Ethics in 5: Printerns on Advertising Ethics
Every week, the Prindle Intern team weighs in on an ethical issue together. Each intern is challenged to keep their response to five sentences – Ethics in 5. Click on an intern’s name to check out their previous posts on The Prindle Post!
This week’s question: Advertising
Advertising is frequently in the ethical hotseat. From body shaming to false information to glorification, producers often go about getting customers in a way many consider unethical. Recently, the use of an AI bot to advertise the movie Ex Machina was used on Tinder (making matches with people and asking them questions, and eventually linking them to an instagram advertising the movie) stirred up controversy (here). Many said this manipulated people’s emotions. Another ongoing debate in the advertising world is the use of photoshop to change the images presented to consumers. The photos are unrealistic at times, making consumers think they should look a way that is almost impossible and unrealistic. This also manipulates people’s emotions to get them to purchase certain products. Is it ever ethical to manipulate emotions in advertising? Is there a way to ethically advertise?
Corby Burger: Emotional manipulation permeates human relationships, so to call it outright unethical would be to lessen the normative weight that comes along with stigmatizing an action as truly unethical. In the case of the Ex Machina, advertisement, neither the magnitude of the emotional control on the part of the AI system nor the intentions of the marketing team warrants labeling this clever stunt as unethical. However, in utilizing Photoshop to break through the limits of aesthetic human “perfection,” there is an argument to be made that this is unethical in that the practitioners of these marketing techniques know that these sorts of images have negative effects on the psychological and physical health of the audience they are seeking to impact; yet they continue to unrealistically sensualize images through Photoshop. Now, what if the AI system was to continue its charade to a point where the subsequent emotional injuries were impactful enough to warrant calling them unethical. Would the moral responsibility fall on the creators of the device or the machine itself?
Natalie Weilandt: Yes, there are ways to ethically advertise because emotional manipulation (including that through advertising) isn’t inherently unethical. Everything is emotional manipulation: art, teaching, business…even simple conversations. It becomes unethical when advertisers are aware of the adverse effects that their actions have on people. We cannot change the fact that advertisers will always chase money (it’s their job, and this is a capitalist society), and they’ll find ways to do it in increasingly deceptive ways, especially given the rate at which technology presents new creative opportunities. All we can do is regulate and educate: if people expect advertisers to have evolving technology-enabled capabilities, the adverse psychological and sociological effects of their manipulation– like those displayed in the Ex Machina case– won’t be as severe or common.
Rachel Hanebutt: Advertising has become the ultimate forum for deception, especially when tied to a profit. As consumers, we make active choices to buy into and accept this type of marketing strategy, therefore, it is not inherently wrong for companies to use various advertising strategies to their advantage. In regards to Ex Machina’s trickster account on Tinder, it seems like this advertisement has gone too far, however, if we are going to hold glorified ads accountable, we need to hold consumers to the same accountability. Some call Ex Machina’s sexy robot deception; I call it strategic marketing.
Amy Brown: I don’t find emotional manipulation inherently unethical, but it can certainly become unethical if taken too far. Using an ad to manipulate someone’s emotions into saying that they want to buy that makeup look or clothes, or go eat at a certain restaurant isn’t inherently bad; it becomes bad when emotions are manipulated to make someone feel extremely bad about themselves and distort perceptions in the long-term, like with unrealistic beauty expectations that stem from photoshop. It may be a stretch to call that inherently unethical, it I think that it does toe the line. If advertising manipulates emotion for positive long-term change, like an actual healthy lifestyle or such, then the manipulation may not be as unethical or wrong.
Noelle Witwer: Although I can understand why Tinder users might have felt dismayed, betrayed, or simply annoyed when they discovered that Ava was not a real person but rather an advertising bot for a new movie, I do not think this use of deception in advertising is unethical. The type of deception used was similar to a plot twist in a novel, a surprising punch line to a joke, or the unexpected language of satire–in all of these examples, people use deception as a tool to bring attention to something and to impact the deceived. And, in all of these examples, the range of emotions felt when the deception is revealed can be variable depending on the consumer. Deception becomes unethical in advertising when we are deceived about the nature or effectiveness of the product that is being advertised. Emotional manipulation in advertising is unethical when, as Corby mentioned, the advertisements leave a harmful negative psychological impact on the viewer and those designing advertisements are aware of this effect.
Caroline Zadina: Advertising that appeals to the emotion of consumers is not inherently unethical from my point of view. However, advertisment that psychologically harms a person is unethical, which Amy alludes to above. The goal of advertisement is to attract, entice, and lure people in, which is only possible by pinpointing clever avenues to connect with consumers. While this example from, Tinder is definitely a new “attempt” at this made possible with our ever expanding technological world, I think that as a society we need to be more aware and cognizant of advertising and the motive behind it, in order to protect ourselves. Advertising is not going away anytime soon, and while we can not directly control what reaches us, we can control what we let in and attend to.
Cheney Hagerup: The use of Tinder in advertising Ex Machina draws me back to the movie, Her, in which the protagonist falls in love with a mechanized female persona, as transmitted through an app he downloaded. Both of these scenarios suggest an ever-increasing societal dependence on technology for social interaction in place of human interaction. I think that the advertisement exploits this dependence in a conscious effort to create controversy and, consequentially, publicity for the film. The advertisement, likewise, makes us all uncomfortably aware of this dependence, sparking important discussions.
Conner Gordon: While the idea of emotional manipulation is a scary one, I don’t see it as being inherently wrong. One could say that a protest manipulates emotions to motivate onlookers and make a positive change, for example. The distinction between ethical and unethical emotional manipulation, then, would be the means and consequences of such manipulation. This is particularly relevant for the body image example, as it uses deceitful standards that create real, long-term emotional and physical damage for many viewers. The example of the Tinder bot is more complicated, since it is deceitful and produces negative emotions, but also creates these emotions for artistic effect (in this case, as a tie-in to the themes of the film), and ultimately operates on revealing its own deception.
Eleanor Price: As Conner, Amy, and Corby have said, I don’t think I can say emotional manipulation in and of itself is inherently wrong — to call all forms of it wrong would then lead to whether literature, music, or any art that one finds affecting is also unethical. However, intentionally stirring negative emotions within people to coerce them to buy a product (see a movie, donate money, etc) is unfair to those possible consumers, and the source of that discomfort can be traced to the creators of the advertisement. It seems unethical to me to deliberately cause such a drastic reaction in potential consumers.
How do you feel about this week’s question? Have something you want to share with an intern or a question about their stance? Leave a comment below on what you think of advertising ethics!