Commercial advertising is a phenomenon closely associated with capitalist consumer culture. The ubiquitous ad space that engulfs urban human habitation has no parallels in terms of its reach and influence. Advertising performs a key role in industrial economies and its infiltration into both print and online formats is unlikely to abate. With ad spends always on ascent it is not difficult to understand why advertising businesses expect maximum Return on Investment (ROI) on their ad spends. Advertisers’ intention is to make their products/services appear very attractive to a broad consumer base. Advertising is not inherently sinister, but its practical application as of today makes it ethically dubious. In other words, the concept of marketing commodities in a consumer market had long drawn the criticism of ethicists. The fundamentally weak moral imperative of capitalist culture makes this outcome inevitable. As a result, marketing strategies in industrial societies have attracted flak and condemnation from the judicious members of society – the United Kingdom being no exception.
Benjamin Disraeli bemoaned more than a century back “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” (Edman, 2001, p.417) It would be apt to add advertising to this list, especially since the latter half of the twentieth century. In this view,
“Advertising, like statistics, is recognized commonly as a medium where facts can be interpreted, twisted, and emphasized according to the advertiser’s needs. When business judgment and professional ethics fail to enforce reasonable standards, the courts may have to decide if advertisers have twisted the facts too far.” (Edman, 2001, p.417)
There is a basic economic theory of consumer behaviour which says that consumers make rational choices – buying only products and services they want and shunning those that are unnecessary or overpriced. But a brief glance at the shelves of our department stores would reveal how fallacious this theory is. The fact of the matter is, to a large part, consumers are made to act irrationally, to buy products and services they don’t want and can’t afford. The boom in the credit card industry since the 1970s (across all advanced societies) is a testament to how people have accustomed themselves to living on debt. (Scott, 2004, p.187)
Advertisers claim that their ad campaigns are designed to ‘educate’ the target audience about the advantages and benefits of a particular product. There is also the implicit assumption that the product thus promoted is essential to living a comfortable life. But both of these claims are usually untrue. Far from informing the public, ad campaigns mislead or misinform them. And it stands to reason that basic necessities of life need no promotion. For example, people will continue to buy wheat flour and other staple food items despite total lack of advertisement for the same. In this scenario, the theory that most advertisements are designed to sell products that people don’t need becomes evident. As for the theory that they pay with money they don’t have, one only needs to look at the frequency of economic depression and recession over the last four centuries. At the same time that globalization and free flow of capital took off across the world, the boom in credit card usage happened concurrently. This resulted in a society that runs perennially on debt. The global economic meltdown of 2008 was due to the collapse of sub-prime housing loans that were promoted aggressively in the years leading up to the crisis. (Mujtaba, 2005, p.60)