Transactional advertisements

You might be thinking at this point that Transactional advertising is “the morally good kind” when contrasted with branding, but there is lots of room for deception in advertising, even when the ads stick to presenting facts only.

kashiTransactional ads can give facts that are simply false, distract their audience from important information with ambiguous claims, or make outrageous exaggerations. They can also imply false claims without actually making them directly. While demonstrably false claims are unusual in advertising, it does happen. A false advertising suit was filed against Kellogg’s subsidiary, Kashi, for claiming in ads that their cereal contains “all natural” ingredients, but are in fact “composed almost entirely of synthetic and unnaturally processed ingredients.”[1] This is a case where advertisers make a claim that is plainly false, and it’s easy to see that whether or not the courts find Kashi guilty of violating the law, they certainly engaged in some intentional deception. We can set the legal question aside and ask whether it’s morally permissible to make claims in an ad that you know to be false. I suspect most people would agree that there is something morally wrong with that.

In other cases, ads may not make outright false claims, but they may instead distract or obscure important information. An ad for a kitchen cleaning spray may, for example, claim that their product “kills 99.9 percent of germs that cause the common cold”, leaving out the fact that rubbing alcohol, or bleach, or almost any cleaning product will do the same thing, since most cold germs are viruses, and cannot survive anywhere except in a human host. Of course, this is not to say that the product does not, in fact, kill the germs. It does. But you might not buy it if you knew that you can kill the germs with the cleaning products that you already have. Of course, the ad may also fail to mention that the last .1 percent of those germs are the ones that most often make people sick, and this is in fact because they are not killed by common household cleaning products.

axe body spray adLastly, ads might not make any claims at all, but instead make wild exaggerations that imply the claims they know (and they would also claim their audience knows) are probably not true. Axe body spray is a textbook example of what Robert Arrington calls “puffery”. Axe ads don’t actually make any direct claims about their product. In most of these ads, we see a man using the spray, and then the same man is pursued by beautiful women, who presumably find him sexually attractive because of the way he smells (thanks to his use of the spray). Setting aside the overwhelming sexism and objectification of women these ads demonstrate, we can clearly see that axe is implying that their product will make men who use it more attractive to beautiful women. Because we reasonable, thoughtful critics know, when we think about it, that this cannot be true, axe cannot be accused of making false claims. They never say “axe will make beautiful women chase you down the street in hopes that you will have sex with them”, because that would be patently absurd. But they hope some men will think that it’s worth a shot. Maybe, they hope these men will think, that’s an exaggeration of something that really does happen. Maybe women will be more attracted to me, if only slightly. Even if that were true, there is no evidence provided in an axe ad to support that claim. If a psychologist presented clinical evidence that women find men wearing axe body spray more attractive than men not wearing axe body spray, then that would be something. But of course, you’ll never see that ad, because the scientific evidence simply doesn’t exist.

With regard to transactional ads, we are left to ask whether it’s morally permissible to imply false claims, even if you don’t make them explicitly, or whether it’s permissible to make true claims that mislead viewers. On the one hand, advertisers ought to have the same freedom of expression that everyone else enjoys. If they want to extol the virtues of their product, they should be allowed to do it, and no one should tell them which virtues are the ones they have to talk about, and which ones they can’t talk about. On the other hand, everyone has a moral obligation not to engage in deception, that is, not to intentionally mislead others. Advertisers should be subject to this same moral demand.