Advertising Ethics: a Contextual Response Based on Classical Ethical Theory
Advertising Ethics: A Contextual Response Based on Classical Ethical Theory Cornelius B.Pratt E.LincolnJames ABSTRACT.
F. P. Bishop argues that the ethical standard for advertising practitioners nmst be utilitarian. Indeed, the utilitarian theory of ethics in decision-making has traditionally been the preference of U. S. advertisingpractitioners. This article, therefore, argues that the U. S. advertising industry’s de-emphasisof ;ontological ethics is a reason for its continuing struggle with unfavorable public perceptions of its ethics – and credibility.
The perceptions of four scenarios on advertisingethics and the analyses of the openended responses of 174 members of the American Advertising Federation to those scenarios suggest that advertising practitioners need a stricter adherence to deontological ethics than is indicated in this study. Advertising, a traditionally high-profile management function since World War II, perpetuates a paradox. On the one hand, it is commonly touted by business and the academy as a major economic, social and competitive force in post-world war economies. On the other hand, it is, invariably, a bull’s-eye for public wrath.
Cowton (1992), Crisp (1987), and Litttechild (1982), for example, present evidence on consumer suspicion and antipathy toward and investor concerns about advertising Cornelius B. Pratt is Associate Professor in the Department of Advertising, at Michigan State University. His research has been published in suchjournals as the Journal of Media Planning, Journal of Business Ethics, Public Relations Review, Public RelationsJournal, Public Relations Quarterly, and Journalism Quarterly. E. LincolnJames is Associate Professorand Assistant Chairperson in tke Department of Advertising at Michigan State University.
His work has appeared in several scholarlyjournals, including the International Journal of Advertising,Journal of Advertising, Journal of Direct Marketing, Journal of Media Planning, and Weberforschung und Praxis. ethics. Such antipathy and concerns have a considerable history, having begun earlier in this century (Rogers, 1990). Since a national meeting of the Advertising Federation of America in March 1942, during which it created a 39-point code of ethics for advertising during World War II (The New York Times, 1942), U. S. ublics and regulatory agencies and businesses worldwide have had a consuming interest in ethics. In his widely acclaimed book,
The Ethics of Advertising, Bishop (t949) argues that the ethicai standards of advertising should “meet the practical requirements of society at a given stage of development” (p. 88). Thus he suggests utilitarian, relativistic, not rigid, standards of ethics for the ad industry. In Nevett’s (1985) rebuttal to Bishop’s (1949) argument, he concluded: “The ethical case for advertising stands in need of rigorous re-examination” (p. 04). The industry is not oblivious to such a need; existing programs are being revamped and others are being developed to respond to ethical issues. Indeed, selfregulation for socially responsible conduct has become an attractive option of industry associations as advertising practitioners report that their activities conform to the principles of business conduct, adopted March 2, 1984, by the Board of Directors of the American Advertising Federation (,~a~F)(Chonko et al. , 1987).
This article re-examines advertising ethics and argues that the perfunctory adherence of the advertising industry to deontotogical ethics results in a public perception of the industry as more susceptible, on the average, to ethical dilemmas than are most other management functions. So pervasive is this perception that Bergerson (1991-1992), chairman of the Self-Regulation Committee of the AAF, criticized industry efforts that were largely directed at treating the symptoms of the problem rather than Journal of Business Ethics 13: 455–468, 1994. © 1994 KluwerAcademic Publishers.
Printed in the Netherlands. 456 C. B. Pratt and E. L. James Greyser and Reece’s (1971) update of the 1962 HBR study (Greyser, 1962) indicated that while business leaders had a continuing strong respect for the economic role of advertising, advertising standards had slipped in some areas from standards reported in 1962; and, advertising content, particularly its perceived truthfulness, drew major criticisms. More recent research underscores a rising tide of questionable practices and ethical problems among advertising practitioners (Carson et al. 1985; Hunt and Chonko, 1987; Nevett, 1985; Ossip, 1985; Rotzoll and Christians, 1980; Haefner, 1991).
Consequently, Bergerson (1991–1992), for example, observes cynicism and indifference among the public toward advertising: “If the legislators, regulators and the public perceived advertisers to be more committed to legal and high ethical standards, their level of trust wilt rise and their level of unwelcome attention will fall” (p. 22). the problem itself. “Everyone in the industry should be interested in being a part of the solution,” Bergerson (1991-1992) wrote. The solution is to restore and maintain advertising’s credibility” (p. 22). Purposes of study The purposes of this study are twofold. First, it examines AAF members’ perceptions of four scenarios on advertising ethics, and analyzes their reasons for perceiving such scenarios as they did. Because members of the AAF — the largest association of advertising practitioners in the United States – operate in the trenches of the U. S. advertising industry, their perceptions could be typical of those in the industry.
