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Ethics and Manipulation in Advertising: Answering a Flawed Indictment.

The reviewer, Timothy L. Fort, is an assistant professor of business law and business ethics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Mike Phillips is fun to read, even if you don't agree with him. His book reads somewhat like Milton Friedman's famous "Social Responsibility of Business" article. Like Friedman, Phillips begins provocatively. He argues that because advertising makes little demonstrated difference in consumer purchasing, there is no reason to become too upset by it. But, also like Friedman, as Phillips's argument goes on one can see him willing to acknowledge the legitimacy of a weaker version of the critics' argument he answers. This complexity calls for a careful reading, and fortunately, Phillips's text is worth the read.

The focus is manipulative, rather than deceptive, advertising. Two prominent examples are subliminal ads and sex-associated ads. The antagonists of his argument are those who claim that manipulative advertising ought to be banned.

The heart of Phillips's case is that manipulative advertising does not make much difference in the sales of a product. Advertising is a piece of a larger marketing strategy for any product, so being able to specify the precise effects of any particular ad is quite difficult. Moreover, some products do well with little advertising (drugs, generic products), whereas others do poorly with a lot of advertising (Billy Beer, the Edsel). Another point rings true at every Super Bowl, when some wag speculates on the decrease in water pressure during commercials; in other words, Phillips argues, people don't pay much attention to ads. More specifically, he maintains there is no compelling scholarly proof that even subliminal ads are significantly effective. He notes that whereas studies do show that sex-associated ads are remembered, the products sold by the ads are not.

If this is true, then why be bothered morally by manipulative advertising? Phillips tries to show that contemporary business ethics theories, such as utilitarianism, Kantianism, autonomy (also related to Kant), and virtue ethics, do not proscribe manipulative advertising. Certainly such an ad cannot be justified by Kantian good will, and it is hard to see how a virtuous quest for excellence would find sustenance in such an ad. Thus, as the argument proceeds, these points move Phillips to suggest that more modest regulatory efforts might be more appropriate than outright proscription.

Phillips's argument is certainly coherent. I am not familiar enough with the scholarly literature on advertising to assess his use of empirical data. Commonsense questions do arise, however. For instance, if advertising is so ineffective, then why do managers spend so much money and energy on it? Phillips has two answers for this. First, business people are not always rational; they may waste money. Second, he quotes the manager who says he knows that half the money spent on advertising will be wasted, but doesn't know which half. This anecdote, of course, supports Phillips's argument that it is difficult to know which ads work. Nevertheless, it does seem strange that so many managers could spend so much on something they aren't sure works.

In terms of moral philosophy, Phillips offers solid arguments as to how autonomy cuts as much for the freedom to create the manipulative ad as it argues against its creation. His use of virtue ethics is a bit skimpy in this section of the book. He seems to be focused on how manipulative ads affect consumers rather than how they affect the makers of the ads. But virtue ethics would seem to warn of the corrosive effects on the character of marketers if they continue to produce advertisements they know to be manipulative. His arguments on the utility of ads are more rigorous, although they generally resolve to the point that such ads "keep the economy humming."

One final detail is worth noting. Phillips argues that opponents of manipulative advertising must present moral arguments to prevail in trying to legislate the elimination of the ads. One could be cynical and ask: Why provide an argument? Why not just base such legislation on an exercise of raw political power? I'm not prepared to make such a proposal, but then I'm not so sure the creators of subliminal ads are really considering the moral persuasiveness of their manipulation.

Having said all this, I must add that Phillips's book is worth reading. Regardless of how one comes down on the issue of manipulative advertising, Phillips develops a well-argued, coherent case. As a book on a particular issue within business ethics, Ethics and Manipulation in Advertising also does a solid job of exposing some of the problems and benefits of leading business ethics theories. And if nothing else, it is an engaging and thought-provoking book that should spark worthwhile debate.

Ethics and Manipulation in Advertising: Answering a Flawed Indictment, by Michael J. Phillips. Westport, CT: Quorum, 1997. 207 pp.
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Author:Fort, Timothy L.
Publication:Business Horizons
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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