Why Advertising Exists and How is it Ethical?

Ethics and Advertising, There to Sell

“Where ever we turn, advertising will be forcibly thrust on us in an intrusive orgy of abrasive sound and sight, all to induce us to do something we might not ordinarily do, or to induce us to do it differently.” (Levitt, 84)

Here, Theodore Levitt, proclaimed Professor at Harvard, elegantly portrayed advertising in its fullest form. In the 1970’s, where this quote originated, advertising seemed to have the same wrap sheet as modern day advertising. Where business profits lie; deceit and misinformation follow. Culturally, however, human’s self-proclaimed altruistic nature for risk free advertising may be a lost cause. Remember, the building blocks of humanity revolve around aesthetically pleasing visuals, functionality of supplies, and the ability of self-identifying the truth; all of which help in the procurement of goods and services that are worth the investment. So, in a culture that prescribes to the very ideals that create advertising, should there be a higher moral standard within?

Theodore Levitt and How Advertising is Art

Advertising can be viewed in similar terms to art, music, and culture. The artist created a work of art, and, dependant on the audience, that work of art can either be considered art or something to be ignored. Advertising falls in the same boat. If people see an ad, they may be inclined to purchase the item because of the amount of expectation built up just like a piece of artwork. Someone expects to see art when they are told there is art, just like someone will expect a product to work like in the advertisement they see. Deceit and deception is found within both realms where art over-beautifies an object -most likely to send a message – while advertising embellishes their products to sell, sell, sell.

Looking further into this, the point stands. Statistics show that aesthetically pleasing packaging and style are just as important to the sale of a product as functionality. This comes from the human condition to seek out beauty. Anything that can redefine the world we live in – art, music, literature, and consumer products – are bought to satisfy the insecurity wrought from a dull reality. People long for beauty because it is abnormal; therefore people, at a basic level, rely on advertisements. We like to see what things can be, not what they are. This can be seen as far back as history goes. Kings and Queens and Popes facilitated the creation of extravagant castles, tombs, and churches. They did so because beauty was a term attached to the right of kings, queens, and gods. To humanity, in a cultural context, things need to be beautiful for us to accept them.

Theodore Levitt shared this mentality when he stated, “Like advertising, poetry’s purpose is to influence an audience; to affect its perceptions and sensibilities; perhaps even to change its mind.” (Levitt, 85)


Art is a form of creative embellishment, where man used his natural abilities to broaden the scope of their reality so that it seemed more purposeful, and thus advertising was born. One might say that they differ due to the message, but the messages are similar. They aim to change opinion. A song might denounce the government, and the bands fans will follow. A painting might show the salvation of souls by a devout path, so those who wish to be saved must follow that path, etc. Advertisements aim to spread a message,
and that message is simply to “buy me.”

One way to approach advertising is to understand human motive. Something will not stick within a culture unless it is not justifiable, and, like art, advertisements only exist because their audiences approve of the message being relayed. Levitt said it perfectly once again, “the human audience demands symbolic interpretation in everything it sees and knows.” (Levitt, 89) What he means is that if our interpretation of something leads to beautification, to see another side of reality, then our senses are satisfied. “Advertisements are the symbols of a man’s aspirations,” Levitt says. (Levitt, 90)

Now, man has developed an innate ability to discern between true and false information. This happens to be from empirical and rationalistic thinking where an adult has the ability to unconsciously disregard most ads they see in a day. In a world where adults, on average, see sixteen thousand ads a day, this is a vital piece of evolution. This fact does not stop the spread of false information through ads, it only protects the people. So when it comes to malleable minds, such as children, what should be the protocol? In essence, advertisements are as much apart of our culture as the artwork in the Sistine Chapel, so should there be restrictions imposed on it?

Children and Advertising: Is it Ethical?

There are three types of advertising campaigns that can have adverse side-effects on children: sexual stimulating ads, junk food ads, and shock tactics that involve violence.

First, sexual ads have been on the rise due to the simple quote of, “sex sells.” To some extent, yes this may have an adverse effect on a child if the parent does not want them to ask questions too early. It may also invite certain behavior which can be retained from an early age into adulthood, like womanizing or being sexually promiscuous. No studies have proven a correlation between sex, children, and advertisements, but studies do show that the habits developed in early years tend to stay with a person into adult hood.


With that, we lead into the second and third type of advertisement. Junk food and violence, since a child may see as many as three thousands ads a day, may curb a child’s development for the worst. As stated above, there is evidence to support that habits developed from advertisements, namely the
consumption of food, stays
with the person till

In a society that is dominated by fast food, candy, and soft drinks, it is not a stretch to say that there is correlation between advertising and the rise of obesity. (Dittman) Violence on television may lead to fear and anxiety within children, but again there has been no study that can link strong imagery in advertisements to the rise in violence around the world.

Studies have shown that children eight and under fail to comprehend the facts within an advertisement, and some countries, such as Greece, Sweden, and Norway, ban advertisements on children younger than a certain age. (Pediatrics) In America, advertising geared towards children is normal business, but is it ethical business? We have discussed that humans live in a world of false realities; a world where art, music, literature, and advertisements beautify and manipulate to feed our natural tendency for more. Children will be exposed to embellishment regardless of advertisements, so could it be said that advertisements help dictate true from false? People like to place blame onto things that develop from culture, but it is usually the simple things that would stop the exponential growth of problems. If parents were more active in their child’s TV watching experiences, where they associate advertisement with embellishment, and thus teach their children by association, the idea that advertisements are harmful will go to the wayside.

Now, this conclusion does not mean allowing the spread of completely false information. A company has an ethical duty to provide the proper information for a person to make a well rounded decision. This area here is done by the acts of supply and demand. People will purchase what is functional and what is aesthetically pleasing. One cannot over-ride the other, so there must be a happy medium between the two, and most companies look for this happy medium so they do not harm their quarterly numbers. The population will dictate, like art, what is worth an investment.

To conclude here, advertisement should be regulated and inspected for truthful information, but should exist with relatively little restriction. This is due to the fact that we culturally adopted advertisement as a way to enhance our lives. When it comes to children, however, there should be tighter restrictions. Some exist today in the form of FTC regulations restricting the amount of advertisements a child can be exposed to per hour. Also, there is little correlation between decisions made and advertisements watched, except in the realm of nutrition, so it comes down to properly educating one’s child over constantly setting restrictions on an art-form.

Originally published Feb 28, 2015.

Sources Cited:

Pediatrics. “Children, Adolescents, and Advertising.” Children, Adolescents, and Advertising. American Academy of Pediatrics, 6 Dec. 2006. Web. 26 Jan. 2015. <http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/118/6/2563.full>

Dittman, Melissa. “Consumerism–Protecting Children from Advertising.”Http://www.apa.org. American Psychological Association, 1 June 2004. Web. 26 Jan. 2015. <http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun04/protecting.aspx>

Levitt, Theodore. “The Morality of Advertising.” Charles Warner US. Harvard Business Review, 1 July 1970. Web. 26 Jan. 2015. <http://www.charleswarner.us/articles/morality.pdf>