Based on their comments, the present study argues that deontological ethics be applied more readily to decision-making than is currently the case. Second, this study links practitioners’ perceptions to ethical theories. Such a linkage is important because “(ethical) theories are like windows onto the world of moral reasoning. They are meant to provide vantage points from which important ethical decisions can be considered” (Lambeth, 1986, p. 25). The results of this study are, therefore, presented within the specific framework of classical theory: deontology.
Theoretical framework: The classical ethical theory ofdeontology Advertising practitioners continually explore ethical systems that will guide their decision-making processes. Lambeth (1986) observes that such a “system of ethics cannot ignore the classical approaches of deontology and teleology, or the variants of them” (p. 28), and identifies the characteristics of such a system: A system of ethics must be flexible,but not so flexibleas to be a mere rationalization for the personal preferences of those who invoke it.
In short, a systemmust have bite and give direction. Its precepts should offer continuity and stability, though not necessarilyinvariant outcomes. Rationale for study The growing literature on the morality of business practices indicates that, aside from greater semitivities to the environment and greater emphasis on a number of socially responsible actions, businesses, for the most part, still face ethical issues that were prevalent in the 1960s.The advertising profession, as business, is no less immune to the unsavory public perceptions of business ethics in general.
Almost 30 years ago, while a Harvard Business Review (HBR ) survey of business leaders indicated great respect for and an improvement in the standards of advertising during 10 previous years, there was a greater tendency on the part of the leaders to think that a code of ethical pracnces was more desirable for advertising than it was for their own industries (Greyser, 1962). (p. 28) Kantian ethics, a time-honored classical ethical theory, provides the framework for discussing the implications of self-reported ethics for the advertising industry.
Deontology is a duty-based, nonconsequentialist theory of ethics that asserts that certain, human actions are inherently” right or wrong. (Eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) provided much of the moral reasoning for pure deontology. ) The emphasis is on the doer’s actions. For example, it is always wrong to steal, lie or break a promise; it is one’s moral duty to Advertising and ClassicalEtflical Theory tell the truth and to keep one’s promises – regardless of the consequences.
Universalizing an action is one criterion offered by Kant for determining the ethics of a decision or action. Does the decision, action, or advertising message treat people as ends or as means toward an end? Kantian ethics requires that the doer respect the rights, status and dignity of the people with whom she or he interacts. Deontology has a unique appeal to and major implications for the ethics of advertising practitioners. Consequently, the continuing search for clear-cut do’s and don’ts is a major focus of a number of advertising departments, agencies, and associations.
One worldwide approach to such a search is the adoption of an ethics code whose imperatives, with a deontological bent, require, for example, that “we will not knowingly create advertisement that contains false or misleading statement or exaggerations, visual or verbal” (American Association, 1990). Such self-regulation by codes of ethics is, therefore, one far-reaching measure the advertising industry has taken to address the everyday ethical questions that it confronts. Such a strategy contradicts Ekehind and Saurman’s (1988) argument that such codes may not improve the professionalism of the practice.
The rationale for such codes, argue advertising practitioners, is that the industry can distinguish right fi’om wrong. Beyond that, such self-regulation has the advantage of addressing headon some of the unfavorable public perceptions of advertising. The eight-item Advertising Principles of American Business, adopted March 2, 1984, by the American Advertising Federation Board of Directors, is replete with non-conditional, unequivocal “shalls” and “shall nots,” again, indicative of deontological requirements or proscriptions.
Similarly, the Standards of Practice of the American Association of Advertising Agencies uses “musts” and “will nots” to disapprove unethical conduct among practitioners. These principles and standards satisfy both the principle of unity” and Kant’s categorical imperative and reject the notion of situational ethics (Briggs and Bernal, 1992). Thus, theoretically, the advertising practice embraces non-conditional ethical requirements. A number of professional associations that seek self-regulation of advertising in the United States have adopted a number of codes of conduct to 57 which practitioners are expected to adhere, emphasizing, in essence, the importance of deontological ethics. Research questions This study poses three research questions: a What are AAF members’ overall perceptions of advertising ethics as oudined in four scenarios on ethics?  Do such perceptions vary significantly by the type of ethical issue confronted? a What are the implications of the classical theory” of deontology for the self-reported ethics of the sample practitioners?
Method Questionnaire development A three-part questionnaire that had six statements on each of four potentially troublesome scenarios on moral issues was designed and pretested for clarity” and face validity on 20 respondents randomty selected from the relevant population. Responses to six statements on eachscenario were anchored on a four-point scale: 1 for “definitely yes,” 4 for “definitely no. ” Respondents were requested 😮 comment briefly on their responses to the scenarios.
