We disagree with the assertion that advertising simply mirrors the attitudes and values of the surrounding culture. No doubt advertising, like the media of social communications in general, does act as a mirror. But, also, like media in general, it is a mirror that helps shape the reality it reflects, and sometimes it presents a distorted image of reality.
Advertisers are selective about the values and attitudes to be fostered and encouraged, promoting some while ignoring others. This selectivity gives the lie to the notion that advertising does no more than reflect the surrounding culture . . .
POTENTIAL FOR GOOD
Some critics . . . condemn advertising as a waste of time, talent and money-an essentially parasitic activity. In this view, not only does advertising have no value of its own, but its influence is entirely harmful and corrupting for individuals and society.
We do not agree. There is truth to the criticisms, and we shall make criticisms of our own. But advertising also has significant potential for good and sometimes it is realized . . .
The practice of "brand"-related advertising can raise serious problems. Often there are only negligible differences among similar products of different brands, and advertising may attempt to move people to act on the basis of irrational motives ("brand loyalty," status, fashion, "sex appeal," etc.) instead of presenting differences in product quality and price as bases for rational choice. . .
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 they are involved in the advertising process . . .
DISTORTING THE TRUTH
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.
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 . . .
There is an imperative requirement that advertising "respect the human person, his right duty to make a responsible choice, his 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. We have spoken already of such things as appeals to lust, vanity, envy and greed, and of techniques that manipulate and exploit human weakness . . .
LAVISH LIFESTYLES WASTE RESOURCES
Social responsibility is such a broad concept that we can note here only a few of the many issues . . . The ecological issue is one. Advertising that fosters a lavish lifestyle which wastes resources and despoils the environment offends against important ecological concerns . . . As this suggests, something more fundamental is at issue here: authentic and integral human development. Advertising that reduces human progress to acquiring material goods and cultivating a lavish lifestyle expresses a false, destructive vision of the human person harmful to individuals and society alike . . .
The indispensable guarantors of ethically correct behavior by the advertising industry are the well-formed and responsible consciences of advertising professionals themselves . . .
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.
ADVERTISERS MUST BE RESPONSIBLE
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 . . .
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 . . .
In the final analysis, however, where freedom of speech and communication exists, it is largely up to the advertisers themselves to insure ethically responsible practices in their profession . . .
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 . . .
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.