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The Vatican and the ethics of advertising…

I’ve discovered that in one territory at least I’m in perfect tune with The Vatican, or at least with the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. I confess, this was entirely unexpected. From their perspective perhaps it would reassure them that there is hope even for the godless. From mine, it suggests that much of human ethical behaviour is biologically hard-wired and that it can be extraordinarily beneficial to an individual from a social species like ours to operate in altruistic and honourable ways. For more on that, if you’re interested, I can recommend pretty much everything but the last chapter of Matt Ridley’s extroardinary The Origins of Virtue.

The area that has triggered such an outpouring of love between the Pope and myself is advertising. It’s a territory that’s been on my mind a lot recently, along with marketing and particularly public relations. I’ve been trying to work out in my head what I think of all of these industries, which are both seemingly necessary and fundamental to the world we live in and yet simultaneously–to me at least–obviously ethically dubious. The Vatican seems to agree. Even though it has a pretty balanced view of these industries, recognising the good they can do, it also defines public relations as, ‘the systematic effort to create a favorable public impression or “image” of some person, group, or entity’. It’s difficult to view that description as anything but faintly damning.

When confronted with any accusation that industries like advertising are intrinsically dubious, however, the same arguments are trotted out in its defence. The one that I find particularly offensive (while accepting that it is not representative of the entire industry) starts off with the (entirely reasonable) move of declaring me and my sort hopelessly na√Øve and idealistic. It then roams off into altogether less plausible territory, first stating that we live in a world fundamentally red in tooth and claw and then retreating back into a weird childish rhetoric: “Everybody’s doing it, so why can’t we?”.

The most grotesque example of this position that I’ve ever read was in a book by celebrated advertising guru Paul Arden called It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be. I can’t find any of the (limited) substance of the book online to interrogate accurately and I absolutely refuse to buy a copy, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to hopelessly mischaracterise from memory.

In the book Arden confronts in two small pages of large type (with pictures) the question of whether advertising is fundamentally immoral. The question he’s specifically addressing is basically this – isn’t trying to make something look better than it is to sell it really a form of lying?

His response is to cite some examples of when people engage in advertising every day. He talks about the person who dresses nicely to go outside, or puts on make-up. These people are engaging in advertising he declares, and we don’t decry them. So what’s the problem? Then he talks about a vicar standing up in church and proselytising the Word of God. Clearly, Arden argues, in trying to make God sound sexy to his audience, the vicar is engaging in advertising. And if they’re doing it, what’s wrong with me selling the odd Pot Noodle, some powdered milk, a couple of MIG fighter jets or the Labour party? Just to be clear, I chose these examples on his behalf.

When I first heard this argument I was absolutely horrified and explored its logic to try and work out if it made any sense. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t. And here’s why. The whole position is based on a weak argument by analogy. Argument by analogy works on the basis that if two things are similar in one or many ways that one can argue that they are similar in another. Getting dressed up is an attempt to put someone in a positive light. Talking about God from the pulpit is an attempt to represent a position or belief system in the best light. Advertising is an attempt to put any object or pattern of thought in the best light. There is nothing wrong with the first two and therefore there is nothing wrong with the third.

But this only works if the three things are truly similar. So here’s the test – can we think of any significant differences between the advertising executive, the business woman dressing for work and the country vicar? Is there any possibility that the concept of ‘promoting the good’ might mean something rather different for each of them? The answer should be obvious.

Nonetheless, let’s dig into it a bit more. Number one – do people ‘buy’ other people as products, and are they likely to be seriously misled about paying for someone’s services if the physical appearance of the person without their clothes and make-up on is radically different from their appearance with them on. Answer, almost exclusively no. So the analogy doesn’t stand. Women who look nice are not normally engaging in the same kinds of exchanges as those that advertising participates in.

There are exceptions of course, so let’s look at one of them. An apparently attractive female prostitute is paid for by a young man. The man ‘falls’ for her positive messaging and invests money in the possibility of intercourse only to discover she is in fact a man in drag. This might be considered a closer analogy to the process of advertising. Is he likely to be happy about this exchange? Is he likely to think it harmless? If we said this was ‘like advertising’ would we think of advertising in a positive light. Probably not. We may not have much sympathy for the john in question, but that’s not really the issue.

And do we really think that the vicar stands up and sells God each week purely in order to get his salary and nice house? I would argue that he or she would have at some basic level a belief in the divinity they were talking about. Do we think an advertising executive has the same belief in Pot Noodles as a vicar has in God? Again, clearly not. The analogy again does not stand. If there’s a process of selling going on at all, it’s a very different one indeed.

