The Benefits of Advertising
Enormous human and material resources are devoted to advertising. Advertising is everywhere in today’s world, so that, as Pope Paul VI remarked, “No one now can escape the influence of advertising.” Even people who are not themselves exposed to particular forms of advertising confront a society, a culture — other people — affected for good or ill by advertising messages and techniques of every sort.
Some critics view this state of affairs in unrelieved negative terms. They condemn advertising as a waste of time, talent and money — an essentially parasitic activity. In this view, not only does advertising have no value of its own, but also its influence is entirely harmful and corrupting for individuals and society.
But advertising also has significant potential for good, and sometimes it is realized. Here are some of the ways that happens.
a) Economic Benefits of Advertising
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. It is a necessary part of the functioning of modern market economies, which today either exist or are emerging in many parts of the world and which — provided they conform to moral standards based upon integral human development. In such a system, advertising can be a useful tool for sustaining honest and ethically responsible competition that contributes to economic growth in the service of authentic human development.
Advertising does this, 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. All of these can contribute to the creation of new jobs, higher incomes and a more decent and humane way of life for all.
b) Benefits of Political Advertising
Political advertising can make a contribution to democracy, to its contribution to economic well being in a market system guided by moral norms. 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
Because of the impact advertising has on media that depend on it for revenue, advertisers have an opportunity to exert a positive influence on decisions about media content. 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. Advertising can brighten lives simply by being witty, tasteful and entertaining.
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.
The harm done by Advertising
There is nothing intrinsically good or intrinsically evil about advertising. It is a tool, an instrument: it can be used well, and it can be used badly. If it can have, and sometimes does have, beneficial results such as those just described, it also can, and often does, have a negative, harmful impact on individuals and society.
a) Economic Harms of Advertising
Advertising can betray its role as a source of information by misrepresentation and by withholding relevant facts. Sometimes, too, the information function of media can be subverted by advertisers’ pressure upon publications or programs not to treat of questions that might prove embarrassing or inconvenient.
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.
b) Harms of Political Advertising
Political advertising can support and assist the working of the democratic process, but it also can obstruct it. 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
Advertising also can have a corrupting influence upon culture and cultural values. We have spoken of the economic harm that can be done to developing nations by advertising that fosters consumerism and destructive patterns of consumption.
The indirect but powerful influence exerted by advertising upon the media of social communications that depend on revenues from this source points to another sort of cultural concern. 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.
All too often, advertising contributes to the invidious stereotyping of particular groups that places them at a disadvantage in relation to others. This often is true of the way advertising treats women; and the exploitation of women, both in and by advertising, is a frequent, deplorable abuse.
d) Moral and Religious Harms of Advertising
Advertising can be tasteful and in conformity with high moral standards, and occasionally even morally uplifting, but it also can be vulgar and morally degrading. Frequently it deliberately appeals to such motives as envy, status seeking and lust. Today, too, some advertisers consciously seek to shock and titillate by exploiting content of a morbid, perverse, pornographic nature.
We note, too, certain special problems relating to advertising that treats of religion or pertains to specific issues with a moral dimension.
In cases of the first sort, commercial advertisers sometimes include religious themes or use religious images or personages to sell products. It is possible to do this in tasteful, acceptable ways, but the practice is obnoxious and offensive when it involves exploiting religion or treating it flippantly. In cases of the second sort, advertising sometimes is used to promote products and inculcate attitudes and forms of behavior contrary to moral norms.
Within this very general framework, we can identify several moral principles that are particularly relevant to advertising. We shall speak briefly of three: truthfulness, the dignity of the human person, and social responsibility.
1. Truthfulness in Advertising
Even today, some advertising is simply and deliberately untrue. Generally speaking, though, the problem of truth in advertising is somewhat more subtle: it is not that advertising says what is overtly false, but that it can distort the truth by implying things that are not so or withholding relevant facts.
To be sure, advertising, like other forms of expression, has its own conventions and forms of stylization, and these must be taken into account when discussing truthfulness. People take for granted some rhetorical and symbolic exaggeration in advertising; within the limits of recognized and accepted practice, this can be allowable.
2. The Dignity of the Human Person
There is an “imperative requirement” that advertising “respect the human person, his right duty to make a responsible choice, his interior freedom; all these goods would be violated if man’s lower inclinations were to be exploited, or his capacity to reflect and decide compromised.”
Advertising can violate the dignity of the human person both through its content — what is advertised, the manner in which it is advertised — and through the impact it seeks to make upon its audience. This problem is especially acute where particularly vulnerable groups or classes of persons are concerned: children and young people, the elderly, the poor, and the culturally disadvantaged.
Much advertising directed at children apparently tries to exploit their credulity and suggestibility, in the hope that they will put pressure on their parents to buy products of no real benefit to them. Advertising like this offends against the dignity and rights of both children and parents; it intrudes upon the parent-child relationship and seeks to manipulate it to its own base ends. Also, some of the comparatively little advertising directed specifically to the elderly or culturally disadvantaged seems designed to play upon their fears so as to persuade them to allocate some of their limited resources to goods or services of dubious value.
3. Advertising and Social Responsibility
Advertising that fosters a lavish life style which wastes resources and despoils the environment offends against important ecological concerns. “In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way. … Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth”
Advertising that reduces human progress to acquiring material goods and cultivating a lavish life style expresses a false, destructive vision of the human person harmful to individuals and society alike.
When people fail to practice “a rigorous respect for the moral, cultural and spiritual requirements, based on the dignity of the person and on the proper identity of each community, beginning with the family and religious societies,” then even material abundance and the conveniences that technology makes available “will prove unsatisfying and in the end contemptible.”