THE RING OF GYGES, or ETHICS IN ADVERTISINGThe problem is as old as advertising itself. Or perhaps older still? In his Republic, Plato cites the allegorical story of Gyges, a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia. Not unlike Tolkien’s Gollum, Gyges chances upon a golden ring. When adjusted on the finger, the ring makes its owner invisible. In his narrative, the great philosopher intended to present the invisibility of the ring’s master as an allegory of impunity, a complete lack of responsibility for one’s actions and decisions. Thanks to the impunity afforded by the ring, Gyges gained undivided power over the kingdom after the murder of his ruler and, as a result of his aggressive economic policy towards other Greek cities, reaped great financial benefits from his usurpatory authority.
In advertising, the Ring of Gyges stands for the way in which we treat moral and ethical values and rules as well as the way in which we understand and interpret them. Let us pose some important questions. The first one concerning advertising, the other – ethics. Why are we bringing up the matter of ethics in advertising once again? The chief reasons are the following.The advertisement has always had a huge impact on the recipient’s emotions and mind. It is a very powerful and causal part of communication in societies. Today, it is the dominant type of communication with the consumer, and consequently, it may be used for its ability to bring about swift and sometimes drastic changes to reality. Changes that are good and changes that are bad. Another reason is the recipients’ unprecedented vulnerability to those changes. The so called mass recipient is becoming increasingly helpless in the face of the pressure of the advertising message. At times, they do not even realize that advertising poses a threat to them or that they are subject to its persuasion and influence in the shaping of their awareness and decision making.In the 1990s, Oliviero Toscani in his iconoclastic text titled “Advertising: the carrion that smiles at us” accused advertising of massive abuse, and even a kind of crime against humanity – including of spreading lies, insulting human intelligence, using suspicious persuasion, manipulating, glorifying stupidity, stoking conflicts within communities, and finally, of committing offences against language and creativity.Lack of creativity, clichés, conventionality of message, and a mindless urge to reproduce the pattern and copy ideas were, according to the well-known creator,
to the well-known creator, author of Benetton’s market and image successes (remember the poster with the nun kissing the priest?), advertising’s major “crimes”. The were crimes “against advertising”.
The activities of Toscani, Jean Marie Dru and their like led to a true disruption in advertising theory and practice in the early 1990s. In Poland, the first harbinger of change was the excellent American monthly magazine Media Polska created from scratch by Kehrt and Marzena Reyher. MP invited outstanding Polish authors, practitioners and theoreticians of the advertising market, to publish on its pages. We could also make the bold statement that, together with Grzegorz Kiszluk’s Brief monthly, it started a serious discussion about ethics in advertising on the then dynamically growing Polish market. This was the beginning of positive changes in Polish advertising. Each day, each campaign brought an increasing number of advertisements that were more creative and intelligent and more beautiful in terms of style and form, that used a better kind of humour, and that – as a result of all those changes – were more successful in selling products and services. Polish advertising creatives won ever more awards at major creative festivals. Moreover, we began to organize our own fantastic competitions and festivals, such as Crackfilm, the Golden Eagles, or Effie Awards. Polish advertising matured and grew more beautiful by the day, but did it also mature and self-correct in terms of ethics?This is a good question, one that we revisit increasingly often as we feel, and sometimes have strong evidence, that not all in this area is as it should be.Should be? Do we understand what we are talking about when discussing advertising ethics today? At this point, we would like to add a third and probably most important argument to the two cited so far. In order to clarify it adequately, let us first specify the cultural moment at which we have found ourselves. In European and world democracies, this is no longer the age of consumerist culture that linked happiness to possession. This is post-modernism, post-consumerism, a time of new directions in economics.