The scenarios were developed by reviewing the standards of practice developed by three advertising associations: the 55,000-member AAF, the largest association of advertising professionals whose code of ethics was established in 1965; the American Association of Advertising Agencies, whose code was first adopted in 1924; and the National Advertising Division/ National Advertising Review Board, whose ethics code was created in 1971. The reviews identified issues of greatest ethical concern to the advertising industry.
Additionally, the research literature on ethics in marketing and advertising was also examined for insights on formulating the scenarios. Hunt and Chonko (1987), for example, in extending an earlier study by Rotzoll and Christians (1980), identified six 458 C. B. Pratt and E. L. James Data collection major ethical problems from the responses of 269 advertising executives to an open-ended question: “Would you please briefly describe the aspect of advertising that poses the most difficult ethical or moral problem confronting you in your daily work? ” (p. 19).
Also, Wood et al. (1988) used 16 vignettes to examine the ethics of business students and business professionals. Similarly, Bellizzi and Hite (1989), DeConinck and Good (1989), Dubinsky et al. (1991), Fraedrich and Ferrell (1992), and Mason et al. (1990) used scenarios, vignettes and statements to assess respondents’ perceptions of ethics. Such hypothetical, ethics-related scenarios provide insights into business ethics, and have been found useful in replicating real-world situations for the purpose of evaluating moral conduct (DeConinck and Good, 1989; Dubinsky et al. 1991; Madden, 1989; Hegarty and Sims, 1979). A single-wave mail survey was used to collect data from the practitioner sample from the fall of 1991 through the winter of 1992. To encourage candid practitioner responses and to obtain an optimal response rate, a hand-typed, individually addressed covering letter, in which respondent’s anonymity was assured, accompanied each questionnaire. A business-reply envelope was in each piece of mail. Respondents were requested not to write any identifying information on the questionnaire. Results [email protected]’le on respondents Sampling
A systematic random sampling procedure was used to select names of AAF clubs and federations from the 1991 roster of the AAF. Following the receipt of notification that club participation in the survey had been approved, we mailed 2,010 copies of the questionnaire to executive directors or secretaries of clubs. Copies were distributed during general meetings of the clubs. Four hundred eighty-one of the 2,010 copies were returned in a single-wave mailing, yielding a 23. 9% response rate. Only 460 (22. 9%)were usable. This low response rate is consistent with those of similar studies (Akaah, 1990; Chonko et aI. 1987; Fritzsche and Becket, 1984; Greyser and Reece, 1971; Hunt et al. , 1984; Myers et al. , 1980; Randall and Gibson, 1990), which reported response rates between 17% and 31%. One hundred seventy-four respondents provided reasons for their responses to all four scenarios, for an item-response rate of 37. 8%. Because one purpose of this study is to analyze respondents’ reasons for their philosophical perceptions, the analyses of responses focus on those respondents who provided such comments. Table I presents a seven-item profile on the 174 respondents. The gender split was almost equal.
About 4% of the respondents were 25 years or younger, 29% were between 26 and 34 years old and 34% between 35 and 43 years old. Eight percent and 5. 7% were in the 53-years-to-61-years and the 62years-or-older categories, respectively. Respondents represented each of 25 states in the United States. However, four states – California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan – each had 10 or more open-ended responses. California, with 44 returns, had the most responses. More than one-half of the respondents had between one and 10 years of full-6me advertising experience, 26% between 11 and 20 years’ experience, and 11% between 21 and 30 years’ experience.
About 1%had more than 40 years’ experience. With regard to respondents’ institutional affiliations, about 44% worked in an advertising agency or department, 17% in companies or corporations, 3. 4% in nonprofit organizations, and 32% in other organizations. About 35% of the respondents indicated that they were in top-management positions, for example, as owners, presidents, executive vice presidents, vice presidents, and directors. Twenty-six percent were categorized in upper-middle management positions: division heads, supervisors, managers.
About 40% were categorized in lower-middle management positions, for example, as account executives, while 3%were categorized as non-management personnel. Advertising and Classical EtkicaI Theory TABLE I A demographic profile on respondents (N = 174), in percentages Gender Female Male States with 10 or more responses California Colorado Illinois Michigan 25. 3 6. 9 5. 7 10. 9 50. 6% 49. 4 459 While 24% of the respondents did not supervise any employees, a majority held supervisory positions. About 63% supervised between one and 10 eraployees, 7% between l l and 20, and about 3% more than 21 employees.
Respondents’ evaluation of and conmaents o n scenarios Scenario No. h (Giving gifts to a potential client) This scenario focused on a female ad person who gave gifts to a potential client with the intent of receiving assistance from the client in obtaining the latter’s account. Slightly more than one-half of the respondents said that the ad person was wrong, t7% reported that she should be fired, 40% would do just what she did, while 56% said that most ad execs would do as she did. About 83% said their firms should address the situation formally in a policy.
