The morality of persuasion

As it turns out, the purpose of advertising is not so much to inform, as it is to persuade. Advertisers want us to do something that we might not have done on our own. Perhaps they want to persuade us to buy their product instead of the competitor’s, or perhaps they want us to create desires in us to buy products that we didn’t even think we wanted at all. There are a few moral questions to ask about advertising, once we see what it’s really about.

When is it permissible to persuade? Are there cases when it would be morally wrong to try to influence someone to do what you want? If there are some times when persuasion amounts to something more like manipulation, and if you think manipulation is wrong, then ads like that might be impermissible. I’ll consider three possible ways that advertising might be morally problematic.

Kantians hold personal autonomy in high regard. It’s the thing that makes persons morally significant, and it’s what we use to choose whether we act out of duty, or out of some other (less morally praiseworthy) motivation. If ads, as Arrington suggests, really do aim to control us, then advertisers are out to hijack our autonomy. On the view of Kantian ethics, persons (who have autonomy) are to be respected. They shouldn’t be treated as means, for example. But advertisements, if they really do create what Arrington calls “alien” desires, which originate outside of us (in the minds of advertisers) then ads would seem to do exactly that. Advertisers, if they aim to create desires in people that would motivate those people to buy a product that they never would have bought on their own, are treating people as a means to make money. If I convinced you that you needed to buy a book in order to better understand this course (let’s assume that this claim may be true, but is not necessarily true), and it just happened that the book was written by me—so I stand to make a profit from your purchase of it—then it seems like I am using you as a means to make myself some money. If you never would have wanted the book (even if you had known it existed already) and I persuaded you to buy it, then the desire for you to buy the book seems like it came from me, not from you. It seems like I have used you. For a Kantian, that’s not okay.

Utilitarians don’t have any problem using people as long as the consequences come out for the better. But what if they don’t? Surely there are ads that persuade people to buy things that harm them, such as unhealthy food. This is particularly true of children’s breakfast cereal. Many of those products do more harm than good to children’s health, but they are persuaded to want them through advertising. In other cases, there may be ads that persuade someone to buy a product that they don’t need, so the harm is not to their health, but to their finances. Everyone has at one time or another bought a product that turned out to be junk. I’m not saying their money was stolen from them, but it was certainly wasted, and they would have been better off not having bought the thing in the first place. In some small way, they were harmed by the advertising that persuaded them to buy it. There are still other cases we could imagine in which someone buys an inferior product because they were persuaded by ads, when if left to their own devices, they would have bought a competing, higher quality product and their life would go a little better. These are small harms, to be sure, but if the consequences of ads include harming people, then there may be reason to think that they are (in these cases) morally impermissible.

Virtue ethicists measure morality by the quality of one’s character. Considering both the harm problem and the autonomy problem, would a virtuous person persuade people to do things that harm them, or persuade people to do what is in his own interest, rather than what is in those peoples’ interest? If a virtuous person wouldn’t do those things, then a virtuous company wouldn’t either.

Lastly, if you think that there is something wrong with creating a consumerist culture, one where people become psychologically dependent on brands and products of their own sense of identity, then there must be something wrong with advertising—at least in its present form. Consumerism could not exist with out branding advertising. Ads don’t just facilitate identification with brands, that’s how they work. That’s their purpose, and that’s what makes them effective. They exist for no other purpose. Advertisers create this culture of consumerism through their ads. If a consumer culture is a bad one, then the blame for facilitating—even encouraging—that kind of culture rests squarely at the feet of advertisers.