Corporate Social Responsibility: Responsible Advertising
Much time has passed since Milton Freidman introduced the thesis that the firm’s only social responsibility is to earn money. Numerous events have demonstrated that the social responsibility that society now expects of organizations goes much further. In the capitalist economy in which we live, both globalized and mediatized through information and communication technologies, it is no longer enough just to maximize profits for the firm’s owners and stockholders.
In this day and age, consumers, government and the third sector, as well as a growing number of investors, are fighting to establish corporate policies that aim at more than a mere expansion of the frontier of production. At the heart of this change is a need to understand the role of the firm as a social actor, one that is responsible for the development of both the local and international communities in which it operates and by which it is nourished.
One paradigm illustrating the process of building awareness about corporate social responsibility (CSR) is the issue of the environment. At first, this paradigm faced significant resistance from most business leaders, and the first measures were undertaken more as an answer to a “bothersome” necessity imposed by sales policies, legal norms or pressure from NGOs, than in the interest of ensuring health or promoting sustainable development for future generations.
With the rise of communications and thus, the growth of both the quantity of information and social awareness about human dignity, a series of global norms gradually emerged. Business leaders, though with some reluctance, began to consider these norms to be an integral part of their social mission. These norms were dealt with more and more proactively as time went on. Some examples of these new requirements include: the decision not to cooperate with child labor or forced labor, respect for the human rights of employees in countries that provide raw material for industry, and the fight against discrimination, among others. Positive examples of the growing impact of these decisions are visible in numerous initiatives undertaken by international organizations to this end.
This process can be assumed to continue as long as firms continue to uphold their joint leadership as architects of social and cultural life. For this to occur, firms must have marked open-mindedness, willingness to dialogue and disposition to adopt new styles that society demands of firms. Also, in a special way, it requires them to develop a strong capacity to discern among new realities, identifying the decisions to make to face challenges, taking on commitment and to working in new realms of society that demand their presence. From their privileged position, firms can take on a principal role in staking out a model of society with higher values.
It is within this often underexplored framework that we can begin to conceive of corporate advertising responsibility. That is, the role that the firm plays as a communicator in the public sphere, and thus, as a builder, or at least a large-scale promoter, of values. It encompasses the advertising strategies that are quickly being extended in globalized society, not only by avoiding content that is harmful to the human person, but also positively contributing to the task of education, a role that could be expected of any social actor with such high potential impact. This stems from the conviction that the firm must participate in collective efforts towards progress and improvement of the society to which it belongs.
Visual pollution and responsible advertising
The precise effect of advertising on the public is difficult to measure. However, our own experience gives us an indication of just how exposed we are to all kinds of advertising, even if, hypothetically, we attempt to avoid it. Without even realizing it, we find ourselves repeating the catchy melody of the latest radio slogan, and forming our judgments on specific products based on the “information” received through creative and humorous posters and billboards. As such, advertising is a frequent topic of conversation in day-to-day life, and in some case, almost a requirement for communicating with friends. This is especially true for adolescents. The reality is that we continually find ourselves under the effects of the advertising that surrounds us. It can sometimes be aggressive to the point that it robs modern man of the time, as well as the occasions and the capacity, for personal reflection.
Excessive flashy advertising, through billboards and commericals, on display in any important city, can contribute to an inability to concentrate, and in some cases, increases the individual’s excitability because of constant visual bombardment. Adding this to the honking of horns, potholes and narrow streets, the reader can more than imagine the anxiety experienced in these circumstances. When arriving home, and almost automatically turning on the television, visual contamination invades contemporary man through programming with little or no educational or intellectual value, often employing on sensationalist tactics. In the long term, and by force of habit, the individual’s thinking process can be markedly distorted. They can come to see certain attitudes or lifestyles as normal, because they are presented as such. Instead of edifying a morally solid personality in the individual, such advertising causes distraction and confusion.
