1. The importance of advertising is “steadily on the increase in modern society.”1 That observation, made by this Pontifical Council a quarter century ago as part of an overview of the state of communications, is even more true now.
Just as the media of social communication themselves have enormous influence everywhere, so advertising, using media as its vehicle, is a pervasive, powerful force shaping attitudes and behavior in today’s world.
Especially since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has frequently addressed the question of the media and their role and responsibilities.2 She has sought to do so in a fundamentally positive manner, viewing the media as “gifts of God” which, in accordance with his providential design, bring people together and “help them to cooperate with his plan for their salvation.”3
In doing so, the Church stresses the responsibility of media to contribute to the authentic, integral development of persons and to foster the well being of society. “The information provided by the media is at the service of the common good. Society has a right to information based on truth, freedom, justice and solidarity.”4
It is in this spirit that the Church enters into dialogue with communicators. At the same time, she also calls attention to moral principles and norms relevant to social communications, as to other forms of human endeavor, while criticizing policies and practices that offend against these standards.
Here and there in the growing body of literature arising from the Church’s consideration of media, the subject of advertising is discussed.5 Now, prompted by the increasing importance of advertising and by requests for a more extensive treatment, we turn again to this topic.
We wish to call attention to positive contributions that advertising can and does make; to note ethical and moral problems that advertising can and does raise; to point to moral principles that apply to this field; and, finally, to suggest certain steps for the consideration of those professionally involved in advertising, as well as for others in the private sector, including the churches, and for public officials.
Our reason for addressing these matters is simple. In today’s society, advertising has a profound impact on how people understand life, the world and themselves, especially in regard to their values and their ways of choosing and behaving. These are matters about which the Church is and must be deeply and sincerely concerned.
2. The field of advertising is extremely broad and diverse. In general terms, of course, an advertisement is simply a public notice meant to convey information and invite patronage or some other response. As that suggests, advertising has two basic purposes: to inform and to persuade, and — while these purposes are distinguishable — both very often are simultaneously present.
Advertising is not the same as marketing (the complex of commercial functions involved in transferring goods from producers and consumers) or public relations (the systematic effort to create a favorable public impression or ‘image’ of some person, group, or entity). In many cases, though, it is a technique or instrument employed by one or both of these.
Advertising can be very simple — a local, even ‘neighborhood,’ phenomenon — or it can be very complex, involving sophisticated research and multimedia campaigns that span the globe. It differs according to its intended audience, so that, for example, advertising aimed at children raises some technical and moral issues significantly different from those raised by advertising aimed at competent adults.
Not only are many different media and techniques employed in advertising; advertising itself is of several different kinds: commercial advertising for products and services; public service advertising on behalf of various institutions, programs, and causes; and — a phenomenon of growing importance today — political advertising in the interests of parties and candidates. Making allowance for the differences among the different kinds and methods of advertising, we intend what follows to be applicable to them all.
3. 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. For example, the absence from advertising of certain racial and ethnic groups in some multi-racial or multi-ethnic societies can help to create problems of image and identity, especially among those neglected, and the almost inevitable impression in commercial advertising that an abundance of possessions leads to happiness and fulfillment can be both misleading and frustrating.
Advertising also has an indirect but powerful impact on society through its influence on media. Many publications and broadcasting operations depend on advertising revenue for survival. This often is true of religious media as well as commercial media. For their part, advertisers naturally seek to reach audiences; and the media, striving to deliver audiences to advertisers, must shape their content so to attract audiences of the size and demographic composition sought. This economic dependency of media and the power it confers upon advertisers carries with it serious responsibilities for both.