Is Advertising Ethical?

A response to Taking Sides – Clashing Views in Mass Media and Society – Issue 7

Examining issue 7, Is Advertising Ethical, John Calfree argues advertising has important and far reaching benefits while Russ Baker counters that advertisers exert unwelcome pressure on media outlets.

Calfree’s argument, though broken into several sections, is basically that ads provide the audience with more information and that competition will force companies into disclosing accurate and beneficial information (usually in the form of less-bad advertising).  His first main example is fiber-most Amercians were unaware of the health benefits of fiber until Kellogg’s started advertising about it.  Soon many food brands were advertising about their own health benefits and consumers soon knew about a slew of nutrients to watch for.  The second major example he uses is the way in which cigarette companies highlighted problems with smoking in order to boost confidence in their brand.  This ended up scaring away customers.

Calfee keeps on referring to the benefits of unregulated market forces and how the market itself necessarily marches toward more and better information for the consumer.  Unfortunately, all he gives are examples of highly regulated forces.  Without the Surgeon General, the FDA and the FTC, those pro-fiber ads would have shared the air with the same flim-flam snake oil ads that filled magazines in the 1800s.  Market forces themselves only drive advertisers to make incredible claims; government oversight and outside reporting is what forces those claims to be scientific.  Calfree acknowledges this in a way when he says effective advertising uses information people have from outside the ad-so how is the ad itself then informing anyone?

Baker provides ample evidence for his thesis that advertisers try-often successfully-to influence the content of what is printed in publications.  The letter from Chrysler demanding editorial review of anything socially provocative was specially chilling.  The automaker, the fifth-largest advertiser in the country, was more or less demanding a seat on the editorial board.  And many magazines gave it to them.  The more successful a publication is and the more advertisers it has the less powerful one advertiser becomes, of course, but not all magazines have this luxury.  Baker says the biggest danger is self-censorship by editors and publishers who do not want to risk alienating the people who pay the bills.

Personally I agree with Calfree only to the point that things like price competition really do benefit the consumer.  Baker is right about advertisers wanting to influence editorial copy, and though I think many publications can stand to lose a few big sponsors over and important story, many won’t simply because they’re more concerned with higher profit rather than independence.  And special advertising sections and advertorials I find especially disturbing; when I was in Naples the print paper did a special advertising section on plastic surgery filled with wire stories about the benefits with no other point of view represented at all.  There are definite downsides and risks to plastic surgery, but you wouldn’t know it from the very hard-news looking section in the paper that day.