18. The indispensable guarantors of ethically correct behavior by the advertising industry are the well formed and responsible consciences of advertising professionals themselves: consciences sensitive to their duty not merely to serve the interests of those who commission and finance their work but also to respect and uphold the rights and interests of their audiences and to serve the common good.
Many women and men professionally engaged in advertising do have sensitive consciences, high ethical standards and a strong sense of responsibility. But even for them external pressures — from the clients who commission their work as well as from the competitive internal dynamics of their profession — can create powerful inducements to unethical behavior. That underlines the need for external structures and systems to support and encourage responsible practice in advertising and to discourage the irresponsible.
19. Voluntary ethical codes are one such source of support. These already exist in a number of places. Welcome as they are, though, they are only as effective as the willingness of advertisers to comply strictly with them. “It is up to the directors and managers of the media which carry advertising to make known to the public, to subscribe to and to apply the codes of professional ethics which already have been opportunely established so as to have the cooperation of the public in making these codes still better and in enforcing their observance.”33
We emphasize the importance of public involvement. Representatives of the public should participate in the formulation, application and periodic updating of ethical codes. The public representatives should include ethicists and church people, as well as representatives of consumer groups. Individuals do well to organize themselves into such groups in order to protect their interests in relation to commercial interests.
20. Public authorities also have a role to play. On the one hand, government should not seek to control and dictate policy to the advertising industry, any more than to other sectors of the communications media. On the other hand, the regulation of advertising content and practice, already existing in many places, can and should extend beyond banning false advertising, narrowly defined. “By promulgating laws and overseeing their application, public authorities should ensure that ‘public morality and social progress are not gravely endangered’ through misuse of the media.”34
For example, government regulations should address such questions as the quantity of advertising, especially in broadcast media, as well as the content of advertising directed at groups particularly vulnerable to exploitation, such as children and old people. Political advertising also seems an appropriate area for regulation: how much may be spent, how and from whom may money for advertising be raised, etc.
21. The media of news and information should make it a point to keep the public informed about the world of advertising. Considering advertising’s social impact, it is appropriate that media regularly review and critique the performance of advertisers, just as they do other groups whose activities have a significant influence on society.
22. Besides using media to evangelize, the Church for her part needs to grasp the full implications of the observation by Pope John Paul: that media comprise a central part of that great modern “Areopagus” where ideas are shared and attitudes and values are formed. This points to a “deeper reality” than simply using media to spread the Gospel message, important as that is. “It is also necessary to integrate that message into the ‘new culture’ created by modern communications” with its “new ways of communicating… new languages, new techniques and a new psychology.”35
In light of this insight, it is important that media education be part of pastoral planning and a variety of pastoral and educational programs carried on by the Church, including Catholic schools. This includes education regarding the role of advertising in today’s world and its relevance to the work of the Church. Such education should seek to prepare people to be informed and alert in their approach to advertising as to other forms of communication. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, “the means of social communication. … can give rise to a certain passivity among users, making them less than vigilant consumers of what is said or shown. Users should practice moderation and discipline in their approach to the mass media.”36
23. In the final analysis, however, where freedom of speech and communication exists, it is largely up to advertisers themselves to ensure ethically responsible practices in their profession. Besides avoiding abuses, advertisers should also undertake to repair the harm sometimes done by advertising, insofar as that is possible: for example, by publishing corrective notices, compensating injured parties, increasing the quantity of public service advertising, and the like. This question of ‘reparations’ is a matter of legitimate involvement not only by industry self-regulatory bodies and public interest groups, but also by public authorities.
Where unethical practices have become widespread and entrenched, conscientious advertisers may be called upon to make significant personal sacrifices to correct them. But people who want to do what is morally right must always be ready to suffer loss and personal injury rather than to do what is wrong. This is a duty for Christians, followers of Christ, certainly; but not only for them. “In this witness to the absoluteness of the moral good Christians are not alone: they are supported by the moral sense present in peoples and by the great religious and sapiential traditions of East and West.”37
We do not wish, and certainly we do not expect, to see advertising eliminated from the contemporary world. Advertising is an important element in today’s society, especially in the functioning of a market economy, which is becoming more and more widespread.
Moreover, for the reasons and in the ways sketched here, we believe advertising can, and often does, play a constructive role in economic growth, in the exchange of information and ideas, and in the fostering of solidarity among individuals and groups. Yet it also can do, and often does, grave harm to individuals and to the common good.
In light of these reflections, therefore, we call upon advertising professionals and upon all those involved in the process of commissioning and disseminating advertising to eliminate its socially harmful aspects and observe high ethical standards in regard to truthfulness, human dignity and social responsibility. In this way, they will make a special and significant contribution to human progress and to the common good.