Alex Steer

Better communication through data / about / archive

Philosophers vs Ad Men

363 words | ~2 min

Today I stumbled across a blog post (from 2012) containing a typically un-thoughtful set of accusations against advertising. Brace yourself for the usual...

Some advertising – such as that outside my village for a Cub Scout jumble sale at the weekend – is not only harmless, but useful. It informs us of things we didn’t know and which we often find it helpful to know. But most advertising is not like this. It is what is often called ‘persuasive’ rather than informative, aiming at directing our choices in ways of which we’re often quite unaware... We may be consiously aware of it, but it leads us without our realizing it to make purchasing decisions on the basis of considerations which we could not accept as relevant were they made transparent to us. There are various reasons for favouring one after-shave over another: aroma, price, healing properties. The fact that a link between the after-shave and excitement has been established in my mind through exposure to ads showing, alongside images of the product, someone surfing is not one of them.

Persuasive advertising, then, undermines our capacity for autonomy or rational self-government. It might seem remarkable that citizens of modern democratic societies allow businesses to do this to them.

What astonished me was not the argument, but its source. This post was written by Roger Crisp, who is Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford and a fellow at the university's Centre for Practical Ethics (on whose blog it appeared).

I find it almost unbelievable that advertising and academia have so little in common that it's possible to get away with such lazy accusation-throwing about one field by someone so eminent in the other. An academic philosopher who wrote 'most businesses are evil', or 'most information technology has no social value', would rightly be challenged by colleagues in business schools or computer laboratories.

Advertising is a hugely influential, well-established social activity and a hugely valuable part of the economy - and its interactions and effects are far from simple. Whether its workings make you feel a bit icky or not, surely it deserves a higher standard of inquiry than this?

# Alex Steer (16/02/2015)