Advertisers Still Suffer From ‘Moral Myopia’

Article by Patrick L. Plaisance /
November 08, 2015 /
Click here to view original /

It’s clear that the advertising industry considers itself a profession – and as such has moral obligations to serve a public good. So why do we regularly see ads that clearly flout extensive media psychology research linking them with child obesity, sexual stereotyping, poor self-esteem and other social ills? One possible answer is suggested by recent research that concludes advertising executives suffer from “moral myopia.”

That ethically questionable advertising is linked to negative effects among audiences is beyond dispute. Decades of research has established robust correlations between exposure to ads and body dissatisfaction among women and girls (e.g., Bissell & Rask, 2010; Groesz et al., 2002; Hargreaves & Tiggeman, 2004; Holmstrom, 2004; Sabiston & Chandler, 2010). Connections also have been established between advertising and poor eating choices among children (Ferguson et al., 2014), and reinforcement of destructive sexual stereotypes (Rosewarne, 2007). The early sexualization of girls, to which advertising content inevitably contributes, has been linked to patterns of depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem, according to a recent report by the American Psychological Association.

No wonder the term “advertising ethics” has long been a target of derision. And yet, advertising and marketing trade groups, including the American Advertising Federation and the American Marketing Association, have embraced some of the most explicit ethics codes found in any of the media-related industries, including journalism. The Institute for Advertising Ethics, supported by the AAF and other groups, promote eight “principles and practices for advertising ethics” (AAF). “They are based on the premise that all forms of communications, including advertising, should always do what is best for consumers, which in turn is best for business as well,” it states. “For while we are in an age of unparalleled change, this overriding truth never changes” (p. 2.) The eight principles include respecting truthfulness (No. 1), clearly distinguish ads from news (No. 3), promote transparency, (No. 4), avoid exploitation of children (No. 5), and respect privacy (No. 6). The code of ethics adopted by the American Marketing Association (AMA) is just as clear, and in places even more so. The code calls for marketers to “do no harm” and “foster trust in the marketing system.” Some of its key claims include:

  • Acknowledge the social obligations to stakeholders that come with increased marketing and economic power.
  • Recognize our special commitments to vulnerable market segments such as children, seniors, the economically impoverished, market illiterates and others who may be substantially disadvantaged.
  • Value individual differences and avoid stereotyping customers or depicting demographic groups (e.g., gender, race, sexual orientation) in a negative or dehumanizing way.

Noble sentiments indeed. It is important to note that these and other advertising trade groups insist on referring to their work as “professional.” The word is used repeatedly in the two ethics codes just mentioned. Calling oneself professional isn’t just a marketing ploy; it is a pledge that there is something about one’s work that transcends individual customers and clients. While education and licensing requirements vary across professions – law, medicine, engineering, etc. – at their core is a fundamental acknowledgement that their work puts specialized knowledge and skills to work to promote a broader public good. This acknowledgement was central to the professional identities of journalists and public relations, according to a recent study of exemplars in those media sectors (Plaisance, 2015). Claiming to be a professional means to claim a position of public trust. “And it is trust, not the perceived power of the professional to manipulate things or people, that bestows moral legitimacy,” according to Daryl Koehn, a theorist who has written extensively on the notion of professionalism (1994, p. 58). Indeed, the AMA code explicitly acknowledges the idea that marketers’ work should in some sense contributing to a broader public good beyond the immediate satisfaction of a client. “As marketers, we recognize that we not only serve our organizations but also act as stewards of society in creating, facilitating and executing the transactions that are part of the greater economy,” it states (AMA).

Sadly, actual ads that reflect such professionalism are the exceptions that prove the rule of the moral immaturity of the industry. We regularly see ad campaigns that are exploitative in nature and that trade on destructive stereotypes, oblivious to the promotion of public good that is the core of professionalism.

Why the constant disconnect between behavior in advertising and the words of virtue that the industry itself claims to embrace? Recent research suggests an answer. In her ethnographic study of advertising executives published in the Journal of Media Ethics, Erin Schauster concludes that they suffer from a sort of “moral myopia” – they simply have no awareness of any sort of public-service dimension to their work. After months of observations and interviews at a large metropolitan ad agency, Schauster concluded that “while organizational values such as open communication and collaboration are shared, several members do not assign moral qualities to these values nor recognize what an ethical problem or decision might be” (2015, p. 156). And when they do talk about values, such talk is exclusively in relation to their coworkers, supervisors, and clients. Values don’t figure into their actual ad messages beyond making sure clients are happy. Repeatedly, Schauster was told that ethics does not factor into the creative process. They praised executives as being virtuous – as valuing communication and collaboration – but instead of acknowledging virtuous character as evidence of ethics, workers suggested that “because AdCompany does not engage in unethical acts, that there are ‘no ethics’ at the agency” (p. 158).

No ethics indeed. Again, some words from Koehn are useful here: “If the professional is indeed bound to do whatever the client wants as long as the client’s desires do not interfere with others’ desire satisfaction, then the professional is little more than a hired hand” (p. 38). In other words, without any public-good dimension to their work, marketers and advertisers can’t really claim the mantel of professional. Until advertisers and marketers take the idea of professionalism seriously, and recognize that calling themselves such recognizes a moral obligation to promote the public good through ethical and socially responsible ads attempting consumer persuasion, it will remain a morally immature line of work.


American Advertising Federation, Institute of Advertising Ethics. Principles and Practices for Advertising Ethics. Available:…(link is external)

American Psychological Association. (2007). Task Force Report on the Sexualization of Girls. Available: is external)

Bissell, K., & Rask, A. (2010). Real women on real beauty: self-discrepancy, internalization of the thin ideal, and perceptions of attractiveness and thinness on Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty. International Journal of Advertising 29 (4), 643-668.

Ferguson, C.J., Contreras, S., & Kilburn, M. (2014). Advertising and fictional media effects on healthy eating choices in early and later childhood. Psychology of Popular Media Culture 3 (3), 164-173.

Groesz, L.M., Levine, M.P., & Murnen, S.K. (2002). The effect of experimental presentation of thin media images on body satisfaction: A meta-analytic view. International Journal of Eating Disorders 31, 1-16.

Hargreaves, D.A., & Tiggemann, M. (2004). Idealized media images and adolescent body image: “Comparing” boys and girls. Body Image 1, 351-361.

Holmstrom, A.J. (2004). The effects of the media on body image. A meta-analysis. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 48, 196-217.

Keohn, D. (1994). The ground of professional ethics. New York: Routledge.

Plaisance, P.L. (2015). Virtue in media: The moral psychology of excellence in news and public relations. New York: Routledge.

Rosewarne, L. (2007). Sex in public: Women, outdoor advertising and public policy. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Sabiston, C.M., & Chandler, K. (2010). Effects of fitness advertising on weight and body shape dissatisfaction, social physique anxiety, and exercise motives in a sample of healthy-weight females. Journal of Applied Behavioral Research 14 (4), 165-180.

Schauster, E. (2015). The relationship between organizational leaders and advertising ethics: An organizational ethnography. Journal of Media Ethics 30 (3), 150-167.

Turner, S.L., Hamilton, H., Jacobs, M., Angood, L.M., & Dwyer, D.H. (1997). The influence of fashion magazines on the body image satisfaction of college women: An exploratory analysis. Adolescence 32, 603-614.