The next issue of Creative Review, guest edited by Mother, deals with ethics and what it means to sell your soul. As part of our research for the issue, we came across the Vatican’s report into the ethics of advertising. It’s one of the best-argued and most thorough investigations into this thorny issue that we have read. The following is an edited extract:
The media of social communications have two options, and only two. Either they help human persons to grow in their understanding and practice of what is true and good, or they are destructive forces in conflict with human well-being. That is entirely true of advertising.
Against this background, then, we point to this fundamental principle for people engaged in advertising: advertisers — that is, those who commission, prepare or disseminate advertising — are morally responsible for what they seek to move people to do; and this is a responsibility also shared by publishers, broadcasting executives, and others in the communications world, as well as by those who give commercial or political endorsements, to the extent that they are involved in the advertising process.
If an instance of advertising seeks to move people to choose and act rationally in morally good ways that are of true benefit to themselves and others, persons involved in it do what is morally good; if it seeks to move people to do evil deeds that are self-destructive and destructive of authentic community, they do evil.
This applies also to the means and the techniques of advertising: it is morally wrong to use manipulative, exploitative, corrupt and corrupting methods of persuasion and motivation.
Within this very general framework, we can identify several moral principles that are particularly relevant to advertising. We shall speak briefly of three: truthfulness, the dignity of the human person, and social responsibility.
Truthfulness in Advertising
Even today, some advertising is simply and deliberately untrue. Generally speaking, though, the problem of truth in advertising is somewhat more subtle: it is not that advertising says what is overtly false, but that it can distort the truth by implying things that are not so or withholding relevant facts. As Pope John Paul II points out, on both the individual and social levels, truth and freedom are inseparable; without truth as the basis, starting point and criterion of discernment, judgment, choice and action, there can be no authentic exercise of freedom. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting the Second Vatican Council, insists that the content of communication be “true and — within the limits set by justice and charity — complete”; the content should, moreover, be communicated “honestly and properly.”
To be sure, advertising, like other forms of expression, has its own conventions and forms of stylization, and these must be taken into account when discussing truthfulness. People take for granted some rhetorical and symbolic exaggeration in advertising; within the limits of recognized and accepted practice, this can be allowable.
But it is a fundamental principle that advertising may not deliberately seek to deceive, whether it does that by what it says, by what it implies, or by what it fails to say. The proper exercise of the right to information demands that the content of what is communicated be true and, within the limits set by justice and charity, complete. … Included here is the obligation to avoid any manipulation of truth for any reason.
The Dignity of the Human Person
There is an imperative requirement that advertising respect the human person, their right to make a responsible choice, their interior freedom; all these goods would be violated if man’s lower inclinations were to be exploited, or his capacity to reflect and decide compromised.
These abuses are not merely hypothetical possibilities but realities in much advertising today. Advertising can violate the dignity of the human person both through its content — what is advertised, the manner in which it is advertised — and through the impact it seeks to make upon its audience. It can appeal to lust, vanity, envy and greed, and of techniques that manipulate and exploit human weakness. In such circumstances, advertisements readily become vehicles of a deformed outlook on life, on the family, on religion and on morality — an outlook that does not respect the true dignity and destiny of the human person.
This problem is especially acute where particularly vulnerable groups or classes of persons are concerned: children and young people, the elderly, the poor, the culturally disadvantaged.
Much advertising directed at children apparently tries to exploit their credulity and suggestibility, in the hope that they will put pressure on their parents to buy products of no real benefit to them. Advertising like this offends against the dignity and rights of both children and parents; it intrudes upon the parent-child relationship and seeks to manipulate it to its own base ends. Also, some of the comparatively little advertising directed specifically to the elderly or culturally disadvantaged seems designed to play upon their fears so as to persuade them to allocate some of their limited resources to goods or services of dubious value.
Advertising and Social Responsibility
Advertising that reduces human progress to acquiring material goods and cultivating a lavish life style expresses a false, destructive vision of the human person harmful to individuals and society alike.
