When born, we come into existence in a society, environment and set of rules and norms that govern how we live. As these things existed and were common before we speak our first words, we tend to accept them as ‘just the way things are’. Subconsciously we may accept that there’s an intrinsic reason and value for their being; otherwise why would they exist?
In capitalist societies, advertising has existed since as far back as we can remember. We accept traditional advertising as well as tolerating newer intrusive forms of advertising – irrespective of its overtness or covertness.
Advertising is accepted as the collective price we have to pay to live within a capitalist society. Along with war, taxes and inequality, it’s rare that we question advertisings morality.
However advertising is a recent invention. Advertising became common in the 19th century and hit its stride in the 20th century when applied to the promotion of tobacco during the 1920s. For such a recent invention, it is worth judging advertisings morality and if we should accept it within our lives.
Whenever a question of morality is raised, the first step is to understand what basis of morality we should apply. There are many ways of doing so, including looking to religion as guidance.
A less complex and decisive approach however is to perhaps apply biologist E.O. Wilson’s ideas around biological sciences. Wilson proposes, in his book Consilience, a comprehensive picture of all life. In this theory, the most basic basis of all life is that it survives. Beyond that everything else is secondary.
Using this as a basis for morality, we could say that anything which impedes the universal survival of life is immoral. In this context, life reaches across all forms. From the smallest short-term biochemical scale to the long term evolutionary scale of the individual, society and universe.
When applied to advertising, a moral judgment could be made that any advertising or product which impedes the universal survival of life is immoral.
Using this as our lens, it may be simple to classify tobacco, junk food and gambling advertisements as immoral. All lead to less healthy individuals and if embraced by all within a society, would lead to its collapse.
Advertising that promotes products that cause environmental destruction or degradation could also be immoral. A sick planet isn’t likely to contribute to the survival of life.
In such cases, the products or services themselves may be immoral therefore advertising them could also be immoral. For other items, it may not be clear if the product itself is immoral but perhaps the advertising – by misrepresentation, exaggeration or deception may be considered immoral.
Advertising in these instances leads to the deterioration of trust, when a product or service doesn’t match up to its representation. Trust is a fundamental building block of societies and relationships. Therefore, anything that deteriorates trust could also be immoral.
Inevitably we come to a satisfying conclusion. Any product or service that leads to a reduction in the survival of life is immoral. And any advertising which leads to a reduction in trust is also immoral.
A pessimist would say that most products, services and advertising fit within these classifications. An optimist would say that the first step in eliminating such maladies is the ability to clearly and cleanly judge their morality.