Advertising Ethics: a Contextual Response Based on Classical Ethical Theory

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Advertising Ethics: A Contextual Response Based on Classical Ethical Theory

Cornelius B. Pratt E. LincolnJames

ABSTRACT. F. P. Bishop argues that the ethical standard for advertising practitioners nmst be utilitarian. Indeed, the utilitarian theory of ethics in decision-making has traditionally been the preference of U.S. advertisingpractitioners. This article, therefore, argues that the U.S. advertising industry's de-emphasisof &ontological ethics is a reason for its continuing struggle with unfavorable public perceptions of its ethics - and credibility. The perceptions of four scenarios on advertisingethics and the analyses of the openended responses of 174 members of the American Advertising Federation to those scenarios suggest that advertising practitioners need a stricter adherence to deontological ethics than is indicated in this study.

Advertising, a traditionally high-profile management function since World War II, perpetuates a paradox. On the one hand, it is commonly touted by business and the academy as a major economic, social and competitive force in post-world war economies. On the other hand, it is, invariably, a bull's-eye for public wrath. Cowton (1992), Crisp (1987), and Litttechild (1982), for example, present evidence on consumer suspicion and antipathy toward and investor concerns about advertising

Cornelius B. Pratt is Associate Professor in the Department of Advertising, at Michigan State University. His research has been published in suchjournals as the Journal of Media Planning,

Journal of Business Ethics, Public Relations Review, Public RelationsJournal, Public Relations Quarterly, and Journalism Quarterly. E. LincolnJames is Associate Professorand Assistant Chairperson in tke Department of Advertising at Michigan State University. His work has appeared in several scholarlyjournals, including the

International Journal of Advertising,Journal of Advertising, Journal of Direct Marketing, Journal of Media Planning, and Weberforschung und Praxis.

ethics. Such antipathy and concerns have a considerable history, having begun earlier in this century (Rogers, 1990). Since a national meeting of the Advertising Federation of America in March 1942, during which it created a 39-point code of ethics for advertising during World War II (The New York Times, 1942), U.S. publics and regulatory agencies and businesses worldwide have had a consuming interest in ethics. In his widely acclaimed book, The Ethics of Advertising, Bishop (t949) argues that the ethicai standards of advertising should "meet the practical requirements of society at a given stage of development" (p. 88). Thus he suggests utilitarian, relativistic, not rigid, standards of ethics for the ad industry. In Nevett's (1985) rebuttal to Bishop's (1949) argument, he concluded: "The ethical case for advertising stands in need of rigorous re-examination" (p. 304). The industry is not oblivious to such a need; existing programs are being revamped and others are being developed to respond to ethical issues. Indeed, selfregulation for socially responsible conduct has become an attractive option of industry associations as advertising practitioners report that their activities conform to the principles of business conduct, adopted March 2, 1984, by the Board of Directors of the American Advertising Federation (,~a~F)(Chonko et al., 1987). This article re-examines advertising ethics and argues that the perfunctory adherence of the advertising industry to deontotogical ethics results in a public perception of the industry as more susceptible, on the average, to ethical dilemmas than are most other management functions. So pervasive is this perception that Bergerson (1991-1992), chairman of the Self-Regulation Committee of the AAF, criticized industry efforts that were largely directed at treating the symptoms of the problem rather than

Journal of Business Ethics 13: 455--468, 1994. © 1994 KluwerAcademic Publishers. Printed in the...
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