With the progressive increase of light pollution, when we look up at night, we no longer see a pristine sky spotted with stars, as our grandparents did. The people of our day have been deprived of this direct relationship with the cosmos, and of the sensation of being moved before the immensity of space and the smallness of the human being. Our visual scale is being reduced and along with it, the human person is becoming increasingly locked up in his invented world. We no longer see the horizon or the stars. Everything is reduced to the experience of daily life, of the immediate. The only things that matter are those that we can reach with our fingertips. Our life looks increasingly like a chaotic supermarket aisle, overflowing with shopping carts.
Unlike other forms of advertising, which allow one to choose whether to look or not, billboards use public space. They us thus are seen by people of all ages. This should imply a greater responsibility to avoid offensive messages. There is no opportunity to turn the page, to put a billboard down like a magazine, or to change the channel. There are no family-friendly programming hours for billboards. They are there night and day, and in many cases it is next to impossible to pass by them without noticing them. Billboards in public space eliminate the possibility of choice, and can become a true violation of our privacy.
Visual pollution is not merely an aestetic issue, but one that can also affect psychological and physical health to the point that it influences human behaviour and efficiency at work. At the end of the day, it is a matter of quality of life.
This reality of advertising, omnipresent in modern life, reveals the issue upon which not only the attitudes of marketing firms, and all firms for that matter, should be based, when it comes to using media to advertise their products and make their brand known. It could be argued that to the extent to which firm gains from advertising, they are also responsible for the conseequences of its use. Seeing this argument in a positive light, the firm, as a prime social actor in today’s society, can use its presence to build a more humane society.
In this sense, it should be noted that all socieities need good values to be reflected in social life, forged by the foundation of hand work, solidarity, responsible action and ethical principles. Without these foundation, future generations will not have anything to lean on, and will easily become prisioners of false idols.
Baudrillard pointed out that advertising does not seduce, but rather enthralls. It provokes a certain “extasy” in the viewer. The images saturate with empty scenes. The individual can no longer recognise whether desire is present, experiencing a sense of vertigo, a sort of fleeing forward, continuing to participate in the viewing of images becomes established as a collective value.
Now, these circumstances lead to the individual to mistake the desire for objects with its image (“the pollution of objects by their images”), losing their own initiative and succumbing to a sort of emptiness that grows into grotesque extremes of individualism. And, towards the outside world, the masks that define the subject’s identity are set in relation to the various roles that they take on and that can be substituted one for another in a rather arbitrary manner.
On this premise, that is understanding advertising’s consequences as a creator or distributor of values or negative values, there should be an agenda that lists and calls out areas of responsibility that stem from advertising behavior and identify the positive or negative effects that they may have on the social fabric.
Advertising has an important impact of its audience. This means that advertisers are doing their job well. Information and persuasion are intertwined in such a way that the ads and spots absorbed by viewers possess their own series of priorities and tastes that are developed through advertising. As such, if advertising has influence on society, it is necessary to understand why this is and what this leads to. In this context, we can begin to speak of responsible advertising, taking into account that advertising is neither good nor bad in itself. It can, however, have a positive or negative effect on society, depending on how it is employed. It is sufficient to look at the recent debate in England around prohibiting the publication of images of overly thin female models. This debate sprung from the assumed relationship between this type of advertising and alarming increases in anorexia among teenage girls seeking to meet the media’s prototype of beauty.
Secondly, there is another element that affects the ethics of advertising from a methodological perspective. This element takes into account advertising strategies along with the tactics employed, and whether they respect the personal freedom of the potential client and the general public. That is to say, whether or not advertising respects of the human dignity of the viewer. The risk is that advertising practices neglect to inform the consumer about the objective qualities of the product, and instead uses complex analyses of trends and human instinct to appeal to consumers and induce the act of buying. In extreme cases, techniques may include subliminal manipulation. In such cases, the individual does not perceive that there is a hidden message behind the image before them, in the music they are listening to or in the dynamics of the ad. They are deceived by an external image, while a hidden one captures their subconscious.