In this scenario, gift-giving perse was not an issue; however, the intent of that practice is important because one study (Hire and Beltizzi, 1987) indicated that gifts tend to obligate a client to a firm. Some respondents in the present study considered it a bribe. One, for example, wrote: “Any company I managed had a written policy on such matters. Mary would have been reprimanded orally and in writing. A copy would be placed in personnel file. This would contain a ‘warning. ‘ Next time, fired. ” Another: “If it was an overt bribe it was wrong. If it was really a gift then no problem. A respondent who was blunt about the wrongness of the conduct defended its widespread occurrence in the industry: “What Mary did was wrong, but it is common practice in a more subtle way. ” Perhaps reflecting the percentage of respondents who said that most ad executives would do what the ad person did, a number of respondents pointed out that the situation “happens quite frequently,” that it is “common practice,” that “‘gifts’ is a highly ambiguous term,” that it is “standard in the industry,” that most account executives “routinely give away whatever they can to get business,” and that “romancing the client is part of business. Therefore, they think that nor much is wrong with it. In fact, most argued that it depended on the nature of the gift. Age 25 or younger 26–34 35–43 44–52 53–61 62 or older Years in full-time advertising 0 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 More than 40 years Work Setting Advertising agency/department Public relations agency/department Non-profit organization Company/corporation Other Management position Top management Upper-middle management Lower-middle management Number of employeessupervised 0 1-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 5t or higher 24. 1 62. 7 6. 9 2. 9 1. 7 1. 1 0. 6 34. 5 25. 8 39. 7 43. 7% 3. 4 3. 4 17. 2 32. 2 6. 52. 3 25. 9 10. 9 2. 9 1. 1 4. 0 29. 3 33. 9 19. 0 8. 0 5. 7 460 C. B. Pratt and E. L. James TABLE lI Responses to statements on ethics scenarios % yesa Mean u SD Statements on Scenario No. 1 (Giving gifts to a potential client) 1. What Mary- did was wrong. 2. Mary should be fired. 3. I would do just what Mary did. 4. Most ad execs would do just what Mary” did. 5. My firm/dept, has a policy, either written or oral, that addresses this situation or practice. 6. Regardless of mr” response to No. 5, it is a good idea for my firm/dept, to have a policy, either written or oral, that addresses the situation or practice.
Statements on Scenario No. 2 (Lying about an update on an account) 1. What John did was wrong. 2. John should be fired. 3. I would do just what John did. 4. Most ad execs would do just what John did. 5. My firm/dept, has a policy-, either written or oral, that addresses this situation or practice. 6. Regardless of my response to No. 5, it is a good idea for my finrddept, to have a policy, either written or oral, that addresses the situation or practice. Statements on Scenario No. 3 (Seeking confidential information) 1. What Pete did was wrong. 2. Pete should be fired. 3. I would dojffst what Pete did. . Most ad execs would do just what Pete did. 5. My firm/dept, has a policy, either written or oral, that addresses this situation or practice. 6. Regardless of my response to No. 5, it is a good idea for my firm/dept, to have a policy, either written or oral, that addresses the situation or practice. 63 18 40 47 22 2. 16 3. 35 2. 01 2. 43 3. 28 1. 14 0. 852 0. 961 0. 856 0. 917 59 18 57 78 24 2. 29 3. 43 2. 48 3. 00 3. 23 1. 05 55 17 40 56 31 2. 36 3. 40 2. 01 2. 62 2. 99 1. 18 0. 811 0. 982 0. 939 1. 15 83 1. 68 0. 918 0. 807 1. 03 0. 825 1,05 72 2. 04 1. 05 67 2. 12 1. 01
Advertising and Classical Ethical Theoly Table)8 (Continued) %yes ~ Statements on Scenario No. 4 (Using outdated data) Mean b 46 t SD What Sally did was wrong. Sallyshould be fired. I would do just what Sally did. Most ad execs would dojust what Sally did. My firm/dept, has a policy, either written or oral, that addresses this situation or practice. 6. Regardless of my response to No. 5, it is a good idea for my firm/dept, to have a policy, either writtm. ~or oral, that addresses the situation or practice. I. 2. 3. 4. 5. 82 46 11 36 41 t . 62 2. 68 1. 51 2. 26 2. 84 0. 993 1. 07 0. 742 0. 9 t0 1. 12 81 1. 77 0. 39 a Percent responding “definitely yes” or “maybe yes. ” b On a four-point scale, with 1 = “definitely yes” and 4 = “definitely no. ” A lower mean score indicates a stronger agreement with a statement. Another, perhaps thinking situationally, asked: “Is it a pen, a ticket to a concert, or an automobile? ” A president of an ad agency said: “Often, in this business, I encounter prospective clients that have been ‘wined and dined’ by their previous agency. Some expert preferential treatment. The prospects that find this offensive and rely mostly on our agency’s ethics, expertise and integrity are those we desire.
