An Ethic for Advertising by Steve Turner

Most of us have an ambiguous relationship with advertising. We have tourist photos of ourselves taken in Piccadilly Circus, London; Hachiko Square, Tokyo; or Times Square, New York, surrounded by massive digital and neon display boards and yet complain about the pollution of billboards on suburban streets. We admire the creativity of television commercials and yet get annoyed that our favorite programs are so frequently interrupted. This probably reflects a necessary balance of respect for an art form and skepticism about what we’re being told.

We tend to think of advertising as a recent phenomenon, a product of the modern more-frenzied world. This isn’t so. Modern advertising is, of course, modern, but advertising itself is as old as civilization. People have always sold their products and skills to others, and once you’ve established a marketplace you have to draw attention to what you’re selling by written and spoken words or by using signs. Jesus and Joseph presumably had to advertise their carpentry in some way, and Paul his tent making. There is no virtue or sense in making things for the use of others that you then never tell anyone about. That would lead to the sin committed by the person with the talents who buried them for safekeeping and therefore didn’t maximize their potential.

The Roman city of Pompeii, which was drowned in volcanic ash in a.d. 79, was found to be full of examples of advertising from shop signs and political propaganda to trademarks and packaging. Tradesmen would use words like “quality” and “best” to set their product apart from that of competitors. The baths at Villa Julia Felix were promoted as being “good enough for Venus.”

The technology has changed, but the advertisers of contemporary São Paulo, Los Angeles, Paris and Hong Kong are doing what the various painters and sign makers of Pompeii did in the first century. They are trying to arrest our attention and attract us to a particular product in the hopes that we will turn from being viewers or listeners into customers.

However, it’s necessary to acknowledge that change of technology doesn’t just mean the same message is transmitted in a different format. It also shapes the message.

In the twenty-first century we generally have no idea who is talking to us through advertising. Is it the product designer, the company, the advertising agency or a skillful “creative”? Do they really believe what they’re telling us or are they merely fulfilling a brief? We have no way of gauging their reputations or quizzing them.

The primary question we should ask of advertising is, “Is it true?”

Contemporary advertising doesn’t work by supplying information that can either be verified or discredited, but by suggesting a mood, forging an association or implying the possibility of change. When the advertisers decided to promote Marlboro cigarettes by using tough-looking cowboys, they knew the fear they needed to counteract was that smoking was dirty and unhealthy. They couldn’t create a campaign saying their cigarettes were clean and lengthened your life—that would have been too brazen a lie and would have drawn attention to its opposite—so they showed ruggedly healthy looking men smoking Marlboros against magnificent Wild West back-drops. The goal was to get people, mostly men, to associate smoking with power, hard work, good health and the outdoor life.

The same is true for the advertising of other products. The ads rarely tell us what the product actually does but suggest that buying it will give us a higher standing among our peers, make us more attractive to the opposite sex or provide access to a more exciting life-style. They may also exploit our fears of being unfashionable, un-popular or out of tune with our times. Or they may create a bond between the viewer and the product.

The landmark book on psychological advertising techniques was Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, first published in 1957. In it he revealed something that wasn’t widely known at the time—the fact that advertisers were using techniques developed through collaboration with psychological analysts, cultural anthropologists, social psychologists, sociologists and social scientists in order to tinker with people’s minds. “Large-scale efforts are being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes by the use of insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences,” he wrote. “Typically these efforts take place beneath our lack of awareness; so that the appeals which move us are often, in a sense, ‘hidden.’” Packard’s main objection to this wasn’t that it didn’t work, but that it did work and “it has seriously anti-humanistic implications.”

Packard’s argument bears consideration. One of the attributes of humanity that appears to be most precious to God is our ability to reason and choose and therefore be responsible for our actions. Of course, since the fall we have a natural bias toward sin, but nevertheless God still addresses people as being capable of making decisions. Forms of communication that attempt to bypass our critical faculties, wear down our consciences and act against our deepest convictions treat us as less than human.

In The Hidden Persuaders Packard asks, What is the morality of playing on hidden weaknesses and frailties—such as our anxieties, aggressive feelings, dread of nonconformity, and infantile hangovers—to sell products? Specifically, what are the ethics of businesses that shape campaigns designed to thrive on these weaknesses they have diagnosed?

Christians should share the skepticism of organizations that play such games because we have a commitment to truth, a belief that people are not made whole and happy by possessions alone, and a desire that culture should be a shared expression rather than an imposed view. Some of their campaigns have the hallmarks of prophetic acts whereby false idols were exposed to the shock and disbelief of those who been educated into believing that objects of wood, metal and stone could solve their problems.

The delivery of the gospel stands as the model for all good communication. The Bible teaches us to engage people (as Jesus did with his parables), to fashion our message so it’s memorable (“The words of the wise are like goads” [Eccles 12:11]), to persuade (as Paul did with Agrippa) and to reason (as Paul did all the time). What we are never to do is to trick or deceive. In 2 Corinthians 4:2, Paul appears to defend himself against those who’ve accused him of doing this. William Barclay’s paraphrase brings out his response: “But we have refused to have anything to do with hidden and shameful methods. We do not act with unscrupulous cleverness.”

Advertising is an area of popular culture that displays remarkable creative ingenuity along with the potential to manipulate and deceive. Many ads are brilliant examples of art put in the service of commerce, condensing complex ideas into a striking image and a few words. As creators we need to be truthful and respectful of those who we address. As consumers we need to be vigilant, careful not to admire creativity that uses our appreciation to sneak into our minds, and unafraid to fight back against the encroachment of advertising into every corner of our public and private lives.