Advertising has tremendous power as providing “silent information” as to how we should interact and present ourselves. The messages help consumers see the possibilities and meanings in the things they buy and this information also liberates meanings that lie below the surface. For example, the Doyle, Dane Bernbach Advertising Agency’s Volkswagen ads turned the unlikely automobile into a mobile social statement. The Beetle, a car designed by Hitler as a vehicle to move his work force on his new autobahns, migrated to the United States in the 1950’s as an alternative car where “less was more” while the van traversed the country often times emblazoned with a peace symbol across the front.
Advertising is a part of our everyday culture and we are bombarded with perhaps 1,600 messages a day. Hence ads must, to some degree, influence/change the cultural consciousness /behavior of the public. Certainly it promotes a higher quality of good through the identification of a particular manufacturer, creates a need for that manufacturer to maintain quality, gives business the ability to roll-out new products fast enough to offset the costs of creating such new products and it protects industry from government and special interest control due to the democratization of information.
Ethics reflect a society’s notions about rightness or wrongness of an act and distinctions between virtue/vice.
Ethics is often thought of as a set of principles or code of moral conduct.
Ethics involves the evaluation and application of those moral values that a society or culture has accepted as its norms.
The study of ethics in the Western world began nearly 2,500 years ago when Socrates, according to his student Plato, traveled Greece challenging notions about justice and goodness. This Socratic method of inquiry, consisting of relentless questions and answers about the nature of moral conduct, remains today as a process of thought—a debate about conflicting standards within a culture.
Moral agents are those who make ethical judgments and all communicators become moral agents when they confront the ethical dilemmas of their professions. Ethical standards often vary according to social roles (e.g., the role of an advertiser who is also a parent may conflict when confronted with cigarette or liquor advertising).
Ethical decisions are made within a “specific context” which includes the political, social and cultural climate. Though the context does not always determine the outcome of the ethical judgment, it exerts an influence and creates and internal conflict which brings us into a moral combat with the popular thing to do.
We must examine the motives of moral agents because often they can be used to justify what appears to be an unethical act (cigarette companies offering restitution to cancer victims).
The “act” is the behavioral component of the communication process. They may be verbal (reporter lies about information obtained) or nonverbal (advertiser omits product information).
Societal institutions reflect prevailing norms but also are instrumental in bringing changes in standards of conduct (e.g., sexual revolution in television programming suggests the public’s acceptance of greater sexual freedom; Ellen’s coming out ushered in an era of a greater acceptance of gay rights Fox’s World’s Deadliest Police Chases certainly pushed the envelope in terms of sensationalism). Within each organization there is a moral culture reflected within the policies and examples set by management. They also play a pivotal role in the dynamics of a culture – respecting the needs/sensibilities of the publics they serve and acting with a sense of social responsibilities.
The process by which these influences (e.g., families, peer groups, role models and institutions) introduce the individual to conventions and norms of a society is “socialization” The advertising institution reprimands advertisers for false advertising and reinforces the values of honesty, a principle of our culture’s moral code (e.g., Listerine cures sore throat or Exxon makes your car run better).
Moral dilemmas are all around us (abortion, gun control) and involve conflicts in values (loyalty to your self or to your employer) and we find ourselves involved in judgments where competing principles clash.
If a system of ethics provides moral cohesion for society’s individual members and institutions, media practitioners are in particular need of one. The mass media are among the most influential enterprises in a democratic society, standing between the citizens and their political, economic and social institutions. In fact, the media are instrumental in the transmission of cultural values. They offer cues for standards of conduct, including ethical behavior. They are serving as “moral gatekeepers” in appraising society of the relative importance of certain morals, acting as moral arbitrators in clarifying for society the competing values and principles inherent in life.
As concerns ethics, a society has a right to expect a level of behavior from media institutions, and when this conduct is not forthcoming, a “crisis in confidence” occurs between these institutions and the public.
