Ethics and Advertising: Moral Muteness, Moral Myopia, and Moral Imagination

Minette E. Drumwright , The University of Texas at Austin
Patrick E. Murphy, University of Notre Dame

Advertising practitioners face ethical issues that are common to all professionals, but they also confront questions that are related to unique aspects of advertising. Despite some academic and popular discussion of ethics in advertising, ranging from its broad social consequences to consumers’ perceptions of potentially objectionable ads, little is known about how advertising practitioners react to ethical issues when they arise. Drumwright and Murphy conducted a study to address this relatively neglected area. Their focus was to examine how advertising practitioners perceive, process, and think about ethical issues. They conducted in-depth interviews with 51 advertising practitioners who work in 29 advertising agencies in eight cities. The interviewees came from varied departments (e.g., creative, media, account services, account planning) and all seniority levels.

Overview of Findings

The authors found two persistent and related problems regarding sensitivity to ethical issues among advertising professionals. They label these problems “moral muteness”—the unwillingness of practitioners to acknowledge and discuss ethical problems, and “moral myopia”—the inability even to see clearly ethical issues when they arise. The problems, though wide-spread, were not universal, and the authors found that the type of advertising agency in which one worked was important in enhancing ethical awareness. The underlying causes of the myopia and muteness were often explained by assumptions, perceptions, and paradigms that often led to rationalizations. These rationalizations were categorized and analyzed. Examples range from those unique to advertising—the First Amendment misunderstanding, to others common to business generally—the client is always right.

Moral myopia ranged from shortsightedness to near blindness regarding ethical issues. The most proximate issues and those most likely to be in focus were at the workaday level of the individual, which usually were intimately tied to the individual’s personal self interest. (e.g., Is anyone stealing my ideas?) Less proximate and less likely to be seen were issues regarding advertising messages and organizational practices of agencies and clients. Least proximate and most likely to be unseen were issues referred to as advertising’s unintended social consequences. While evidence of moral myopia regarding ethical issues was found at all three levels—that of the individual, the organization, and society—moral shortsightedness was most acute at the societal level. When issues are not seen, they are not discussed, and the absence of discussion reinforces the inability to recognize the presence of ethical concerns.

Notable exceptions emerged to the findings of myopia and muteness among advertising practitioners. There were “seeing, talking” advertising practitioners who were more likely to recognize moral issues and talk about them inside the agency with their coworkers and outside the agency with their clients and potential clients. There were no systematic differences between the individuals in the first and second groups in terms of age, seniority level, gender, job assignment, or background. There was, however, a difference in the contexts in which these individuals worked. Almost without exception, the agencies in which the “seeing, talking” practitioners worked appeared to have organizational cultures and climates that encouraged moral seeing and talking. These agencies had some authentic norms regarding ethical behavior that were widely held and clearly articulated by members of the community. The agencies tended to be small, privately held agencies in one location or nearly autonomous units of large conglomerates. At times, the “seeing, talking” advertising practitioners demonstrated what some scholars have referred to as moral imagination. Moral imagination entails being able to see and think outside the box, envisioning moral alternatives that others do not. That is, through the combined use of moral seeing, talking, and imagination, advertising practitioners found ethical solutions to difficult situations.

Significance of Findings

The study helps to elucidate why some advertising practitioners do not see and confront ethical issues. Moreover, it categorizes ways in which avoidance of ethical issues occurs. The study also demonstrates, however, that there are and can be successful advertising professionals who are ethically aware and respond accordingly and that the context and organizational culture in which advertising practitioners work matters in terms of their ethical sensitivity. The findings fit comfortably within a broader theoretical context that notes the importance of community in that moral sensitivity appeared to be nurtured and developed best in groups or communities. The authors also presented propositions for future research.

Managerial Implications

The implications of this study appear to apply not only to advertising practitioners but also to marketing practitioners more generally. They all face serious challenges if they want to make moral vision, discussion, and imagination more central to their firms. First and foremost, employees must be helped to see and discuss ethical issues. A paradigm shift seems to be needed regarding what it means to “serve” clients. Many of the interviewees expressed a strong sense that advertising practitioners are to do the client’s bidding. Fiduciary responsibility, then, is equated with pleasing clients and doing exactly what they want done. This norm was so strong among some interviewees that it became something of a countervailing “moral” good in and of itself. Thus, one recommendation is that the conception of an advertising professional’s responsibilities be reformulated and expanded, including a more sophisticated understanding of fiduciary responsibility.

The paradigm shift described above cannot occur if organizational practices and policies are not altered. For example, clients and potential clients—both their products and their business practices—should be examined and discussed with an eye toward potential ethical problems. Not all clients can be considered to be a “good” client who must be attracted to the agency and retained at all costs. Overt discussions of ethical values, both the agency’s and the client’s, should be initiated in the “pitch” stage and continued through the life of the relationship. Refusing to take on potential clients and dropping existing clients can and should be viewed as acceptable alternatives. When accounts are refused or resigned on ethical grounds, top managers should articulate their reasons, and the workers involved should be rewarded. Agencies also should set up multiple procedures and systems that encourage workers discuss and report questionable behavior. Leaders should seize every opportunity to express their ethical values in face-to-face communications with employees and with clients. They also should initiate processes to formulate and articulate ethical visions and policies.

The authors hope that the study will serve as a catalyst for improving the theory and practice of advertising and marketing ethics in both academic and advertising communities.

Article Reference

Drumwright, Minette E. and Patrick E. Murphy (2004), “How Advertising Practitioners View Ethics: Moral Muteness, Moral Myopia, and Moral Imagination,” Journal of Advertising, 33 (Summer) 7-24.

Cited Research

Murphy, Patrick E., Gene R. Laczniak, Norman E. Bowie and Thomas A. Klein (2005), Ethical Marketing, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

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