Advertising has never been without controversy since it became common practice in the media. The purpose of advertising is respectable. A company has a newly developed product, and as an advertiser, it is your job to ensure that targeted markets receive information about the product, how it works, how it can improve your daily life and other key factors that go into persuading a customer to purchase your product. However, the way that the message has been conveyed usually produces conflict between advertisers and those that argue advertising causes people to purchase things they don’t necessarily need. The extreme argument against advertising doesn’t hold much weight because no one forces consumers to purchase products, but it does bring up valid points as to when advertising becomes unethical. In specific, I want to look at an area that continues to produce a firestorm of debate between both sides: advertising’s effect on body image.
No one argues that female bodies in advertising are grossly exaggerated in contrast to the average female today. Thanks to computer programs such as Photoshop and airbrushing, creating the ‘perfect thin woman’ for advertising has become easier, and unfortunately much more prevalent in advertising. In fact, the problem apparently has become so bad that lawmakers in Arizona are looking at the possibility of making advertisers specify when airbrushing has been used on an advertisement. While lawmakers realize that the bill will most likely not pass, they are hoping to bring light to the issue that seems to plague the U.S. While we realize the exaggeration of advertising, we are just now coming to realize the full effect that body image in advertising has on women and just how much of a negative effect that is. In fact, according to a study released in 1992 by Philip Myers and Frank Biocca suggested that just 30 minutes of exposure to advertising can cause women to alter their view of their bodies. So how does this play into ethical theories that we have discussed in class so far?
Well, there are several that could apply to this to judge whether this type of advertising is ethical. First off is utilitarianism, which basically states that in everything you do, acts are only ethical if they benefit the greatest amount of people even for the sake of hurting a few. So if women are the majority and advertisers the minority, according to utilitarianism, advertisers would be acting unethically because they are more concerned with making an advertisement that sells and thus benefits themselves rather than looking at the adverse effect upon women in society. So does this mean that all advertisements regarding body image should be banned due to their unethical nature? The short answer is no, but more importantly, it is necessary that viewers of advertisements and commercials accept personal responsibility and be able to filter through ads. So in this case, utilitarianism does not fit entirely well due to the fact that it does not address the sort of personal responsibility needed to tell the difference between reality and fiction.
Another ethical theory that I think fits better in this certain case is mean-based ethics. It essentially states that in order to find an ethical answer, you must find a balance between two extremes. A problem with this theory is that it lacks the benchmark to be able to distinguish what is the mean of two extremes. Nonetheless, in this case, I think that it works perfectly and I will address that argument in later paragraphs.
Removing all advertisements with body image in them would be unrealistic. Imagine the difficulty advertisers would face trying to sell perfume or cologne without showing the natural sexual images that comes along with fragrance and the scent of the opposite sex (or same sex now I guess?). Point-in-case, removing all advertisements would be an extreme while being constantly bombarded by unrealistic body images in every sort of advertisement (think food, baby diapers, etc.) would be extreme as well. Therefore, I believe that using means-based ethics in the area of advertising is the most ethical approach. It leaves neither side lacking because advertisers could still sell using body image, yet by using a more natural and average body image, you reduce the risk that the advertisement would adversely and negatively affect body images of women. Furthermore, in order to find a medium in this case, all one has to do is look at the pull between the perception of body image and how well advertisers feel they are able to complete their job. When one side starts pulling towards an extreme, advertisers should look as that a red flag to retreat from that direction and return to a more medium position.
As shown by evidence above, the exaggeration of body images has continued to deepen the divide between advertisers and women would negatively view their body. It is important to remember that happiness is usually achieved through moderation. The body can’t have too much sodium nor can it have too little; the same holds true for advertising and until advertisers learn to find that happy medium, it will only become more difficult for them to defend their position.