This philosophy has lost us business, slowed our growth . . . . Business ethics unfortunately in the ad business is perceived next to snake oil salesmen! ” was wrong substantiated their positions with the following reasons: “There definitely are times when one must prioritize his/her workload . . . One should not lie to the client but instead talk openly about a schedule of completion and possibly see ifa delay would be acceptable. ” D,- “Schedules for each project~client are developed on approval of estimates. All work is to be done per that schedule, regardless of dollars involved. “A company should try to meet a ctienCs deadlines no matter the size o f the account. ” O n the other hand, some of those who felt nothing wrong had occurred said: ‘[john did tell the t r u t h . . . For John to tell the whole truth is simply suicidal. Agencies are always juggling workloads. ” m,- “What John said was not a definite lie. As long as you do not directly tie about a scenario, don’t worry. ” m,- ‘[John did what most people would do, then work a little harder to get the other work OUt. ” &enario No. 2: (Lying about an update on an account)
This scenario was on the failure o f an ad agency staffer to tell a client the truth about the status o f the client’s account, which had been set aside temporarily in preference for a newer, higher-hilling account. Fifty-nine percent said that the ad agency staffer was wrong, 18% said that he should be fired, 57% reported that they would do just what he did, while 78% said that most ad execs would do what the staff did. About 72% said their agencies should address the situation in a policy. Some of those who argued that the agency staff “I see no reason to forfeit future business and, 462 C. B. Pratt and E. L. James herefore, would use whatever means necessary to maintain the relationship. ” did. Eighty-one percent said that their agencies should address situation in a policy. Respondents were clearly angered by the ad executive’s action. A respondent said: “This conduct is indefensible. The client paid for both the campaign and the research (I assume) and is entitled to their results. ” “There should be truth in advertising and in all of life’s encounters, business or personal. ” Another: “Sally practiced deception in not using those current poll results. The client is bound to find out what sort of results the corporate image has, eventually. Yet another: “Bad judgment to cover up facts. Corrective measures to improve numbers in future campaigns should be provided to client. ” Some arguments made in behalf of the ad executive: • “They [the numbers] can be used as indicators, but not absolutes. How many people do you know that have participated in TV Nielsen rating surveys and how many programs have the networks cut or kept that you disagree with? ” “What Sally did was not necessarily wrong or right, given the question. Possibly the campaign required more impact, time, etc. Too many variables in this situation to judge ethics. ” “Numbers are arbitrary and research is imperfect.
One set of ‘bad’ numbers is, therefore, inconclusive. ” &enario No. 3: (Seeking confidential information) During a social meeting, one ad account executive craftily encouraged another obviously inebriated ad executive who handled the account for a competing brand to divulge confidential business information. Sixty-three percent said that the ad account executive was wrong. Eighteen percent said that he should be fired, and 40% that they would do just what he did, while 47% said that most ad execs would do what the executive did. Sixty-seven percent said the ad agency should address the situation through policy-making.
Among all four scenarios, scenario No. 3 had the second-highest disapproval rate among respondents. One respondent made a blunt, succinct comment: “A definite breach of professional ethics. ” Another: “This is unacceptable as well as unethical behavior. Once the account exec had identified himself, Pete should have identified himself as well. Pete should be reprimanded for his actions, maybe even fired if it appears as if this same scenario would continue in the future. ” Another: “It was wrong not to identify himself. ” Yet another: “Pete’s taking advantage of his ‘counterpart’ was opportunistic and immoral. A respondent who saw nothing devious here argued: “It is a very competitive market. Taking advantage of the competition’s weakness or stupidity is a must. ” Another argument: “Corporate espionage is no more or less right or wrong than is political espionage. ” • • Comparison of means Scenario No. 4: (Using outdated data) In an agency’s report to a client, a female ad executive used outdated data that were favorable to both her ad agency and client, while ignoring new, unfavorable information. Eighty-two percent – the highest among all scenarios for statement No. – said that the female ad executive was wrong, 46% said that she should be fired, 11% that they would do just what she did, while 36% said that most ad execs would do what she Two analytical procedures were used to compute and compare responses to all four scenarios. First, the percentage response to each statement was computed for comparison of the directions of response patterns. Second, item-by-item statistical differences between 36 possible pairs of responses across all four scenarios were determined. Schefft’s (1953) multiplecomparisons were used to determine such differences (Table III).
