one in which the consumer’s life is better because of the product or service.
Through Harris’s comparisons between the Aristotelian and the Kantian perception of ethics, (1999), it leads me to believe that a contemporary advertising agency leans toward society’s interpretation of modern day ethics. Aristotle defines what is customary and traditional in human society is. Advertising agencies could be construed as ethical by studying these human characteristics, (ethical or not) and market to pockets of society (audience) who will accept their messaging as their social norm.
For example, a television station that caters to an educated audience will most likely decline to run the latest Carl's Jr. commercial featuring Paris Hilton. The commercial oozes sexuality as she figuratively masturbates over a hamburger. This type of audience would find the commercial in bad taste and most likely would question the station’s ethics for running such an advertising campaign.
Whereas this conservative television station’s audience cannot identify with this tasteless commercial, there are places for it. Stations such as Spike™ TV or MTV™ draw audiences that embrace sexual pop culture icons like Hilton, and find her behavior perfectly acceptable. It is not surprising that pop culture stations like Spike and MTV would find this type of commercial perfectly normal and myopic in ethical decision making.
This audience deems the commercial acceptable because they embrace this type of pop culture behavior, and advertising agencies know this.
Society is still very much segmented, and so are advertising agencies. People have freedom to choose the type of entertainment and messaging they choose to populate their brain. Whether the viewer is an ethical or non-ethical person, there is something for everyone. The advertising agency plays the game to entertain the audience that will identify with their creations by purchasing that endorsed product.
I believe that advertising creates and reflects different pockets of society and caters to that particular audience. Is advertising unethical? Depends on the audience and the nature of the messaging. An advertising campaign would be deemed unethical if a certain type of message was broadcasted to the wrong type of audience or outrageously promised results that never had intentions of developing.
Furthermore, I interpret that, whether advertising professionals know it or not, they identify with the Aristotelian ethical approach to their business practices. If Aristotle believes what is customary or characteristic in the life of an individual is ethical, then in some circles, Paris Hilton is their Mother Theresa of ethics.
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- JOEY LEFFEL (Author), 2010, Ethics in Advertising, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/266710