Guest Post: The Church, Advertising and the Junk We Don't Need
As a result of previous discussion on this blog, I invited one of our regular commentors, Anthony Chelette, who works as an advertising agency art director, to read the Pontifical Council on Social Communications document Ethics In Advertising and write his thoughts on it as a person working in the field. He was kind enough to do so, and thus results the following guest post.
I’d like to thank Anthony for taking the time to read the document and write this response over the last several weeks. I hope this will lead to fruitful discussion and greater understanding of the field and this response to it.
–Brendan Hodge (DarwinCatholic)
Certain ideas are intrinsically a part of being American. Liberty. Individualism. Capitalism. But often another ‘ism’— consumerism— is associated with the American experience. Catholics appropriately abhor what consumerism is — an insatiable search for happiness through material gratification— and some point a finger at advertising as a pusher for ‘unneeded’ products of questionable value. Such opinion holds advertisers partially responsible for behavior that distracts from moral progress and discourages the ordering of economies.
The Church has always had a keen eye on how the desire for material satisfaction erects walls between the human person and his true destiny in Heaven. Jesus himself recognized that love for possessions easily make men willing slaves. Suddenly, man is more obedient to besting his Guitar Hero score than Christ’s teachings.
In a genuinely free society, businesses openly compete for our attention and dollars via advertising. Ads aim to alert consumers about products and services available in the marketplace and often do so in creative ways. Working as an art director, writers and others like me work pretty hard at being funny or shocking or profound to hopefully influence your spending.
What is Need?
Thus there is a natural tension between the reality of liberty and our economic choices. The Vatican document ‘Ethics in Advertising’* states that advertising often plays a destructive role in economic development by steering consumers towards products they do not need. Quoting Communio et Progressio:
If harmful or utterly useless goods are touted to the public, if false assertions are made about the goods for sale, if less admirable human tendencies are exploited, those responsible for such advertising harm society and forfeit their good name and credibility.
On phenomena of ‘branding’, it continues:
Sometimes advertisers speak of it as part of their task to ‘create’ needs for products and services they [consumers] do not need. “If…direct appeal is made to his [the human person] instincts — while ignoring in various ways the reality of the person as intelligent and free — then consumer attitudes and life-styles can be created which are objectively improper and often damaging to his physical and spiritual health.”
I empathize here but find these statements somewhat problematic. What is an “utterly useless good”? Only the consumer can decide that. Certainly we could all agree that useless goods exist, but I doubt all of us could agree on what those products are. Indeed, one benefit of a free market economy is that truly ‘useless’ products can be discovered and discarded by consumers.
Baggy clothes, Hummers, video games, “mandals” and the literary works of Stephenie Meyer are all some of the products out there that I think are utterly useless. Some of them, if taken intellectually serious, are harmful to a person’s finances or spiritual life. While I might love to see Nicholas Cage movies declared objectively harmful to the common good, I fail to see how any human authority can legitimately control the free choices consumers make while preserving ‘freedom’.
Criticizing ‘branding’ seems even more awkward to me, as someone who works in the field. A product’s advantage over a competitor could be negligible which only leaves advertisers with the philosophical (i.e., the ‘brand’) to talk about. Or, an industry could become so highly developed and refined that the ‘benefits’ between competitors is more emotional than material.
This is not something that should cause any crisis of conscience for advertisers in the way fraud should. Yet advertisers’ efforts to expand their clients business (and I might add, the general prosperity as well) are implicitly held culpable for the poor or distasteful choices made by individuals. Appealing to the human condition- our attractions, our insecurities, our hopes, etc. – are all legitimate tools to make a case to potential customers even when we find them personally lacking.
A properly developed economy can afford to produce for subjective needs. When overconsumption occurs, controversy ought not to be over which products are consumed but rather what is materially enabling the overconsumption. The same should also apply to struggling Third World economies where money is spent in an unproductive way over more essential goods. This is not a problem advertising can address.
Who Can Determine the ‘Ordered’ Need? No one.
It is naive to think that governments can adequately control advertising, or what products can be advertised, with beneficial results. However, here the Vatican encourages intervention.
Public authorities also have a role to play… the regulation of advertising content and practice; already existing in many places, can and should extend beyond banning false advertising… For example, government regulations should address such questions as the quantity of advertising, especially in broadcast media, as well as the content of advertising directed at groups particularly vulnerable to exploitation, such as children and old people.
Politicizing the creative content of ads actually has the opposite effect intended. Instead of protecting the consumer, it really ends up distorting the client’s business to please politicians and regulators. Rather than deal with the government, advertising in certain sectors of the economy might be killed all together. No one really wins in that scenario, except bureaucrats.
Creatively speaking its worse. Trying to create pieces of communication that are effective, appreciated by the client and engaging is difficult enough. Doing all that while also navigating government regulation complicates the creative process, and often results in dumbed down, mediocre work.
Only in cases of fraud (i.e. lying) does government have a legitimate role to play.
Intervening in commercial speech strikes me as an over-stretch in authority that would not solve the problems of materialism and exploitation. If anything it could potentially do a disservice to the common good. Consumer decision-making would be distorted based on an absence or manipulation of messages. The goal of an ordered economy operating within a free society would remain elusive.
Problems with Deeper Roots
Morally speaking, Christians are witnessing the continued popularization of ideas in advertising that are contrary to the Truth. Rather than push for liberty to be stunted in advertising, the Church should further engage in the war of ideas. Just as some might use their liberty to encourage immoral choices, the Church has her liberty to respond in kind. Free communication to people through advertising should be more fully taken advantage of, not restrained.
The social teaching of the church rightly seeks to address material injustices in the world. However, the genuine causes and moral solutions need to be better understood and at this time I am uncertain if she is fully within her competency on such matters. To bemoan advertising as a contributor to economic imbalances seems to thrash irrationally at a symptom rather than the disease. Seeking to actively relieve suffering is a universal responsibility for Catholics, but it must be done so in concert with liberty.
Unfortunately that means consumers have the freedom to spend their money on crap.
Our society does not have an advertising problem it has a formation problem. Concern that people are devilishly coaxed into poor economic choices reveals a failure to properly foster independent minds, not a failure of responsible advertising. Metaphor, hyperbole, irony and all the creative tools are not what are wrong in ads. When they are used improperly or immorally Catholics should respond by using their freedom to punish the advertiser’s business. We should not, however, use the coercion of law to restrain entire industries in reaction to advertising activity.
Catholics that see deprivation in the world should remember that liberty, not state intervention, is what permits real prosperity to grow and build in a sustainable way. What we as Catholics know the human person “needs” with total certainty is love, in all its fullness and most of all— presence. Only with better distribution of that most fundamental human need can economies begin to naturally order themselves.
- Anthony Chelette, July 7, 2009
A special thanks to DarwinCatholic for inviting me to guest-contribute to The American Catholic blog.