4. Enormous human and material resources are devoted to advertising. Advertising is everywhere in today’s world, so that, as Pope Paul VI remarked, “No one now can escape the influence of advertising.”6 Even people who are not themselves exposed to particular forms of advertising confront a society, a culture — other people — affected for good or ill by advertising messages and techniques of every sort.
Some critics view this state of affairs in unrelievedly negative terms. They 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. Here are some of the ways that happens.
a) Economic Benefits of Advertising
5. Advertising can play an important role in the process by which an economic system guided by moral norms and responsive to the common good contributes to human development. It is a necessary part of the functioning of modern market economies, which today either exist or are emerging in many parts of the world and which — provided they conform to moral standards based upon integral human development and the common good — currently seem to be “the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs” of a socio-economic kind.7
In such a system, advertising can be a useful tool for sustaining honest and ethically responsible competition that contributes to economic growth in the service of authentic human development. “The Church looks with favor on the growth of man’s productive capacity, and also on the ever widening network of relationships and exchanges between persons and social groups….[F]rom this point of view she encourages advertising, which can become a wholesome and efficacious instrument for reciprocal help among men.”8
Advertising does this, among other ways, by informing people about the availability of rationally desirable new products and services and improvements in existing ones, helping them to make informed, prudent consumer decisions, contributing to efficiency and the lowering of prices, and stimulating economic progress through the expansion of business and trade. All of this can contribute to the creation of new jobs, higher incomes and a more decent and humane way of life for all. It also helps pay for publications, programming and productions — including those of the Church — that bring information, entertainment and inspiration to people around the world.
b) Benefits of Political Advertising
6. “The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate.”9
Political advertising can make a contribution to democracy analogous to its contribution to economic well being in a market system guided by moral norms. As free and responsible media in a democratic system help to counteract tendencies toward the monopolization of power on the part of oligarchies and special interests, so political advertising can make its contribution by informing people about the ideas and policy proposals of parties and candidates, including new candidates not previously known to the public.
c) Cultural Benefits of Advertising
7. Because of the impact advertising has on media that depend on it for revenue, advertisers have an opportunity to exert a positive influence on decisions about media content. This they do by supporting material of excellent intellectual, aesthetic and moral quality presented with the public interest in view, and particularly by encouraging and making possible media presentations which are oriented to minorities whose needs might otherwise go unserved.
Moreover, advertising can itself contribute to the betterment of society by uplifting and inspiring people and motivating them to act in ways that benefit themselves and others. Advertising can brighten lives simply by being witty, tasteful and entertaining. Some advertisements are instances of popular art, with a vivacity and elan all their own.
d) Moral and Religious Benefits of Advertising
8. In many cases, too, benevolent social institutions, including those of a religious nature, use advertising to communicate their messages — messages of faith, of patriotism, of tolerance, compassion and neighborly service, of charity toward the needy, messages concerning health and education, constructive and helpful messages that educate and motivate people in a variety of beneficial ways.
For the Church, involvement in media-related activities, including advertising, is today a necessary part of a comprehensive pastoral strategy.10 This includes both the Church’s own media — Catholic press and publishing, television and radio broadcasting, film and audiovisual production, and the rest — and also her participation in secular media. The media “can and should be instruments in the Church’s program of re-evangelization and new evangelization in the contemporary world.”11 While much remains to be done, many positive efforts of this kind already are underway. With reference to advertising itself, Pope Paul VI once said that it is desirable that Catholic institutions “follow with constant attention the development of the modern techniques of advertising and… know how to make opportune use of them in order to spread the Gospel message in a manner which answers the expectations and needs of contemporary man.”12