Economic Harms of Advertising

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  • 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,” “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.”

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.

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