Twenty-five of those 36 pairs and four of the six variable pairs of grand means were significantly different (p ;lt; 0. 05, at least) from each other, indicating respondents’ differentiation of their evaluation of the scenarios. Thus, this result indicates Advertising and Classical Ethical Theory TABLE III Comparison of means, grand means (and standard deviations’) for four scenarios on advertising ethics Scenario One 2. 3; (1. 18) 3. [email protected] (0. 811) 2. 0P (0. 982) 2. 62~ (0. 939) 2. 99~ Scenario Two 2. 29~ (1. 05) 3. 4Y (0. 807) 2. 48b (1. 03) 3. 00b (0. 825) 3. 23b Scenario Three 2. 1; (1. 14) 3. 35~ (0. 852) 2. 0P (0. 61) 2. 43~ (0. 856) 3. 28b 463 Statement 1. What X did was wrong. 2. X should be fired. 3. I would do just what X did. 4. Most ad execs would do just what X did. 5. My firm/dept, has a policy, either written or oral, on situation or practice. 6. Regardless of my response to No. 5, it is a good idea for my firm/dept, to have a policy, either written or oral, on situation or practice. Grand Mean Scenario Four 1. 62b (0. 993) 2. 68b (1. 07) 1. 5V (0. 742) 2. 26d (0. 910) 2. 84~ (t. I 5) (1. 05) (0. 9! 7) (1. 12) 1. 68~ (0. 918) 2,63~ (0. 406) 2. 04b (1. 05) 2. 58~,b (0. 362) 2. 12b (1. 01) 2. 74c (0. 378) 1. 77~ (0. 39) 2. 52b (0. 401) ~,b. ~ Means with different superscripts on the same row are significantly” different, by ScheffS’s repeated-measures design. Note: Means are on a four-point scale, with 1 for “definitely yes” and 4 for “definitely no. ” Statements 3 and 4 were reverse-coded as t for “definitely no” and 4 for “definitely yes. ” A lower mean score, therefore, indicated higher self-reported ethical standards. that the sample practidoners’ perceptions of ethics vary significantly by the type o f ethical issue confronted, suggesting perceived differences in the intensity of the application of deontology to the scenarios.
Fritzsche (1988) and Fritzsche and Becker (1984) reported similar differences across vignettes, and concluded that marketing managers practiced situational ethics. For three of the four scenarios, respondents tended to agree with the statement that the advertising staff involved in the conduct identified in each of the scenarios took the wrong action. However, they tended not to agree that the staff should be fired. It was only in scenario No. 4 (using outdated data) that members tended to perceive the conduct as wrong; even so, the mean response to the statement that the staff “should be fired” was 2. 8, which was significantly different (p < 0. 001) from re- spondents’ positions on the firing of the three other practitioners in the other three scenarios. Contextual response An overall evaluation of the respondents’ evaluation of the wrongness or rightness of a conduct – the essence of Kantian ethics – indicates that the sample AAF members leave little doubt about their positions on the scenarios outlined in the questionnaire. However, when the evaluations of the statements, taken together, are considered within the context o f classical ethical theory, the members’ ethics leaves much to be desired.
Four questionnaire statements (items 1, 2, 3 and 6 of Tables II and III) were used as direct measures of deontology: “was wrong,” “should be fired,” “I would 464 C. B. Pratt and E. L. James do,” and “regardless of my response. ” It must be noted here that, even though deontology does not address explicitly the severity of the punishment for an ethical infraction, the theory is not neutral on punishment. Justice is one of the moral values that deontology considers – even though not always explicitly. In mixed-rule and mixed-act deontology, the consequences of one’s actions are considered.
In essence, there is a built-in role for consequences. This was why Kant, admittedly vague in some areas, invented moral rules in the first place. Responses to the four deontology-related statements provide four indications of the extent of practitioners’ adherence to Kantian ethics. First, the respective percentages (28. 7%, 28%, 40% and 65%) of respondents who reported that the actions of the practitioners cited in the four scenarios were definitely wrong indicate that fewer than one-half applied deontological theory to three of the four scenarios.
Second, that the practitioner should be fired, the ultimate test of ethics (Singer, 1992), had much lower, definite approval rates: 1. 7%, 1. 1%, 3. 4%, and 16. 1%. Third, the response percentages for item 3 (“I would do just… “) in scenarios one, two, and three indicate that a sizable number of respondents would engage in the questionable behavior outlined in the scenarios. For scenario four, however, 11% said that they would “definitely” or “maybe” engage in a behavior that 82% of them reported as wrong.
Finally, on item 6, a clear majority indicated an interest in organizational response to the issue raised in each scenario. The response percentages for statements 1, 2, and 3, therefore, indicate that practitioners’ evaluations are clearly at odds with tile tenets of deontology and are perhaps more in line with utilitarian and relativistic theories. A further indication of the sample practitioners’ adherence to deontology is provided by those who responded “definitely yes” or “maybe yes” to all four measures of deontology in all four scenarios.
The results: 10% 10%, 16%, 32% for scenarios 1, 2, 3, and 4, respectively. Such low percentages suggest that a majority of members wavered in applying deontology to the ethical dilemmas with which they were confronted. Bishop (1949) argues that truthtelling (addressed in scenarios 2 and 4) in advertising is “impossible and the attempt to attain it would reduce advertising to complete ineffectiveness and prevent it from fulfilling its legitimate and necessary function” (to. 88).