Profit motives have been the economic mainstay of the Western democracies. The marketplace has become the foundation for capitalism where the bottom line is the measure of corporate success. Economic considerations are powerful motivators and someone who is motivated primarily by self-interest in situations calling for moral judgment cannot, by definition, behave ethically. Does that mean that if a moral agent is driven by economic motives they have rejected moral duty? There is nothing inherently immoral in the profit motive and certain businesses and corporations have revealed a sense of obligation by returning profits to the communities they serve, thus the pursuit of profits can work in the benefit of society at large (e.g., Paul Newman’s products, Ronald McDonald House, Paramount’s Make-a-Wish Foundation). Ethical questions arise when commercial interests are allowed to dominate other social obligations. The question is one of balance.
Some specific issues/concerns: juveniles and media messages.
Juveniles occupy a special niche in our society and because this audience is unique, media messages directed at that audience warrant our attention. Our society has committed itself to the protection of the innocent. Although this legal paternalism might appear to defy the principles of freedom and autonomy but children are not autonomous and demand on others for their moral guidance and sustenance. The value systems of juveniles are still immature and need protection and nurturing and in recent years the Supreme Court has acknowledged this by restricting free-speech rights in schools.
This immaturity rationale for insulating youth from undesirable influences are addressed directly by the thinkers of the European Enlightenment, the architects of the libertarian tradition. These philosophers advocated individual freedom, a prerequisite for autonomous moral reasoning, and did not believe that rights should be extended to those below the age of maturity.
In 1986 the FCC eliminated guidelines that limited the number of commercial minutes per house in programs designed for children. The industry swiftly responded with increasing commercial minutes and airing program length commercials, such as cartoons built around popular toys like the Smurfs and G.I. Joe.
Most would agree that children and adolescents are vulnerable and should not be exploited by TV advertising and these concerns may well be justified since research suggests that children do not always understand that the primary purpose of advertising is the sell. They may have difficulty distinguishing between advertising and program content. This poses a dilemma for those who want to insulate juveniles from advertising because often children are present when advertising aimed at adults is aired (e.g., alcoholic beverages often appear in sorts programming or in magazines).
The Joe Camel campaign debuted in 1988, and immigrant from European ads. Suspecting that the campaign was aimed at children, a charge denied by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company) 3 teams of researchers attempted to find out why. There was no evidence that Joe Camel influenced the overall teenage smoking rate, but the findings suggested a large increase in Camel’s share of the youth market and particularly on younger children. 91% of the 6-year-olds surveyed could match Joe with Camel cigarettes – nearly the same percentage that could pair Mickey Mouse with the Disney Channel.
In 1995 President Clinton proposed regulations that would specify that any publication with more than 15% of its readers under the age of 18 would be able to run only information ads on cigarettes. These regulations impacted billboards, coupons, promotional giveaways and displays in stores. Billboards would not be permitted within 1000 feet of schools. Sporting events could be known by the parent company’s name, for example, the R.J. Reynolds Championship, but not by the brand of cigarettes. Additionally, the industry could create a fund to produce a campaign urging teenagers not to smoke.
Clinton argued for the regulations by noting, “Teenagers don’t just happen to smoke. They’re victims of billions of dollars of marketing and promotional campaigns designed by psychologist and advertising experts. These campaigns have on inevitable consequence: to start children on a lifetime habit of addiction to tobacco.”
The tobacco companies went to court to stop the plan and thereby increased the controversy and newsworthiness of the proposal and magnifying the visibility of the FDA claim that the nicotine is an addictive drug. In 1995, R.J. Reynolds removed Joe Camel from billboards in response to pressure from those opposing advertising to children.
Younger segments of the population are more impressionable than adults and more likely to be deceived by production values that increase the attractiveness of products. Commercials aimed at children take advantage of those least capable of making rational and independents decisions in the marketplace.
Children are secondary consumers because even though they have no real buying power of their own, research suggests that heavy TV viewers do approach parents with requests for toys, games, food and items they have seen featured in commercials. Though much media content is a reflection of the youth subculture, it also says something about the moral tone of the broader society.
Other areas of concern include privacy on television (e.g., condoms, genital herpes, birth control). Privacy is an ambiguous concept and one view suggests that a right to privacy means the right to be left alone. However, the media is in the business of not leaving people alone and the question becomes one of how to balance an individual’s privacy against the interest of the public in gaining access about others/products/services. ) Also consider advertising on the Internet and the easy access to many sites by juveniles.