Truth in Advertising

I’m getting very curious about this advertising question. A couple of commenters on Inquiry have disagreed with my characterization of advertising as having the goal of selling a product as opposed to finding (or disseminating) the truth. I’m becoming increasingly interested in finding out what is controversial about this. Am I just wrong? Have I got my facts wrong? Am I confused? Here I’ve thought all this time, even from earliest childhood, innocently gazing at rice krispies elves and bald giants in T shirts, that the purpose of advertisements was to get people to pay money for the objects the ads were talking or singing or dancing or enacting little playlets about, whether it be spearmint gum or a cleaning product or a sexually exciting automobile. Did I somehow get the wrong end of the stick? Were all those mini-dramas and songs and limpid sylvan landscapes not intended to inspire us to spend money on the cereals and beers and cigarettes in question, but rather to inquire into or convey the truth about said products?

I gotta tell you, I don’t think so. I have to say, I’ve been reliably informed on more than one occasion that the purpose of such entertainments and didactic offerings was and is, indeed, to move the viewer to buy the object of attention. I think I can offer abundant evidence that that is indeed the purpose of advertising. But – but one can always be wrong; I could be wrong; perhaps all my informants were wrong; perhaps it’s all a misunderstanding. Perhaps advertising is in fact a branch of education, and I’ve simply never grasped that. You have your schools, and your universities, and libraries, and museums, and then you have advertising, and they’re all doing the same thing, for the same reasons, with the same motivations, using the same methods and adhering to the same norms. Or perhaps advertising is a branch of research and inquiry; perhaps it’s a giant long-term multi-generational social science experiment that was started in the middle of the 18th century and is nowhere near complete yet. I never realized that.

I don’t think so though. I don’t think advertising is there to educate us, or to do disinterested research. But commenters keep disputing me. For instance: “Actually, being horribly pedantic and all, there is no reason why advertising should not be about truth telling even if it is also about persuasion, it really all depends on the ethical standards of the advertiser, the two things are not mutually exclusive.”

I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think it’s true that “there is no reason why advertising should not be about truth telling.” That is not the same thing as saying that advertising can’t possibly ever tell the truth, although I would argue that advertising can’t really ever be “about” truth telling, because it is in fact “about” something quite different. But the “no reason” thing first. It’s just not true to say there’s no reason to claim that advertising and truth telling are mutually exclusive: there is a reason, a perfectly sensible and widely recognized reason: advertising has an agenda, an axe to grind, a bias, which is different from truth telling and could very well interfere with the motivation to tell the truth. That’s obvious enough isn’t it? Here’s a thought experiment in case it’s not. You’re an advertiser: your new account is this cookie: you taste it: it tastes like shit. Is that what you decide to say in the ad? “Buy new raisin Weezelbronks, they taste like shit!” Put it more objectively: you do marketing research: you give the cookie to lots of people to try: they all say it tastes like shit. Is that what you put in the ad? “Buy new raisin Weezelbronks, everybody says they taste like shit!” Granted, most cookie makers would try to improve the cookie before selling it. But what about cigarettes then? Do cigarette ads say nothing but: “Smoke these, they’re addictive, they’ll make you smell bad, they’re expensive, and they’re highly toxic!”

Now just apply the basic principle to any product and any ad for it and you’ll see what I’m driving at. Advertising is not in fact “about” truth telling, it is “about” selling a product, and the two are not invariably mutually exclusive, but they certainly are in tension. Advertisers have no inherent motivation to tell the complete truth about the product unless they have the rare perfect product with no harmful side effects.

But I’m told I have “a very jaundiced view of corporate ethics” because I make this claim. But I don’t buy it (so to speak). I don’t think that is a jaundiced view, and it’s also not a personal one; it’s simply an observation about the inherent function of advertising. Unless, as I say, I’m completely wrong and confused and misinformed about what that function is. New information sought and welcomed.

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