Yet, the first of AAF’s eight-principle code of ethics, albeit stated in general terms, focuses on truthtelting: “Advertising shall tell the truth, and shall reveal significant facts, the omission of which would mislead the public” (American Advertising Federation, 1984). While AAF members report that their companies adhere to AAF principles, they report that other ad agencies tend to adhere less strictly to those principles (Chonko et al. , 1987). Adherence to the truth principle is not only evident among AAF members but it has the largest “my” versus “other” company difference ([t – 23. 2, p < 0. 01] Chonko et al. , 1987). A number of U. S. corporate executives now realize that if ethical transgressions are not sanctioned by dismissals, they could encourage all kinds of shady dealings and foster the perception that the organization is not really committed to ethics (Singer, 1992). It is plausible that a mix of utilitarian, JudeoChristian, veil-of-ignorance, and golden-mean ethics simultaneously guided the sample practitioners’ evaluation of the ethical scenarios used in this stud),. However, the investigation of the application of various ethical theories to decision-making was not a purpose of this study.
Empirical studies on ethics (e. g. , Ferrelt and Weaver, 1978; Fritzsche, 1988; Fritzsche and Becker, 1983; Krugman and Ferrell, 1981; Pratt, 1991; Pratt and McLaughlin, 1989) increasingly indicate that ethics among business people is frequently not perceived in absolutist terms, but in relative shades of right and wrong. Fritzsche (1991, 1988) and Jones (1991), for example, report that situational ethics is the overwhelming preference of U. S. managers. Advertising codes of ethics are usually written in precise deontological terms, for example, “must recognize,” “will not,” “shall tell the truth,” “shall refrain from. Yet, AAF members do not seem to abide by deontology even though “an enforced, effective code should provide the profession with a degree of stability and consistency in the ethical decision-making of its members” (Beets, 1991, p. 69). It is plausible that the patterns of responses in this present study suggest adherence to utilitarian ethics, which is preferred by advertising agency personnel Advertising and Classical Ethical Theory (Rotzotl and Christians, 1980; Christians et al. , 199 I). On the other hand, utilitarian ethics seeks to maximize the good for all concerned.
However, the limitation of this ethical theory is inherent in how the “good” is determined. Beyond that, the interests of the minority tend to be given short shrift. What, therefore, are the chances that advertising-agency actions will result in the “greatest happiness for the greatest number”? Also, Nevett (1985) disagrees with Bishop’s (1949) suggestion that the ethical standards of advertising be utilitarian because such an approach cannot “provide advertising people today with guidance on suitable ethical standards for their profession” (e. 04). Rawls (1971) criticizes utilitarianism, noting that it does not take seriously the differences among people; rather, it views as morally just that which has the sum of satisfactions (or total utility) for the community. As an alternative to utilitarian thought, Rawls (1971) suggests “a new moral theory” that will give adequate account to the primacy of justice, understood as the protection of the equal rights of all individuals, over the social good” (Schaefer, 1979, p. 22).
To accomplish equal justice in society, therefore, everyone should assume a hypothetical “original position” – behind a “veil of ignorance” – which requires that, in evaluating situations, people step from their everyday, status-based traditional roles into an egalitarian position behind a veil. The goal is to develop a conception of justice or of the good from a disinterested, “equal” perspective. Would a recommendation that practitioners who compromise the ethical standards identified in the scenarios be fired be an illustration of such justice?
And would such firing be in an organization’s or in a society’s best interest? Finally, it is plausible that Judeo-Christian morality – an altruistic, religion-based tradition – is also reflected in respondents’ evaluations of the dilemmas in the ethical scenarios. 465 perceived as “definitely” having such policies for each of the four scenarios (and those who “definitely” think that having such policies is a good idea) are, respectively, 17. 8 (56. 3), 11. 5 (38. 5), 4. 6 (33. 3) and 15. s (50 0).
The large differences between having such policies and thinking that having such policies is a good idea lends credence to the continuing public and practitioner concern over advertising ethics. For advertising agencies, such policies could result in two possibilities: (1) they may encourage agencies to also apply deontology to ethical issues, and (2) they may help agencies initiate an eclectic approach to ethical decision-making – that is, to apply ethical principles that may involve bringing all five commonly used classical theories to bear simultaneously on the decision-making process.
These five theories, which are not mutually exclusive, fall into one of two broad categories: deontology or teleology. They are (1) Aristotle’s golden mean (“moral virtue is appropriate location between two extremes”); (2) the theoretical framework for this present study, Kant’s categorical imperative (“act on that maxim which you will to become a universal law”); (3) Mill’s principle of utility (“seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number”); (4) Rawls’s (1971) veil of ignorance (“justice emerges when negotiating without social differentiations”); and (5) Judeo-Christian persons as ends (“love they neighbor as yourself”).
