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Persuasive Advertising, Autonomy, and the Creation of Desire

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In his article Roger Crisp discusses his views on the issue of persuasive advertising. His overarching argument is that persuasive advertising ‘overrides the autonomy of consumers’ and he concludes that ‘all forms of a certain common type of advertising (i.e. persuasive advertising) are morally wrong’. In my response to this article, I will adopt an ethical viewpoint towards my analysis of various points raised by Crisp. Viewing Crisp’s argument from a Kantian perspective, the deprivation of autonomy stemming from persuasive advertising would be deemed as unethical. From a Kantian standpoint, this is undesirable as it does not fulfil the three categorical imperatives. Under the principle of universality, it should be said that many people would not wish to be subject to subconscious manipulation and a universal rule requiring people to subject themselves to this would not hold. Furthermore, during the course of persuasive advertising, humans are being treated as merely a means to serve the company’s profit margin and not as ends in their own right, negating the principle of humanity as well.

Thirdly, in an ideal kingdom of ends, advertisers would not be able to subject themselves and their loved ones to the same subliminal tactics they employ on consumers, leaving the third imperative unfulfilled as well. A Kantian would agree that, by depriving consumers of their basic autonomy, persuasive advertising erodes their self-worth and dignity, and would therefore be an unethical practice to partake in – putting credibility in Crisp’s stand. While I support the argument that persuasive advertising is morally wrong to a large extent, I find Crisp’s standpoint that ‘all forms of (persuasive advertising) are morally wrong’ to be too allencompassing. In the following sections, I will discuss possible counter-arguments to his stand and highlight my view that it is possible that not all cases of persuasive advertising are unethical in nature. Discussion of Key Issues Crisp brings out the issue of puffery, ‘which involves the linking of a product, with the unconscious desires of consumers’. He brings out the example of a consumer who, after seeing an advertisement for Grecian Formula 16, subconsciously relates the product with power and sexual appeal, thus leading him to make repeat purchases.

The key issue is that such consumers suffer an inability to decide on the product based on its merits as they have been made to believe it satisfies other inert desires within their being. From a Rawlsian ethical perspective, this directly conflicts with the principle of equal liberty. In particular, the freedom of conscience and thought of the consumers has been diminished as such advertisements take advantage of their subconscious desires, constraining their thought processes to what advertisers want them to think at a subconscious level. Furthermore, if the advertisers were to act behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, they would not wish to be in the least advantaged position of having their decision process impeded by appeals to their subconscious desire. A Rawlsian would therefore consider such advertising to be unethical.

However, would there be instances which we would be willing to allow advertisers to play on inert desires without our knowledge? Consider a man who has always wanted to feel a sense of belonging and obtains it after signing up for a credit card that relates itself with a healthy social life. Looking at this from a utilitarian perspective, in this case, the cost of the individual’s loss of autonomy is more than offset by the benefits of the fulfilment of his innocent inert desire to feel accepted. In a day and age where Ugly Bettys and Quasimodos have subjected themselves to the ridicule of society, while the deprivation of autonomous desire must be said to be largely unethical, it must be said that there may be instances whereby morally acceptable exceptions may exist. Crisp also brings out the issue of subliminal suggestion. He raises the case of a cinema which used subliminal suggestion to induce consumers to purchase ice cream. In this instance, the customers did not make the purchase ‘because they happened to like it’ but ‘because they had been subjected to subliminal suggestion’.

The point being made here is that the consumers were no longer thinking autonomously but more as if they were brainwashed, and thus bought it against their free will. Looking at this case through an Aristotlean perspective, subliminal suggestion is unethical as the good of the outcome is only directed at the cinema which profited from increased sales of ice cream, and not the customers good. Kant would also agree with this stance as the customers were being treated merely as a means to increase profits for the cinema and not as ends – reducing their dignity and self-worth as humans. That said, I feel that not all forms of subliminal advertising must be deemed to be unethical. Consider the Singapore government’s efforts to reduce the purchase of cigarettes to curb social ills. Assume that subliminal suggestions, through means such as images of cancerous organs attached to cigarette boxes, led to the reduction of smokers, resulting in a decrease in deaths due to lung cancer. A utilitarian would argue that this would be ethical, citing the social benefit of increased life expectancy and perhaps even cleaner air outweighing the cost of smokers being subject to manipulation through subliminal suggestion.