When people fail to practice a rigorous respect for the moral, cultural and spiritual requirements, based on the dignity of the person and on the proper identity of each community, beginning with the family and religious societies, then even material abundance and the conveniences that technology makes available will prove unsatisfying and in the end contemptible. Advertisers, like people engaged in other forms of social communication, have a serious duty to express and foster an authentic vision of human development in its material, cultural and spiritual dimensions. Communication that meets this standard is, among other things, a true expression of solidarity. Indeed, the two things — communication and solidarity — are inseparable, because, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, solidarity is “a consequence of genuine and right communication and the free circulation of ideas that further knowledge and respect for others.”
SOME STEPS TO TAKE
The indispensable guarantors of ethically correct behavior by the advertising industry are the well formed and responsible consciences of advertising professionals themselves: consciences sensitive to their duty not merely to serve the interests of those who commission and finance their work but also to respect and uphold the rights and interests of their audiences and to serve the common good.
Many women and men professionally engaged in advertising do have sensitive consciences, high ethical standards and a strong sense of responsibility. But even for them external pressures — from the clients who commission their work as well as from the competitive internal dynamics of their profession — can create powerful inducements to unethical behavior. That underlines the need for external structures and systems to support and encourage responsible practice in advertising and to discourage the irresponsible.
Voluntary ethical codes are one such source of support. These already exist in a number of places. Welcome as they are, though, they are only as effective as the willingness of advertisers to comply strictly with them. It is up to the directors and managers of the media which carry advertising to make known to the public, to subscribe to and to apply the codes of professional ethics which already have been opportunely established so as to have the cooperation of the public in making these codes still better and in enforcing their observance.
We emphasize the importance of public involvement. Representatives of the public should participate in the formulation, application and periodic updating of ethical codes. The public representatives should include ethicists and church people, as well as representatives of consumer groups. Individuals do well to organize themselves into such groups in order to protect their interests in relation to commercial interests.
Public authorities also have a role to play. On the one hand, government should not seek to control and dictate policy to the advertising industry, any more than to other sectors of the communications media. On the other hand, the regulation of advertising content and practice, already existing in many places, can and should extend beyond banning false advertising, narrowly defined.
For example, government regulations should address such questions as the quantity of advertising, especially in broadcast media, as well as the content of advertising directed at groups particularly vulnerable to exploitation, such as children and old people. Political advertising also seems an appropriate area for regulation: how much may be spent, how and from whom may money for advertising be raised, etc.
The media of news and information should make it a point to keep the public informed about the world of advertising. Considering advertising’s social impact, it is appropriate that media regularly review and critique the performance of advertisers, just as they do other groups whose activities have a significant influence on society.
In the final analysis, however, where freedom of speech and communication exists, it is largely up to advertisers themselves to ensure ethically responsible practices in their profession. Besides avoiding abuses, advertisers should also undertake to repair the harm sometimes done by advertising, insofar as that is possible: for example, by publishing corrective notices, compensating injured parties, increasing the quantity of public service advertising, and the like. This question of “reparations” is a matter of legitimate involvement not only by industry self-regulatory bodies and public interest groups, but also by public authorities.
Where unethical practices have become widespread and entrenched, conscientious advertisers may be called upon to make significant personal sacrifices to correct them. But people who want to do what is morally right must always be ready to suffer loss and personal injury rather than to do what is wrong. This is a duty for Christians, followers of Christ, certainly; but not only for them.
We do not wish, and certainly we do not expect, to see advertising eliminated from the contemporary world. Advertising is an important element in today’s society, especially in the functioning of a market economy, which is becoming more and more widespread.
Moreover, for the reasons and in the ways sketched here, we believe advertising can, and often does, play a constructive role in economic growth, in the exchange of information and ideas, and in the fostering of solidarity among individuals and groups. Yet it also can do, and often does, grave harm to individuals and to the common good.
In light of these reflections, therefore, we call upon advertising professionals and upon all those involved in the process of commissioning and disseminating advertising to eliminate its socially harmful aspects and observe high ethical standards in regard to truthfulness, human dignity and social responsibility. In this way, they will make a special and significant contribution to human progress and to the common good.
The above is an edited version of Ethics in Advertising, a report from the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, first published in February, 1997, and written by Archbishop John P Foley. Reproduced by permission of the Vatican. To read the full version of the report, go to www.vatican.va