Transcendentalist Theodore Parker once said, “Kodak sells film, but they don’t advertise film. They advertise memories.”
As a public relations student, I’ve taken marketing and other strategic communications courses that have taught the art of “selling” things money can’t buy. This is brilliant when it comes to memories and other warm and fuzzy things, but what about situations where the intangible item the product provides might endorse something a bit more controversial?
For example, many fashion advertisements have very sexual overtones, hint at violence toward women or straight up publish something shocking for the sake of drawing attention to a brand. It’s no secret that advertising (and public relations, while we’re at it) has the capability to bring out the ugliness of our culture. Advertisements have an effect on audiences and if advertisers are not careful, it can get them into trouble. Although there are many blatantly distasteful advertisements, sometimes the ethics of advertising aren’t simply as black and white as we might wish.
Several classical ethics theories lay out groundwork to help us better understand what is ethical and what is not.
Deontology is a rules-based approach to ethics. Similarly to the Ten Commandments, if you break a rule, regardless of circumstances, it is considered wrong according to this theory. Although many advertisers do all they can to avoid breaking the law for obvious reasons, sometimes targeting the public can go too far. In January, the Canadian court found Google, Inc. guilty of infringing Canadian privacy laws for targeted online ads that were triggered by sensitive information, according to Bloomberg News. Although this might not have been Google’s intention, other ethics breaches are not as black and white as this example.
Consequentialism, commonly referred to as ends-based ethics, is the ethical reasoning that actions are neither right nor wrong, according to my ethics professor. This reasoning means that if the consequences are good, the act is good. If the consequences are bad, the act is bad. An example of this in modern advertising is airbrushing models. Although airbrushing is not against the law, it often has an effect on the way women feel about their bodies and sets an unrealistic standard of beauty. The video below shows an example of the airbrushing process models’ photos go through before being used for advertisements. The model’s before and after shots are shockingly different.
More and more brands are responding to consumers’ demands for realistic models in advertising. One of these brands is Aerie, which recently released the #aerieREAL campaign, which only features un-airbrushed models. Whether this was a clever PR stunt or a genuine interest in reversing the media’s manipulation of women’s bodies, Aerie made a splash and received countless positive media hits because of the campaign. Because the reaction was positive, consequentialism says this was a “right” move in advertising.
Egoism is the reasoning that favors whatever best promotes an individual, organization or corporation. This particular line of thinking places a brand’s long-term self-interest on a pedestal. Many brands are guilty of exemplifying egoism. One example is AXE’s “The AXE Effect” commercial. Not only does it make women look like brainless freaks, but it is highly blown out of proportion and completely unrealistic.
Lastly, utilitarianism is the most democratic of classic ethics theories. This theory of reasoning, fathered by Jeremy Bentham, views “right” as the path leading to the greatest pleasure or least pain for the greatest amount of people. A great example of this is Budweiser’s recent #SaluteAHero campaign. Although many beer advertisements use scantily clad women and parties to draw in their target audience, men in the 18-24 age bracket, Budweiser took a different approach to expressing masculinity. In the brand’s SuperBowl spot this year, the ad tied in patriotism, something nearly everyone in the brand’s target audience can relate with. This tear-jerker positions the brand as purely American. I think that’s pretty heroic.
Where’s the Bottom Line?
Although it’s easy to victimize advertisers as liars and distasteful creators of propaganda, it’s important to take a step back and objectively view the situation they face in their work on a day-to-day basis. In Mixed Media, Thomas Bivins wrote, “…advertising is required by its very nature to paint such a picture-consumption leads to pleasure, which leads to happiness.” In our society, each product is bought to fill a tangible or intangible purpose. “Happiness” is not the same thing for everyone, but we all buy products that make us feel more beautiful, in control, fulfilled and accepted by our peers. Advertisers, who are humans too, know these reasons and position their brand’s products to consumers to affect purchasing patterns. As we all know, this is often taken a notch too far.
With so many ideas of ethics and what is right and wrong it’s easy for advertisers to be confused about where to draw the line. Although it can be tricky, it’s vital to have a finger on the pulse of your client’s brand voice and the industry standards to understand what is expected of you and do your job well without compromising professional values and provisions.
Which classical theory do you think is most ethical?