In a pluralistic society with a fairly well delimited (though, some may argue, rapidly shrinking) core of common values, rarely do advertisements fall completely afoul of moral standards. But when they do, the criticism can be violent. The legislative battle over cigarettes is one such example. Despite such widespread moral concerns, profit margins often primarily set the tone of conversation within the advertising world itself, while ethical considerations tend to play a less significant role. Setting aside the question of how this prioritization on the part of advertising agencies registers morally (Yes, I did just dismiss the title of the article), it is perhaps more helpful for the everyday consumer to consider what this means for each of us personally, as we attempt to navigate the marketplace of desires.
Advertising is an art of attraction. Sweetly and strongly, an advertisement is designed to draw its quarry (perhaps I betray my hand) or target (less pejorative?) by an appeal to those deepest channels of human longing. Whether an advertisement operates by a simple comparison mechanism (“Keeping up with the Joneses”) or the ever-popular dream fulfillment motif (Step One: Purchase advertised product. Step Two: Marry the spouse of your dreams and own many shiny things while wearing an invariable smile), the medium aims at redirecting our gaze, fixing it, and then seizing upon our attention to enkindle the flame of desire.
And yet, the consumer must be cognizant that advertisements appeal to just one facet of our desires—oftentimes a low ranking one at that. As we know, there is a hierarchy to our pursuits. Everyone acknowledges that we must forgo some things, or perhaps limit our consumption of them, for the sake of other pursuits, which are more noble, or necessary, or pleasurable. The athlete must limit his nightlife (at least somewhat) to ensure near optimal performance. The consecrated religious forgoes the good of marriage in pursuit of a more perfect conformation to Jesus Christ and his mysteries. The mother forgoes uninterrupted sleep when summoned by the clamorous screams of her hungry child. We all navigate life by comparing the goods on display with an internalized hierarchy of those things we hold dear.
Now, advertisements simply do not consult this rule of reason when appealing to our senses. They appeal to our desires to be seen, known, respected, extolled, praised, preferred, approved, remembered, without making an intentional comparison to our ultimate human good. Now, of themselves, appeals of this character have little in the way of a moral quality. They are simply what we do to sell a product. But, as marketing techniques—increasingly refined by the contributions of psychology and anthropology—become ever more potent, I think it helps to consider what is at stake in the process of comparing the claims of advertisements.
At some point in the interchange, we need to ask: Will this product make me really, lastingly happy? Does it help me get to the goal of my life? Unfortunately, the consumer cannot depend on the product manufacturer and distributor for such a consideration. The flooding of the market with inane products carries the point. Thus, it often happens that the consumer must discern the relative merit of the proposed good on his own. And such a decision must be made under the pressure and urgency of advertising’s appeal: “If I don’t buy this, I’ll die!” or “The sale only lasts until midnight!” For this reason, the average man or woman need be something of an ascetic in a sea of sales.
In short, it is the aim of the advertisement not only to seduce the potential buyer, but also to create in him a habit of buying. By creating such a habit, the advertisement achieves not only its immediate goal of securing the sale, but also its further goal of securing a market for future products. This is perhaps best seen in the notion of “upgrading.” With such a logic at work, advertisements can easily outstrip our buying power and/or the healthy limits of material convenience. With such a tension, we must exercise a constant vigilance, a veritable Lent of the senses, lest our wants betray our needs and the billboard dictate our standard of living.
The Christian tradition, exemplified by someone like St. Thomas Aquinas, points us out of this vicious circle. The human person is not limited to material desires, but has immaterial ones, spiritual ones. Our final good is not determined by Madison Avenue, but by the road to heaven. Furthermore, the human intellect has a capacity for such an end, one attained most perfectly by the elevation of grace. Buying in to God offers the ultimate upgrade path.
Image: Wojtek Witkowski, On My Way to Broadway