In the Information Age, advertising and its professionals have been facing the meanest attack they have ever seen, from consumers calling the profession untrustworthy and deceitful and businesses calling it ineffective and costly to the “social media gurus” proclaiming it “for the losers” and how it and the thousands of people in AdLand will no longer be necessary. We have defended advertising and its use based on the basic principles of communication, and how businesses get their word out. We’ve defended advertising based on research and numbers from media studies.
But now we want to look at advertising in a more philosophical way. Is advertising the best means to an end?
We would like to frame this argument based on the theories of categorical imperatives, pioneered by moral philosopher Immanuel Kant. He believed that no human should perform any action unless the means were just as beneficial as the ends. It is a way of “evaluating motivations of action.”
In Kant’s book, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, he describes the First Formulation of the theory, and the part that we will focus on, which states, “Act only accordingly to that maxim thereby you can, at the same time, will that it should come an universal law.”
What is great in applying this concept to advertising and the economy we are in is that there are some environmental factors that appear obvious. First, we understand that in the United States, the “natural laws” we would have to consider would be the rules and regulations in our free enterprise. We must also consider the type of competition that exists. According to the fact that there are multiple producers, multiple consumers, nearly free information to the consumers, and the producers (businesses) compete via differentiation, the competition can be defined as monopolistic*. So, the wills of the consumer and the producer are subject to the laws of a monopolistic competitive market.
Still with us? Good.
Now let’s add in the motivation. For this to be correctly applied, the action (in this case, advertising) must have the motivation to help others. It must consider the question, “What ought we to do?” Does advertising help others? If we all agree that advertising’s purpose is to educate the consumer on the goods and services that businesses provide in order to enrich one’s life, one could say yes.
Next, let’s look at the consumer’s freedom of choice. Can they pick a good or service with no advertising? Absolutely. The Information Age has helped that. But can the consumer pick the best ends through that means? That’s a difficult question to answer. If this is a monopolistic economy, the consumer cannot know if they have all the information they need. We would argue that they probably wouldn’t.
Finally, there is a notion of “perfect duty” in the categorical imperative. If businesses have goods and services that can help people live better, should they not tell people about it? Of course they should! If they do not engage in advertising or communications, can it not be considered, as the law states, “blameworthy?”
Therefore, if we made a universal law stating: “Tell people what your product or service is about,” is there a conceivable contradiction? In the economy that we defined, the answer is no.
How about the opposite: “People must rely on others to share information about goods and services.” Is there a conceivable contradiction? Yes, for people can get imperfect information, people like different things, and although the goal is to better others, how do they know that sharing the information ultimately reaches that goal? It is more uncertain than the previous law; therefore, it cannot be enacted.
In the moral philosophical sense, in our economy, the best means to get information about goods and services that enrich people’s lives is advertising.**
*Monopolistic: monopolistic competition exists where a business in a given industry attempts to create a monopoly in its market. For example, Kleenex trying to have a monopoly on the tissue industry.
**Yes, this post had to be a little watered down to keep it from being 2,000 words. If you’d like an expansion where we go into “imperfect duty” and the Second Formulation, comment below.