The image makers

January 10 2003

It is difficult to consider advertising, as such, as either a ‘good’ or an ‘evil’. In everyday life, it can bear good fruit if used within strict moral and legal guidelines, but otherwise it can cause untold damage in family, social and even political terms. It is therefore vital that all those involved in advertising - agencies, their clients and media networks - adopt the highest moral principles.

In order to encourage the diffusion of such rules, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications has published a 37 page paper entitled Ethics in Advertising. This is an essay which takes the implications of modern life into account, but which gives advertising agencies a forceful reminder of the duty not to put themselves exclusively at the service of the advertisers, but to be ever mindful of the interests of the public, and of common good. Advertising agencies should also take measures to redress, as far as possible, damage previously done by ill-considered advertisements. To those who suggested that these proposals are somewhat too idealistic, the Pontifical Council’s president, Monsignor John Foley, presenting the paper at a press conference, replied that it is the Church’s task to uphold its principles, without fear of being considered behind the times.

According to this pontifical document, communications and advertising have only two alternatives; either to help humanity grow, through its awareness of truth and goodness, or to become destructive forces which are damaging to human well-being.

The accusations are well defined: the exploitation of women in advertising is frequent and deplorable. It is morally degrading to knowingly attempt to shock and excite, by exploiting material of an unhealthy, perverted or pornographic nature. Advertising strategies which encourage a reckless lifestyle, the squandering of resources and the rape of the environment causing serious damage to the ecosystem should be considered immoral.

Political advertising can make its contribution to the democratic process, for example by informing people about candidates and programmes but it can also constitute an obstacle to democratic development, especially when it is very expensive, and thus limits access to political competition only to very wealthy candidates and groups; or when, instead of being a vehicle of honest and equable proposals, it tries to discredit the good name of political opponents.

Sometimes, advertisers use religious texts, figures and images which have absolutely nothing to do with what they are trying to sell (see photo, taken on the London Underground). This practise is shameful and offensive, especially when it exploits religion or treats it with scorn.

But we must not think that the responsibility lies only with the advertisers, sponsors and the media... We also share the responsibility when we sit mindlessly in front of the television, allowing our children to watch advertisements and programmes which are often trite, vulgar or sacrilegious, or when we continue to buy useless products at inflated prices, simply because we have been bewitched by inane and obnoxious advertising.

Updated on October 06 2016