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Is Self-Identity Image Advertising Ethical?
Is Self-Identity Image Advertising Ethical?
John Douglas Bishops’s essay, “Is Self-Identity Image Advertising Ethical?” (Bishop) is an exploration of the practice in the realm of marketing of creating an unattainable ideal, then prompting the consumer into buying a product or products in pursuit of that ideal.
Bishop uses the term “semiotics” in reference to developments in advertising in the last two decades. According to Dictionary.com (2015), semiotics is the study of the symbols and signs that constitute elements of communication. Image advertising doesn’t offer information on the product; it places the product in the context of the idealized image. Therefore, it relies almost entirely on the use of symbols associated with the ideal being presented. Some of the examples used by Bishop are:
The beautiful woman representing Chanel perfume
The “sexy teen” of Calvin Klein
The brand symbol of the Mercedes automobile associated with status
Bohemian sexual abandon with Tabu perfume
The lifestyle of a confident woman with VISA credit cards
A Buick automobile for the mature and responsible male
Air France travel for the jet-setters
Giorgio Armani for hip men’s fashions
Coy female self-love with Clairol hair color
Sexually long legs with Life Stride shoes
The ethics of advertising have been discussed in terms of either marketing this either informative or persuasive. When discussing ethics in persuasive advertising, the question arises as to whether the freedom of the consumer to determine his own self-worth is attempted compromised. The difficulty becomes apparent when categorization of an informative ad becomes persuasive, and a persuasive ad contains information. To determine whether an ad of either type is unethical, the criteria are presented of: 1) whether the ad is false or misleading, 2) if they threaten the autonomy of the consumer, and 3) if they contain unethical presumption beforehand.
When discussing false advertising, Bishop states that image advertising does not promise the result insinuated in the piece. In order for this occur, there would have to be information offered that would be interpreted incorrectly as truth. Image advertising doesn’t make any statement of fact or lie: it simply places the product or the product’s name in proximity to the image. The underlying message is not that the consumer will become exactly like the ideal, but rather similar to the ideal. This delusion is created by the viewer of the ad and not the advertiser. A cynical consumer will not be enticed by an image advertisement. He will also not delude himself into seeing a change from continued use of the product that is not there. If, however, the consumer sees himself as sexier or more glamorous or healthier from use of the product, the result may be a self-fulfilling prophecy based on the projection the consumer emits of the perceived change. Conversely, an individual with feelings of inferiority already present may experience enhancement of these perceptions of low-self esteem. Bishop believes it is not the responsibility of image marketing to deal with existing perceptions of self-worth.
The concept of presupposition relies on an unstated understanding that the present state of the consumer is unacceptable, threatening their freedom to determine their own self-worth. Another idea is that these presuppositions are false and these unstated determinations accumulate to create an inaccurate opinion. Finally, Bishop discusses the term “presupposed gaze”. This is the way the consumer views the advertising content. In the case of the Chanel woman, females see themselves brought closer to the ideal woman through the use of the product. Men see the content only as a beautiful woman and not in association with the product at all. Challenging the ethics of presuppositions doesn’t challenge the ethics of the product, only of the associations. Another aspect of the gaze is that the model is not looking at the camera/consumer. She is looking toward someone off camera, and women may put themselves in her place as perhaps looking toward a partner or an event. Men may put themselves at the end of that gaze. Bishop determines that there is no ethical problem with either implied gaze or presenting an impossibly ideal standard. However, he states that the combination of the two techniques should be avoided by advertisers.
Bishop states that self-identity image advertising is not unethical in that it does not directly promise the results intimated by the models. Self-identity ads only have an impact if the viewer identifies with one or more of the images in the piece. Bishop blames the consumer himself for projecting those ideals onto themselves and when found wanting, purchase the associated product. Bishop believes the morality of image advertising lies not in the interpretation by critics, but with the advertiser himself. If a specific type of marketing campaign is offensive to the company as a whole, they should discontinue it. If they are concerned with the perception of the public of their product in terms of their type of advertising, they may consider changing the tactics. However, if image marketing produces the results desired in profitability, public moral outrage may fall into a subordinate position in priorities.
Bishop, John Douglas. 'Is Self-Identity Image Advertising Ethical?'. Business Ethics Quarterly
10.2 (2000): 371. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.
Dictionary.com,. 'The Definition Of Semiotics'. N.p., 2015. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.
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