From this point of view, I would make the assertion that Crisp may have made the conclusion that all forms of subliminal suggestion are unethical, too hastily. Further Evaluation of the Article While Crisp’s article proves convincing based on ethical grounds, could the advent of persuasive advertising have brought about any positive effects to society? Consider the case of Coca-Cola’s advertising campaign which utilised the technique of repetition mentioned by Crisp. Through repeated advertising of its product across the board of various mediums, Coca-Cola ‘drummed’ its branding into the consumer’s mind.

However, was this necessarily a bad thing? It has been argued that when people buy Coke, they are not just purchasing a beverage, but experiences – and how these experiences connect the consumer with what they imagine life should be. In doing so, persuasive marketing has contributed to making life richer for its consumers. From a deontological standpoint, the sheer financial clout that Coca-Cola has amassed bestows upon it a moral duty to enrich the lives of the society which is independent of its financial self-interest. Through persuasive advertising, it can be said to have increased the spectrum of experiences of consumers, at a price found to be affordable by the common man. Consequently, from a deontologist’s point of view, I would suggest that persuasive advertising is ethical in this instance.

Looking at the issue from a more fundamental angle, it is plausible to suggest that at least some forms of persuasive advertising are initiated with the objective of the customers’ trial of the product in mind. It would also not be too far-fetched to assume that companies believe that their products benefit consumers by satisfying their needs and wants. Combining the two premises mentioned above, consider a situation whereby an apparel manufacturer, by means of persuasive advertising, stimulates consumers to try the product. Consumers are satisfied with the product and proceed to make repeat purchases without the prompting of further persuasive advertisement. Analysing this situation from a Kantian perspective, the principle of universality is satisfied as if “society should be stimulated to purchase beneficial products for trial” was made a universal rule, it would be accepted.

Also, the consumers are no longer treated as means only, as the company utilises persuasive advertising with the satisfaction of the consumers as an end in mind – thus fulfilling the second categorical imperative of humanity. Lastly, in an ideal kingdom of ends, advertisers would be willing to subject themselves to the same treatment for such beneficial products. Once again, highlighting the limited nature of the persuasive advertising mentioned above, Aristotleans would also agree upon the ethical acceptability of the above example as it leads to the good of consumers and not just to the good of the producers alone, thus making it just. Taking into account the abovementioned justifications, I would further the opinion that not all forms of persuasive advertising are unethical. Conclusion I fully agree that in many instances, it must be said that persuasive advertising is ethically unacceptable. By overriding consumer autonomy to achieve higher sales and profits, advertisers treat consumers solely as means to their financial end.

Furthermore the use of Puffery and Subliminal Suggestion further put the immorality of persuasive advertising under the spotlight, as discussed earlier in this response paper. However, Crisp’s view that all forms of persuasive advertising are unethical is too sweeping as it does not take into account the various exceptional cases whereby persuasive may be ethically acceptable. This response paper allowed me to ponder about the nature of the human psyche and how large companies are now utilising the subconscious aspect of our minds to fulfil their ends. We are now in the midst of the technological era of the 21st century. In fact, it can be argued that such forms of advertising have become the norm rather than the exception. However, lest we fall victim to a fallacious appeal to popularity, we must remind ourselves that just because something is widely practiced, does not make it morally justifiable.

Who then should bear the onus of ensuring that ethical standards in advertising are upheld? Personally, I feel that this burden rests on the shoulders of the companiesengaging in advertisement. In  this respect, I would fall back on the ethical theory of utilitarianism. By weighing the costs and benefits of their advertisements in totality, advertisers will have the clearest picture of the consequences, and ethicality of their actions. All in all, while it must be said that there are some instances whereby persuasive advertising may be judged to be ethical, I fear that the temptation to engage in unethical forms of such advertising to increase the bottom line may be too great for many companies to abstain from.


Roger Crisp (1987) Persuasive Advertising, Autonomy, and the Creation of Desire. Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 6, No. 5 (Jul. 1987), pp 413-418 Chan, G & Shenoy G. (2009), Ethics and Social Responsibility: Asian and Western Perspectives. Singapore: McGraw-Hill Cameron Barrett (1998) The Great Unethical Marketing Beast. Retrieved 13 September 2011, from http://camworld.org/archives/001176.html Ogilvy & Mather (2004), Ethics in Advertising. Retrieved 13 September 2011, from http://www.aef.com/on_campus/classroom/speaker_pres/data/3001

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