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?"
and Benefits of Advertising
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.
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.
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'...."
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.