Responsible advertising strategies
Advertising relationships always include persuasion as one of their techniques, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, the advertiser’s raison d’être is getting the client to buy a product or service. We could say then that the message carried by advertising is instrumental. It transmits information about the positive elements of the product or service (half truths) with the end goal of persuasion. This fact does not mean that the message is not directed toward reason or that it is not directed to the common good, given that any relatively prudent consumer interprets the information received, expecting the consumer to sin with intentional partiality. Evidently, all advertising has its own form of expression, its own style and conventions, including rhetorical forms and symbolic exaggerations, that, being recognized and accepted practice are not contrary to truthfulness.
What is questionable is the attitude that emerges from the development of psychological research both on individuals and in broader society, which allows advertisers to present relatively undifferentiated products to potential consumers, using methods designed to induce buying. In this realm, human freedom begins to be overtaken in a more or less sudden way. This is where the ethical dimension of corporate social responsibility comes into play.
When speaking of advertising, reflections usually focus on efficiency, but the role of human values is much less discussed. Advertising is not only about selling products, but also about attitudes, values and behaviors. Advertisers chose the values and attitudes that they would like to promote. They promote some and ignore others. It could be pointed out that it is impossible to incorporate all values into an advertising campaign, and that advertising is dedicated specifically to the sale of items and services. Both points are true. However, it is also true that to stimulate the sale of products, advertising usually appeals to the satisfaction of another type of basic human need, such as the desire for security, sexual drive, a need for love, a desire for comfort and luxury, the vertigo of new experiences and feelings, whims, prestige or power. To achieve this, they use symbolic representations that, when reading the advertisement, lead to consumer to identify the product with other realities. The contribution to the advertising world depends on the content of these representations. It might be necessary to convince advertisers that to attract attention to their products, they should focus less on primal instincts and more on the instincts that ennoble the individual and help them grow in humanity.
On other hand, advertising is one of the most creative and original fields of human activity. It is so much so that it has opened new avant-garde paths that influence modern art. It is to be desired for the time and creativity used in advertising serve humanity and society, so that it can benefit individuals, families and groups. This could be a way of collaborating to rebuild the social fabric as frayed as our own. Advertising can lend a great service to society:
- Orienting creativity towards artistic beauty. This can be a path to abandoning bad taste, vulgarity, and glorified ugliness that are used to get attention, but end up degrading the audience. Good taste, that is, worldly beauty expressed through art, is another value that can be a measuring stick for good advertising, as well as a school of aesthetics for the general public and children in particular.
- Without divorcing itself from the great cultural values of man, advertising can be of service to a society that runs of the risk of cultural amnesia. Societies are healthier to the extent that they have a defined identity, and an important part of their identity consists in knowing who they are, where they come from and what their history is. In this sense, advertising can be a vehicle for culture, and an opportunity to recognize, take on and reread the history of peoples.
- Using advertising with a humorous tone is something that has always been present in its history. Paradox, surprise and humor are positive elements and provide resources of originality for those who wish to advertise positively and effectively.
As long as the desires that are appealed to are humanizing, such as the desire to learn, to live in a family, to serve one’s country, to build the common good, to help those in need, to develop ties of friendship and to promote loyalty, while also presenting their message creatively, aesthetically and humorously. And as long as the actors are attractive, and lead people to imitate them, advertising will contribute very actively to fundamental social values.
In great contrast, corporate advertising can also have a strong influence on the spread of negative values. With the aim of selling more, it often promotes lifestyles that appeal to social trends and ephemeral, passing pleasures. Evidently, these are the ads that drive people to seek professional success at all costs, strive to win the admiration of others, and to achieve a comfortable and luxurious lifestyle, etc. This is so because, at a more or less unconscious level, viewers associate the products or services seen in advertising with the symbolic model they are presented with. For example, often luxury and comfort are exalted as central goals in life, and sexual attraction is portrayed as a series of one-night stands.
In advertising, the tendency to attribute disproportionate value to a certain brand can be a serious problem. Often, there can be next to no difference between similar products of different brands, and advertising tries to draw people to act on irrational motivations (brand loyalty, reputation, fashion trends, sex appeal, etc.) instead of presenting the differences in product quality and price according to rational criteria. On the other hand, communications specialists, in striving to attract the biggest possible audience for the companies that purchase advertising from them, can be pressured, whether subtly or directly, to ignore artistic and moral norms and fall into superficiality, bad taste and moral misery. Unfortunately, this situation extends perilously across television and radio, driving a profound deterioration of language, among other things.
