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Types and Benefits of Advertising
What You Can Do
The Harm Advertising Can Do

What's Right and What's Wrong With Advertising

The Energizer bunny has become the cultural icon of the 90's, thanks to the creativity of its creators and the pervasiveness of advertising. There's no doubt that advertising has shaped our perceptions. For the last 100 years it has dominated our culture, from roadside Burma Shave signs to "See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet" to "Where's the beef?"

Advertising is a necessary component of a free-market economy, as developing nations and those emerging from Communism are discovering. It can be used for good, according to a working draft of the new Vatican document, "Ethics in Advertising." But advertising can also harm individuals and society "if harmful and utterly useless goods are touted to the public, if false assertions are made about goods for sale, if less than admirable human tendencies are exploited."

The Pontifical Council on Social Communications has devoted five years to preparing this new document which is expected to be approved at the February-March meeting. This paper is intended to open a dialogue with the advertising profession.

The new document is a noble effort. Culling pertinent insights from the Vatican II and postconciliar documents, Popes Paul VI's and John Paul II's messages, speeches and encyclicals, and previous documents of the Pontifical Council, this document focuses Church reflection on advertising.

Types and Benefits of Advertising

The document recognizes the different kinds of advertising: commercial for products and services; political on behalf of parties and candidates; public service on behalf of institutions, programs and causes.

Keep in mind that the Church, too, engages in advertising. The Catholic Communication Campaign promotes itself with "Good Values Make Good Kids" ads. Parishes often take out ads in local newspapers and telephone directories to list Mass schedules and garner attention for special programs like "Come Home to the Church." Bingos and festivals benefit by being trumpeted in ads. Catholic newspapers and some magazines like this one take advertising as a service to readers and may depend on it as a revenue source, which lowers the subscription price. Advertising often sponsors religious programs and productions on TV and radio.

Advertising informs people about the availability of desirable new products and services and improvements in existing ones. It helps consumers make informed decisions, lowers prices, stimulates economic progress and contributes to a better life.

The Harm Advertising Can Do

After sketching out the potential for good, the working draft spends more than twice the wordage on the harm that advertising can do and does do. That is unfortunate. Then this document provides some ethical and moral principles.

When advertising misrepresents or exaggerates or withholds relevant facts, it betrays its role as a purveyor of information. Ethical advertising does not seek to deceive by what it says, implies or fails to say.

But the document also fails to state point-blank a basic moral principle: that if a product or service is immoral, any advertising of that product or service is also immoral. Nowadays cigarette advertising might be considered immoral, pointed out a communication arts professor at Xavier University, Thomas A. Schick, A.P.R., to a group of Catholic communicators in Cincinnati in January. Clearer examples might be the intrinsic immorality of advertising abortifacients or pornographic films.

Evaluating the truth of an ad is complicated because it depends not just on its words but also on its visuals and context, and on whether deceptive techniques were used. A case in point was a Volvo ad in which a monster truck ran over a row of cars and only the Volvo survived. It turned out that the Volvo had had its support beams reinforced.

The document is critical of the practice of brand-name advertising where there are negligible differences between brands and advertising attempts to influence people to buy on the basis of irrational motives.

Here too, the document seems weak. Is it immoral to establish a brand image, to point to a reputation for reliability (e.g., the lonely Maytag repairman) or to carve out a market niche? How moral is advertising that appeals to the emotions, feelings like belonging (to the Pepsi generation, say) or self-esteem?

No doubt, advertising encourages consumerism. It can create false needs and "unremitting pressure to buy luxury articles." Pope John Paul II said in Centesimus Annus: "It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed toward 'having' rather than 'being'...."

What You Can Do

This document is intended first for advertising professionals and asks that they develop and enforce voluntary codes of ethics.

But the public should also be involved in reacting to and policing advertising. Write advertisers when you find ads vulgar or degrading. Complain when ads are deceptive. Be alert to the impact of toy or snack food ads on your children. Sound off when you're offended by images of Mother Teresa or the pope being misused to sell things. (But don't automatically assume all lighthearted use of religious images is sacrilegious: Those Xerox ads actually reminded people of the role monks played in preserving learning during the Middle Ages.)

Be sure to write also when you like an ad or the program a responsible advertiser sponsors or an advertiser's charitable efforts like Ronald McDonald houses. Honey is often more effective than vinegar in sweetening a dish.--B.B.

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