It is also a culture of aesthetic mystifications, which mix hackneyed narrative and plot patterns into new wholes balancing on the edge of pastiche. Before that, we pursued a path leading from myth to concreteness. Today, we want to derive new myths from the concrete obtained that modulate reality, and we mask our true intentions all the more effectively by pretending that we are concerned with consumer happiness and not with profit.So, change. We not only sense it – we have ever more signs and evidence. The essence is, of course, the ethics of the public sphere. What is becoming a standard today not so long ago shocked, appalled, and resulted in protests and sanative actions. The boundaries of what is normal, allowed, acceptable, and finally considered good and beneficial, are shifting before our very eyes. Worse still, they are shifting in a direction whose existence – lulled by the paucity of ethical and moral shocks – we forgot. The litmus paper of change is language. Let us take the most receptive language – that of teenagers. A high-school student addresses her friend saying “you slut”, and neither sees anything wrong about the expression. A teenage boy calling a girl he is currently courting “a little cunt” seems nowadays tender rather than offensive and vulgar. Yet the evaluative teenager “debates”, albeit symptomatic, sound innocent in comparison with the ethically and morally deteriorating social debate. Let us name only its key areas, and we will present to the wondering eyes an image that is if not horrifying, then certainly striking. And so, we are talking about social debate on the issues of justice and freedom, security, personal inviolability, crime, social securities and programmes, ownership, legal regulations, the rule of law, public health, education, local governance, sovereignty, and civilizational and cultural progress. We can easily reveal erosion of values as well as axiological and conceptual shifts in each of these textbook-structured spheres. The safeguards established by democracy are letting go, the dams erected to stop demoralization, vulgarization, impunity, lies, injustice, manipulation, rudeness, brutality, contempt, and “ordinary” evil are beginning to crumble.The epidemic is spreading like wildfire thanks to new media technologies. For the time being, we look at these already global processes with disbelief and rarely decide to counteract and prevent. For what if individual governments, led by fear of digital surveillance, forbid their officers from having Tik-Tok accounts, knowing that it is capable of successfully altering the mentality and awareness in children and adolescents? (Manfred Spitzer, Digital Dementia. How We Drive Ourselves and Our Children Out of Our Minds.)Advertising – albeit it has declared itself an independent territory – has been closely watching these processes and considering what liberties it could take and to what extent it cold shift or expand the safe boundaries between what was ethical and norm-abiding and what could hinder it in achieving its goals. Advertising creatives and budget managers are perfectly aware that advertising entails not only rights, but duties, as well. The central right of advertising is to create its own, special world that seems to bring to life Max Scheler’s theory of subjectivization of values: Good is what we find desirable… The most important among our duties seems to be to respect the currently adopted ethical and moral standards.
Yet how should we act in view of the erosion of those standards? Is it not easier to recommend a laxative rather than educate on healthy eating? Is it not more convenient and effective to sham ecologicality rather than spark in the consumers’ minds belief in the need for a long-term, pro-ecological strategy paired with efficacious albeit costly prevention? Is it not easier to manipulate rather that persuade and encourage with the use of provable arguments and facts? Tough questions. Advertisers, broadcasters, and advertising creatives who wish to answer them are not alone. They can always resort to an effective tool in the form of the CODE OF ETHICS IN ADVERTISING.Let us take a look at it on the example of the cosmetics industry, where it is easy to breach standards and rules given its character, seeing as it directly concerns human physicality and blurs the boundaries between cosmetics, medicine, and biocidal products. When talking about an “effective tool”, we are referring to “Dokument techniczny w sprawie oświadczeń dotyczących produktów kosmetycznych” (“Technical document on cosmetic product claims”), that is a precise and functional text.
This is not a collection of truisms and expressions of wishful thinking, but a specific manual enabling the reader to precisely verify a communication. Properly used, the document ensures precise verification in terms of:
1. Compliance with regulations 2. Accuracy of the information provided 3. Evidence 4. Compliance with the facts 5. Honesty 6. Awareness of the decisions (made by the consumer)
These essential and fundamental criteria are discussed in detail for each industry.The creation and implementation of such normative documents for other public spheres will probably (and hopefully) become more frequent. It will enable more effective self-regulation of standards and behaviour. But it is merely a tool. It is us who decide how and whether to use it.Before he used the ring to become invisible and remain unpunished for violating standards and rules, before he betrayed and killed his king and defied the values of his community, turning into an aggressive market tycoon, Gyges was probably a gentle and honest shepherd. Similarly as many others.
ADVERTISING COUNCILUnion of Associations Advertising Council is a non-governmental, non-profit organization. It was founded in 2006 at the initiative of advertising and marketing circles. It has created and managed a self-correction system in the area of advertising. The organization brings together trade associations as ordinary members and companies as supporting members. The Advertising Council was set up to create, promote, and protect principles to be followed by businesses engaged in advertising activities in the Republic of Poland and by Polish businesses advertising abroad. The advertising standards were laid down in the form of the Code of Ethics in Advertising – a document constituting a set of principles defining what is acceptable and what is unethical in advertising messages.Authors: Mirosław Bujko, Piotr Kwiecień
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