The issue of stripping language of its richness deserves separate analysis, given that language is the means of communication, par excellence, of the human person. The value attributed to words as a means for encounter depends on the conception that the individual has of himself and of others, as well as the value that he attributes to himself and others. Thus, in advertising, words often lose their meaning: affirmations are no longer such (“Welcome to a better world”, invites Rhone-Poulenc). Advertisements make judgments without evidence to back them up (“Let’s make things better” asserts Philips). They also shamelessly infiltrate areas of daily life without knowing what they are talking about. The use of obscenities becomes comfortable, mediocre and nearly universal.
When a society shows such deterioration in language, it is a clear sign that it has no interest in the life projects of the individuals that are part of it, or in allowing for encounters between them. As such, the prejudices of this situation can be recognized, considering that not only is language, which is our cultural heritage, vulgarized, but arguments also lose their value and the public becomes accustomed to very low informational value. This poverty then has repercussions on the quality of democracy, because each citizen begins to lose awareness of their limitations, and no longer possesses the nuanced understanding and precision necessary for communication.
Faced with this situation, the corporate world is faced with the tremendous challenge of bringing language back to its proper usage. It is a challenge that becomes a responsibility, given the public relevance and reach of the situations in which the firm employs words. Alvarez Teijeiro, Professor of Journalistic Ethics at Austral University summed up the challenge for responsible advertising very well, at a conference in 2003. In his words, “The function of the historian is to predict the past, the function of the poet, guardian of words, is to remember the future. While postmodern poets, are able to take on the most worthy role that suitable to them, that of genuine social provocateurs. Provocare means “to call forth”, to open a door to the future by filling present with words that allow us to imagine new future horizons”.
In another vein, advertising often contributes to stereotyping individuals from certain groups, placing them at a disadvantage relative to others. One clear example of this mechanism is the way that homemakers are ridiculed for caring for their families. They are portrayed as pretty yet unkempt, cranky, clumsy and concerned with foolishness, while women in the professional world are portrayed as attractive, intelligent, financially self-sufficient and socially valuable. In reality, women in this role are like a male caricature rather than having value in themselves, a value compatible with professionalism and high standards of work. In other cases, vulnerable groups of consumers are “used”, instrumentalized in order to increase profits. Some clear examples of this are present in advertisements that tell children that their parents won’t buy them certain products because they don’t love them or because they are bad. This suggestion takes advantage of the gullibility of children, treating them as mere tools in the promotion of consumption. It also wreaks havoc on the parent-child relationship.
In these cases, however, business people try to escape advertising responsibility, claiming that ads merely reflect what occurs in mainstream culture. They “act as a mirror” of society, or so they claim. This type of reasoning treats the art and creativity of advertising with certain contempt, neglecting to see that they are much more than merely reflection of what occurs in society. On the other hand, it isn’t necessarily helpful to take a part of a social reality and present it as a reflection of the whole of society. Advertising repeatedly appeals to such motives as envy, social status, greed and other human vices, as if they were desirable. This works against the truth about the human person and against social norms as well. Advertising is, if you would like, a mirror that forms or deforms the realities that can’t reflect everything at once. Consider as an example, that fact that advertising often leaves out references to some of the racial or ethnic groups that play an increasingly prominent role in society. We could say that advertising places us before a “selective mirror” rather than providing a crystal clear image of social realities.
A Step Forward: Advertising as an Educational Social Agent
Advertising, though sharing many of the characteristics of education (repetition techniques, illustration of new things, use of works of art or geographic locations, promoting the good and the beautiful) cannot be understood as the same thing as education, nor should it be presumed to be so. If advertising were to constitute education in the absolute sense, it would be thoroughly reductionist and would imply denying advertising’s main field of action.
