This is a branding advertisement. It gives no information about the product (except maybe the rough shape of one possible container you might find it in). If you didn’t already know what Coke was, you wouldn’t be able to figure it out from this ad. The only textual information is the nonsensical slogan “the Coke side of life”. It’s not even a complete sentence. You’re supposed to infer from the colorful spray of images and icons that there is something good about “the Coke side of life”, and perhaps that this is a “side of life” you should be on. Presumably you get on the Coke side of life by drinking Coke, but maybe that’s not even required. Maybe the Coke side of life is more like a state of mind, like “looking on the bright side”. Maybe the Coke side of life is nothing to do with Coke, and more about being happy and enjoying life. Maybe Coke just reminds you of this optimistic attitude. That’s exactly what the ad wants you to feel. It’s not implying that Coke will make you happy (though it’s okay with Coke if you think that too). It’s trying to get the idea of being happy associated with Coke in your mind. So the next time you think about buying a Coke, you’ll think about being happy. The brand will have a positive association in your mind. Then next time you are choosing between Coke and some other cola, you’ll feel better about the Coke than its competitor, and that feeling will be enough—subconsciously—to motivate you to buy the Coke, or maybe even to pay a higher price for Coke when the alternative is less expensive.
This is of course mostly psychology rather than philosophy, but the ethical problem becomes clear when we start to examine the psychological complexities of advertising. Are ads manipulating you into buying products that are not in your best interest to buy—that are more expensive, unhealthy, or of inferior quality—by getting you to ignore important facts in favor of a feeling? Typically we think that manipulating someone’s feelings to get them to do what you want is morally impermissible, like if someone tried to make you feel guilt, pity, or even fear, in order to get you to do what they wanted. I suspect you wouldn’t think that intentional manipulation like that is okay, but that is precisely what branding advertisements do.
There is also a further danger of branding advertisements—a danger that arises in a culture that is saturated in branding, as ours is. This secondary danger is consumerism. By consumerism, I don’t mean that people consume a lot—buy a lot of things they don’t need, or buy things because they are loyal to a brand—I mean that people come to understand their own identities in terms of brands. When you begin to think of yourself as “a Nike person” or “a Ford driver”, then you are engaging in consumerism. If you have ever decided to act a certain way, or expressed a certain view because “you’re a mac person” (or whatever), then you have engaged in consumerism. Your feelings about the brands you identify with has become part of who you are and how you think about yourself. The secondary purpose of branding advertisements, once they have gotten you to feel a certain way about a brand, is to get you to think “yes, I am like that. That product is for people like me.” When you see the ad for Coke, and you think “Yes, I am on the Coke side of life. I like feeling good and having fun. I am that kind of person.” you are identifying with that brand. You are beginning to understand yourself through that brand. When you see a Nike ad and say to yourself, “Yes, life is short, and I do play hard. I have an athlete inside of me too!” not only is Nike hoping that you will feel more like the person you want to be when you wear Nike shoes, but you’ll come to understand yourself as a person who wears Nike. You will identify with the brand. You will drink Coke and wear Nike not because they are high quality products, but because that’s the kind of person you are.
Think about how much stronger the bond is between consumers and products if the consumers don’t buy the products because they are well-made or affordably priced, but because they see themselves as the kind of people who embody the ideals in those products’ ads.
The danger here is that if you see drinking Coke as part of what makes you who you are, then you have to keep drinking Coke in order to keep being you. And it’s usually not just one brand, it’s lots. You could certainly be a “Coke person” and a “mac person” and a “Nike person” all at the same time. Branding ads set up a media culture that invites us to feel like we understand ourselves better when we identify with the products we consume. Consumerism means that our lives become about consuming. We cannot be, unless we continue to buy.
So we can now ask the relevant moral question about branding ads: Is there anything wrong with creating a culture wherein people’s very identities are bound up in the things they buy? Does that take something away from people? Is it a kind of manipulation? Robert Arrington—the author of the next reading—thinks that there is a moral problem here, but we’ll get to that after we have also considered transactional advertising.