The truth is, many of these jobs (marketing, advertising and public relations) are business optimisations. A division of labour between people who make and people who promote results in more efficient practice in both. But separating the jobs in this way also has its risks – it cuts off being an advocate from believing in what you advocate, from making the thing you advocate, from being responsible for the thing you advocate. And with the personal social responsibility for what comes out of your mouth removed, then there’s an obvious tendency towards corruption and lying.

And yet, advertising, marketing and public relations can result in a better world. The Pontifical Council for Social Communications says so in their work on Ethics in Advertising (Part Two, The Benefits of Advertising), and I agree:

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 and the common good — currently seem to be “the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs” of a socio-economic kind.

Political advertising can make a contribution to democracy analogous to its contribution to economic well being in a market system guided by moral norms. As free and responsible media in a democratic system help to counteract tendencies toward the monopolization of power on the part of oligarchies and special interests, so 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.

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.

So what is to be done? Advertising has its value, it’s clear. It’s important that it exists in the world and it’s not going anywhere. But it’s also clear that people involved in advertising–like Paul Arden in fact–are prepared to leap through highly dubious intellectual hoops to defend their sense that ‘everyone else does it, so why can’t we?’ when it comes to massaging or deforming the truth, with no sense of context.

Which brings me to the Vatican’s recommendations, as filtered through Creative Review and noted down on Design Observer as “What God Says”. If you can find me an individual who works in advertising who follows these rules, then they’ll have my respect. However, I suspect that it will be easier to squeeze a camel through an eye of a needle…

  1. Advertisers are morally responsible for what they seek to move people to do.
  2. It is morally wrong to use manipulative, exploitative, corrupt and corrupting methods of persuasion and motivation
  3. The content of communication should be communicated honestly and properly.
  4. Advertising may not deliberately seek to deceive by what it says, what it implies or what it fails to say.
  5. Abuse of advertising can violate the dignity of the human person, appealing to lust, vanity, envy and greed.
  6. Advertising to children by exploiting their credulity and suggestibility offends against the dignity and rights of both children and parents.
  7. Advertising that reduces human progress to acquiring material goods and cultivating a lavish lifestyle is harmful to individuals and society alike.
  8. Clients who commission work can create powerful inducements to unethical behaviour.
  9. Political advertising is an appropriate area for regulation: how much money may be spent, how and from whom money may be raised.
  10. Advertisers should undertake to repair the harm done by advertising.

P.S. I wonder if anyone has had the nerve to turn these into a simple ten commandments of advertising?

4 replies on “The Vatican and the ethics of advertising…”

“Do we think an advertising executive has the same belief in Pot Noodles as a vicar has in God? Again, clearly not.”
Unfortunately, I think you’re totally wrong here. I’ve been working on the periphery of the advertising industry for a few years now, and what has surprised me the most is that the people doing advertising actually believe in what they’re selling.
I say “unfortunately” because it would be a much simpler problem if you were right, if you were just talking about convincing people to stop lying. But it’s actually worse than that; many people actually believe acquiring material goods is equivalent to human progress, so you’re talking about changing world views. And those world views are largely informed by advertising, so it’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

I had a conversation with someone in PR recently and the thing that most struck me about them was that they didn’t want to know anything negative about the person they represented. They said that they found it easier to do their jobs if they believed in what they were saying.
I suspect that many people in these industries don’t hold two positions, that they are in fact not hypocritical as such. They don’t think that their clients are crap and tell everyone that they’re great. Instead they convince themselves somehow that the product is great and then act as an evangelist. I don’t know what’s more troubling to be honest.

I highly recommend a documentary called “Czech Dream” (or “Cesky Sen” in Czech). It’s about two film students who created a marketing campaign in Prague, to promote the grand opening of a new hypermarket (like a gigantic supermarket) that doesn’t actually exist.
It’s not merely an elaborate prank, though. It’s fascinating to see them conducting market research, talking to people about their shopping habits, hiring an actual advertising agency to design the campaign, recording the theme song with a chorus of school girls, etc. The filmmakers’ interactions with the ad agency people are among the funniest and most disturbing in the film.
The ad agency in the film also happens to be the one that later ran a highly controversial, purely sentimental, non-informative campaign to entice people to vote for Czech inclusion in the EU. They’re undoubtedly having some public image problems of their own, now.

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