9. There is nothing intrinsically good or intrinsically evil about advertising. It is a tool, an instrument: it can be used well, and it can be used badly. If it can have, and sometimes does have, beneficial results such as those just described, it also can, and often does, have a negative, harmful impact on individuals and society.
Communio et Progressio contains this summary statement of the problem: “If harmful or utterly useless goods are touted to the public, if false assertions are made about goods for sale, if less than admirable human tendencies are exploited, those responsible for such advertising harm society and forfeit their good name and credibility. More than this, unremitting pressure to buy articles of luxury can arouse false wants that hurt both individuals and families by making them ignore what they really need. And those forms of advertising which, without shame, exploit the sexual instincts simply to make money or which seek to penetrate into the subconscious recesses of the mind in a way that threatens the freedom of the individual … must be shunned.”13
a) Economic Harms of Advertising
10. Advertising can betray its role as a source of information by misrepresentation and by withholding relevant facts. Sometimes, too, the information function of media can be subverted by advertisers’ pressure upon publications or programs not to treat of questions that might prove embarrassing or inconvenient.
More often, though, advertising is used not simply to inform but to persuade and motivate — to convince people to act in certain ways: buy certain products or services, patronize certain institutions, and the like. This is where particular abuses can occur.
The practice of “brand”-related advertising can raise serious problems. Often there are only negligible differences among similar products of different brands, and advertising may attempt to move people to act on the basis of irrational motives (“brand loyalty,” status, fashion, “sex appeal,” etc.) instead of presenting differences in product quality and price as bases for rational choice.
Advertising also can be, and often is, a tool of the “phenomenon of consumerism,” as Pope John Paul II delineated it when he said: “It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed toward ‘having’ rather than ‘being’, and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.”14 Sometimes advertisers speak of it as part of their task to “create” needs for products and services — that is, to cause people to feel and act upon cravings for items and services they do not need. “If … a direct appeal is made to his instincts — while ignoring in various ways the reality of the person as intelligent and free — then consumer attitudes and life-styles can be created which are objectively improper and often damaging to his physical and spiritual health.”15
This is a serious abuse, an affront to human dignity and the common good when it occurs in affluent societies. But the abuse is still more grave when consumerist attitudes and values are transmitted by communications media and advertising to developing countries, where they exacerbate socio-economic problems and harm the poor. “It is true that a judicious use of advertising can stimulate developing countries to improve their standard of living. But serious harm can be done them if advertising and commercial pressure become so irresponsible that communities seeking to rise from poverty to a reasonable standard of living are persuaded to seek this progress by satisfying wants that have been artificially created. The result of this is that they waste their resources and neglect their real needs, and genuine development falls behind.”16
Similarly, the task of countries attempting to develop types of market economies that serve human needs and interests after decades under centralized, state-controlled systems is made more difficult by advertising that promotes consumerist attitudes and values offensive to human dignity and the common good. The problem is particularly acute when, as often happens, the dignity and welfare of society’s poorer and weaker members are at stake. It is necessary always to bear in mind that there are “goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold” and to avoid “an ‘idolatry’ of the market” that, aided and abetted by advertising, ignores this crucial fact.17
b) Harms of Political Advertising
11. Political advertising can support and assist the working of the democratic process, but it also can obstruct it. This happens when, for example, the costs of advertising limit political competition to wealthy candidates or groups, or require that office-seekers compromise their integrity and independence by over-dependence on special interests for funds.
Such obstruction of the democratic process also happens when, instead of being a vehicle for honest expositions of candidates’ views and records, political advertising seeks to distort the views and records of opponents and unjustly attacks their reputations. It happens when advertising appeals more to people’s emotions and base instincts — to selfishness, bias and hostility toward others, to racial and ethnic prejudice and the like — rather than to a reasoned sense of justice and the good of all.
c) Cultural Harms of Advertising
12. Advertising also can have a corrupting influence upon culture and cultural values. We have spoken of the economic harm that can be done to developing nations by advertising that fosters consumerism and destructive patterns of consumption. Consider also the cultural injury done to these nations and their peoples by advertising whose content and methods, reflecting those prevalent in the first world, are at war with sound traditional values in indigenous cultures. Today this kind of “domination and manipulation” via media rightly is “a concern of developing nations in relation to developed ones,” as well as a “concern of minorities within particular nations.”18
The indirect but powerful influence exerted by advertising upon the media of social communications that depend on revenues from this source points to another sort of cultural concern. In the competition to attract ever larger audiences and deliver them to advertisers, communicators can find themselves tempted — in fact pressured, subtly or not so subtly — to set aside high artistic and moral standards and lapse into superficiality, tawdriness and moral squalor.
Communicators also can find themselves tempted to ignore the educational and social needs of certain segments of the audience — the very young, the very old, the poor — who do not match the demographic patterns (age, education, income, habits of buying and consuming, etc.) of the kinds of audiences advertisers want to reach. In this way the tone and indeed the level of moral responsibility of the communications media in general are lowered.
All too often, advertising contributes to the invidious stereotyping of particular groups that places them at a disadvantage in relation to others.This often is true of the way advertising treats women; and the exploitation of women, both in and by advertising, is a frequent, deplorable abuse. “How often are they treated not as persons with an inviolable dignity but as objects whose purpose is to satisfy others’ appetite for pleasure or for power? How often is the role of woman as wife and mother undervalued or even ridiculed? How often is the role of women in business or professional life depicted as a masculine caricature, a denial of the specific gifts of feminine insight, compassion, and understanding, which so greatly contribute to the ‘civilization of love’?”19
d) Moral and Religious Harms of Advertising
13. Advertising can be tasteful and in conformity with high moral standards, and occasionally even morally uplifting, but it also can be vulgar and morally degrading. Frequently it deliberately appeals to such motives as envy, status seeking and lust. Today, too, some advertisers consciously seek to shock and titillate by exploiting content of a morbid, perverse, pornographic nature.
What this Pontifical Council said several years ago about pornography and violence in the media is no less true of certain forms of advertising:
“As reflections of the dark side of human nature marred by sin, pornography and the exaltation of violence are age-old realities of the human condition. In the past quarter century, however, they have taken on new dimensions and have become serious social problems. At a time of widespread and unfortunate confusion about moral norms, the communications media have made pornography and violence accessible to a vastly expanded audience, including young people and even children, and a problem which at one time was confined mainly to wealthy countries has now begun, via the communications media, to corrupt moral values in developing nations.”20
We note, too, certain special problems relating to advertising that treats of religion or pertains to specific issues with a moral dimension.
In cases of the first sort, commercial advertisers sometimes include religious themes or use religious images or personages to sell products. It is possible to do this in tasteful, acceptable ways, but the practice is obnoxious and offensive when it involves exploiting religion or treating it flippantly.
In cases of the second sort, advertising sometimes is used to promote products and inculcate attitudes and forms of behavior contrary to moral norms. That is the case, for instance, with the advertising of contraceptives, abortifacients and products harmful to health, and with government-sponsored advertising campaigns for artificial birth control, so-called “safe sex”, and similar practices.