Saturday, March 1, 2014

Classical ethical theories and modern advertising

The advertising world has been given a bad rap when it comes to ethical practices. There is no question that advertising can be controversial, as advertisers seem to continually push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable in society. It is common knowledge that an advertiser’s ultimate goal is to sell something. However, there are boundaries and the public will generally react negatively towards an advertisement if it is seen as offensive and discriminatory. Due to this, advertisers must consider classical ethical theories in their decision-making process when creating messages that the public will see.

One classical ethical theory that can be seen in advertising practice today is utilitarianism. Under utilitarianism, the only concern is for the greater good. This means that any decision or action that is taken should result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people (Bivins, 2009). Numerous advertisements involving clothing and beauty products have been called out over the years for being discriminatory against women and self-serving for the company’s interests over society’s. Under utilitarianism, two brands stand out with their messages that promote happiness in the form of boosting self-esteem and redefining beauty among a large number of people in society.

One of the most famous examples is Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, which was launched in 2004 by Unilever. Dove promoted the act of defining “real beauty” and standing against superficiality that is dominant in the advertising industry today. In 2013, Dove released “Real Beauty Sketches,” which became the most watched advertisement ever.

In January, Aerie unveiled its “Real” campaign (which targets young adults) to promote a more positive body image. The advertisements have not been digitally retouched, meaning that the models that appear in the ads look that way in real life. 
Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory, which focuses on ends-based results rather than means (actions). Under this principle, an action is considered morally right if the results lead to happiness for the greatest number of people, and wrong if it ends in unhappiness (Bivins, 2009). The advertisements for Dove and Aerie didn’t make the majority of people unhappy. Instead, a large part of society was able to benefit from a positive message that promoted increased self-esteem and redefined beauty standards in advertising. This concept can also be looked at under the theory of communitarianism, which we will return to later.

The two above examples can also be applied to another ethical theory, deontology. Deontology is a non-consequentialist theory, which states that “the action itself should be the focus of the decision-making, not necessarily the outcome of the action” (Bivins, 2009). In other words, “nothing is good in itself except the act of good will” (Bivins, 2009). If someone acts with bad intent, they are acting unethically regardless if the outcome of their action was good or bad. Under this principle, if Dove and Aerie truly believed that they were doing the right thing and acting out of good will in spreading a positive message to young women, their actions are considered to be ethical. In this case, both campaigns communicated positive messages that they truly believed would help consumers and society.

However, there should be consideration in the fact that an advertiser’s ultimate goal is to sell something. German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s deontological theory, the Categorical Imperative, states that one must treat others as ends instead of using them as means to an end (Bivins, 2009). Dove and Aerie are ultimately trying to sell their products. Even if the message is positive and good for society, money and sales are the bottom line; companies use people as means to make money.

The money factor is relatable to another ethical theory, egoism. Egoism says that an “act is moral when it promotes one’s best long-term interest” (Bivins, 2009). Dove and Aerie are acting ethically because they are selling products in order to stay in business. Enlightened self-interest is a form of egoism wherein one brings about a desire to bring benefit to society because they are part of society (Bivins, 2009). The Dove and Aerie brand and the companies that own them (Unilever and American Eagle) are a part of society, so the companies’ actions are ethical because they are creating positive messages for which society can benefit while also providing a means to benefit themselves in the long-term.

Communitarianism is another ethical theory that can be applied to modern advertising. Under communitarianism, “decisions and actions should be essential to a sense of community and community values balanced with active personhood” (Bivins, 2009). It seeks to balance out the interests and well-being of the community and the individual that exists within that community. One of the main goals of communitarianism in advertising is to bring about a like-minded philosophy among the public. Sometimes advertisements created by non-profit organizations can fall under this principle, such as anti-obesity and anti-smoking campaigns. In February, the FDA launched a new anti-smoking ad campaign, called “The Real Cost,” to stop at-risk youth aged 12-17 from smoking or from becoming life-long smokers.

The Dove and Aerie campaigns send a strong moral message to women whose self-esteem has been negatively affected by advertisements for beauty and clothing products, where practice of digital retouching is practically standard. The messages communicated in the Dove and Aerie ads under communitarianism balance the interest and well-being of the community with the individual. Both advertisements promote messages supporting the widely held belief that the use of thin models or photo-editing software is unnecessary, while simultaneously promoting the advancement of societal views: shaping how society views the woman as an individual and how she views herself privately and as part of society.

Although the examples here were few, classical ethical theories can be applied in every advertising situation. For advertisers, it is important to understand these theories in order to make informed and ethical decisions when communicating with your audience. Ethics don’t always give answers to moral problems and different ethical theories may apply to different advertising situations, but if advertisers use ethical practices, they can deliver their messages to society with more discretion. the-real-cost-teeth-postcard-508ed-1.jpg
Advertisements like these stress issues that are important to the community and its overall well-being. An individual is part of a community, making the individual just as important to the community as the community is to the individual. For that reason, the overall health of the community should be considered. The information disseminated leads to awareness and action that is transformational within the community or society as a whole. Therefore, the FDA campaign promotes the message to stop young individuals from smoking with the expectation that it will help lead to a healthier community.

Bivins, T. (2009). Mixed media: Moral distinctions in advertising, public relations, and journalism. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

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