They are two dimensions that cannot be confused, or used as alternatives for one another. If advertisers spent their time educating instead of selling, it would be a distortion of their nature, and they probably wouldn’t do very well at it either. The same thing could be said of educators attempting to advertise. There are enormous differences between the roles. Education is intentional, while advertising is emotional or involuntary. Education is personal and advertising is public, etc.
In any case, it is possible that while each discipline maintains its respective field, objective and individual characteristics, advertising could become or act as a more intense and intentional factor that complements educational activities. Furthermore, it is necessary to consider whether this opportunity pertains only to the realm of altruism or whether firms also have a responsibility to use advertising for profit seeking.
Advertising does seem to have educational potential. In fact, our first, and perhaps our only contact with many realities (from far away lands, to knowledge outside our own professional field, etc.) has first come to us through ads.
From a pedagogical point of view, it could be argued that because the intentionality inherent to education is lacking, advertising can only offer stimulus for education rather than education itself. Through advertisements, in addition to attempting to sell a product, knowledge can also be imparted. Individuals can be taught to desire things according to objective values that favor the use of freedom in purchasing decisions. The same applies to undertaking actions or acquiring particular technical skills.
Given that currently the main problem for human and societal development is a lack of education in a vast number of areas, sustainable development will require private and public commitment both to the environment and the field of education. This educational commitment has already been taken on by the public, and is clearly reflected in aid budgets for international development, which focus on education along with healthcare. This puts the popular saying “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”, into practice.
If we consider that advertising can have this role, and that such a need exists globally, using advertising in a way that helps solve arresting problems around the world is an ethical matter. Advertising executives should have an increased awareness that the development of the community around them should be among their aims. In the long run, consumers will also recognize this role.
The fact that advertising contributes to executives’ salaries and given its effects on society, this responsibility becomes more patent. Advertisers can contribute more directly towards building a more humane society. They can educate social and civic attitudes, such as respect for nature, for the good and the beautiful.
Some of the main opportunities for educational action through advertising could be:
·Educating individuals to value the beautiful. This is a concrete way of creating a more humane world through the images that society is exposed to.
·Proposing that national and international agendas take education into account when promoting corporate social responsibility.
·Extolling the unique aspects of the human person, their knowledge and freedom of action.
·Directing the persuasion inherent to all advertisements to achieving virtuous conduct.
·Making the ideal of work as a form of service fashionable, along with the legitimate satisfaction that comes from a job well done, and relating this to the advertised product or service, from good wine to answering services.
·Coming to recognize the importance of family life, and the importance of affection for others over and above the possession of material goods.
·Displaying creativity in the little things of each day, and associating this with the advertised product.
·Showing that this brings more happiness than an abundance of luxurious goods used in an individualistic manner.
·Promoting values that have gone out of fashion, such as loyalty in friendship and fidelity in love, displayed as something real, possible and desirable.
·Refining consumers’ tastes.
·Creating socially beneficial habits.
·Seeking simple happiness, being clever, fun and having good taste.
It should thus be stated that firms are responsible for the advertising that they use for the simple reason that, through this advertising, the dignity and value of the human person can be honored, but can also be instrumentalized, violating the intrinsic and transcendental value of the person.
Following the concept developed by Carmela Aspillaga, and by way of conclusion, educational advertising can be defined as “the stream of information that allows advertising to collaborate with the task of informing” and, in a more specific way, “informative action that is directly ordered toward service, and that indirectly attempts to help the individual achieve personal perfection”.
Mobilized behind these and other causes, the CSR paradigm is changing. There was a first phase in which the ideologues of economic orthodoxy insisted that the firm existed solely to produce profits for their stockholders. This vision was virtually abandoned by prominent business leaders in most developed countries, and later replaced by a model of corporate philanthropy, based on donations and foundations. “This was also left behind”, according to J. Nielsen, former Director of the International Business Leaders Forum. The third phase, that of “corporate citizenship” demands exemplary citizenship on the part of the firm. We may also appeal to this duty in calling for responsible advertising.
Alejandra Vanney, PhD