Aristotle’s theory of the golden mean, a virtuebased ethics, strikes a moral balance between two extremes, one indicating excess, the other deficiency. The mean, in this context, is not a statistical mean but a willingness on the part of the decision maker to exercise moderation or temperance – a virtue. Such a mean rdates to the individual’s particular situation, her or his stay. is, strengths and weaknesses (Chi’istians et aI. , 1991). Utilitarian ethics, a form of teleological ethics, was enunciated by John Smart Mill as that which seeks “the greatest happiness for the greatest number. To assess the “greatest good,” a person or organization performs a cost-benefit analysis of an action or decision. If the latter would result in the good of the majority, that is, if its benefits for the “greatest number” outweigh its costs, then the act is ethically right. Rawls’s (197 t) veil of ignorance, a nonconsequen- Conclusion The results presented in this study indicate a strong (perceived) reluctance on the part of the ad agencies to institute policies, either written or oral, that would proscribe unethical conduct. The percentages of respondents whose firms or departments are 466
C. B. Pratt and E. L. James tialist theory of justice, governs the assignment of rights and duties and regulates the distribution of social and economic advantages. People, Rawts (197I) argued, “have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others” (Rawls, 1971, p. 60). Finally, Judeo-Christian morality is an altruistic tradition that is being popularized in the West as “the more dramauc term agape – unselfish, otherregarding care and other-directed love, distinct from friendship, charity, benevolence, and other weaker notions” (Christians et al. 1991, p. 20). The interpretation of the results of this present study within the context of Kantian ethics suggests that deontology is clearly not the preference of the sample practitioners. The de-emphasis of deontological ethics among practitioners is likely to engender a laissez faire approach to ethical issues. Dubinsky et al. (1991) suggest a reason for this phenomenon from an overall business perspective: “Many of the situations business people confront are in a ‘gray’ area where the delineation between the right versus the wrong action is not clear” (p. 52). On the other hand, strict deontologicaI ethics could encourage advertising practitioners to understand the precise boundaries of ethical and unethical conduct, as has been found among salespeople (Michaels et at. , 1988). It has been reported that managers who apply deontological ethics under uncertain conditions are least likely to change their decisions even when they perceive the risk of their decisions; those who apply utilitarian ethics are more likely to change their decisions to satisfy financial and/or self-esteem goals (Fraedrich and Ferrell, 1992).
And herein lies a crucial value of deontological ethics to advertising: more likely, it will encourage advertisers to adhere to the precepts of ethics, setting aside personal financial and social rewards for the public good. At least 67% of the respondents in the present study suggested that their organizations establish policies on questionable conduct (item 6). Why did such a majority suggest such boundaries on behavior? Why would they prefer that formal company policies restrict questionable behaviors?
It is plausible that the sample practitioners place much value on formal policies because of the perceived importance of affirmation on what they consider ethical or unethical. Further, such a formal process may indicate more than a perfunctory commitment of their organizations to ethics. This possibility suggests two key questions on the implications of the results of the present study for policy-making: (1) Where lies the responsibility for shaping advertising agency ethics? (2) And what relevant does deontology have for the training of advertising staffs?
In a speech given two dozen years ago by Bill Marsteller, founder of the advertising agency, Marsteller Inc. (a forerunner of Burson-Marsteller, the world’s third-largest public relations agency), he said: “It is not enough [for the advertising student] to simply attain general standards of morality and taste; it is important to be subjected to the deliberate considerations of advertising morality and taste… ” (Marsteller, 1972, p. 241). Marsteller sees education in advertising ethics as important as that for the production of creative, charming advertising.
Just as the effectiveness of training sessions has been called into question (Feldman and Thompson, 1990; Levin, 1989), their impact has also been demonstrated (e. g. , Feldman and Thompson, 1990; Hanson, 1987; Harris and Guffey, 1991). On balance, however, it behooves ad clubs and various advertising associations to establish programs that, at the minimum, sensitize practitioners to some of the social and professional sequelae of their ethics-related decisions. The results of this limited study justify the adoption of such measures.
Caveats Two limitations of this stud), should be outlined. The first is the old issue of “self-reported” ethics. Even though measures were taken to discourage the use of socially desirable responses, that possibility cannot be ignored because perceptual distoruon is higher when the dependent variable is as highly sensitive as the subject of ethics (Hunt et al. , 1989; Randall and Fernandes, 1991). The second is the representativeness of the sample, which was drawn from 25 states, for the 50,000member AAF.
Because the sample was not randomly selected, it is important that this present study be replicated on a larger, more geographically diverse sample to determine the extent to which its results are consistent with those of such a nationwide study. Advertising and Classical Ethical Theory