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Honesty in advertising

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I’m taking a course on the psychology of advertising. I get taught that the public is merely a helpless entity dominated by evil companies and their emotional advertisements which present an unachievable reality in order to create consumerism…etc, and all sorts of bad ideas. Plus, my teacher is a behaviorist. I’m having a terrible time, but I do think that sometimes, in order to sell you need to be dishonest and lie or cover up the weaknesses of your product if you want to get somewhere. Is it moral to deceive people in that way? Honesty doesn’t sell, so what ought to be the ethic of a graphic designer in regard to advertising? What should someone keep in mind when manipulating the public, and when should one draw the line?

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Sell positives, downplay or spin negatives. Really good salesmen do this, while mediocre salesmen lie. You can tell the difference on each salesman's returns or cancellations at the end of each month. That you're getting taught that you must lie in sales is ridiculous. People know when they're getting swindled.

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Honesty doesn’t sell, so what ought to be the ethic of a graphic designer in regard to advertising?

Says who?

Outright lying is fraud. Leaving important details isn't lying. 100% honesty can be valuable though. It shows how good a product is. It also labels you as a reliable company.

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I get taught that the public is merely a helpless entity dominated by evil companies and their emotional advertisements which present an unachievable reality in order to create consumerism…etc, and all sorts of bad ideas.
Does your teacher think that he himself is a puppet? All the decisions he makes when he spends his paycheck, as well as the ones he makes when he invests his savings...are they irrational?
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I’m taking a course on the psychology of advertising. I get taught that the public is merely a helpless entity dominated by evil companies and their emotional advertisements which present an unachievable reality in order to create consumerism…etc, and all sorts of bad ideas. Plus, my teacher is a behaviorist. I’m having a terrible time, but I do think that sometimes, in order to sell you need to be dishonest and lie or cover up the weaknesses of your product if you want to get somewhere. Is it moral to deceive people in that way? Honesty doesn’t sell, so what ought to be the ethic of a graphic designer in regard to advertising? What should someone keep in mind when manipulating the public, and when should one draw the line?

You don't need to be dishonest. That much is obvious, of course.

But I'll go further, and say that honesty helps business. I haven't studied marketing and advertising in school (I've read stuff on it, so I have an idea of what you're talking about), but I do have experience in sales (which, from a moral perspective, doesn't really differ from mass advertising): the one important aspect of it is to always stay on the positive, and control the conversation. Not only do you not lie about the shortcomings, you do not mention them at all (why would you, you're not a free of charge consultant for anyone). Instead you ask questions, about the client's needs, and allow him to answer the specific questions, with the positives of the product. Then, if he has other questions (he should not normally have them, you should have identified what he is looking for and answered it by now), but if he does: you answer honestly, do not even try to hide or leave out any negative aspects of your product (if you lie, it corrupts you and makes you rely on lies instead of the product and your ability to sell it, and it really really pisses off everyone, not just clients and everyone they speak to from that point on, but even the people you work with).

There are of course the many psychological techniques, like peer pressure, or the illusion of scarcity (a deadline before the price could go up) etc. In my experience, if you lie about these, you'll alienate precious clients. So use them, but only when what you are saying is actually true. (people do like your stuff, there is a good chance prices will go up etc.) These do in fact work, when used properly, and that's not determinism, just human nature.

While you do not lie, it most certainly is not your job to mention what your competition has, or what else there is on the market (or how the kid is going to just use the computer his parents are buying for video games, so they might as well go with the really cheap one in the store down the street, that should be enough for him to do his homework on; or that the generic toothpaste is almost as good against cavities as the fancy multi colored one - that's an opinion you may very well hold, but it is not guaranteed to be what your customers are looking for-mybe they like having happy children and colorful toothpaste, they'll just buy it from someone who can mind his own business). You have to be an honest salesman, but you don't have to be a free and uninvited consultant for the client's business, or a life coach to the consumers who are the targets of your advertising. Leave that to Ralph Nader.

Edited by Jake_Ellison
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Really good salesmen do this, while mediocre salesmen lie.

Sales and advertising aren't the same thing and the issue of honesty in *advertising* is a much broader one. Is it "honest", for instance, to pose your product among numerous young scantily-clad females in the hopes that the pleasurable association will cause people to find your product more desirable? This is where allegations such as "sex sells" come from.

In my personal experience, however, these allegations are nonsense. (In fact, the "sex sells" one is so patently nonsense that it's silly--WOMEN make a majority of the purchasing decisions in the U.S. in particular and if there were a causal relationship between tits and purchasing this would indicate, among other things, that pretty much all women are closet lesbians.) The *primary* benefit of advertising lies in making people aware that your product exists *at all*. No one will think to go purchase something if they don't know it exists. The next thing is to get it to stick in their memory because there's a good chance that they have no interest in it at the particular time when they see the advertisement. Either that, or you can be smart and make an effort to position your ad where people will likely see it right at the time when they DO need to make a decision. This is why plumbers almost exclusively advertise in the yellow pages--because when people need a plumber they reach for a directory first.

There are a LOT of ways to get an ad to stick in someone's memory. Making it amusing, clever, and simple is the best way I've ever seen and those are the ads that win awards. Other than that, they use standard communication methods. Ads don't propagate hyperbole any more than regular people do when they say things like "there must have been a million of them!" etc. It's just a way of making a point strongly. No one thinks that there were LITERALLY a million whatevers.

If presenting an "unachievable false reality" is such a fantastic marketing tactic, then why do most "as seen on TV!" products fail and die? You'd think the infomercial would be THE ULTIMATE advertising strategy. (I've actually bought one thing, a set of knives, from an infomercial, but that was because I needed knives and they were substantially cheaper than anything I could get at the store. And they are, in fact, the best knives I've ever owned.) Pretty much everyone I've ever met is *very* skeptical of the claims of infomercials. Making fun of them is a comedy staple.

So if you're having trouble with your class, just do what I do in my classes that I hate: do the absolute minimum work required to get through the class with the grade you need and ignore the stupid crap that comes out of your professor's mouth.

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When it comes to advertising, it is in the advertiser's best interest to be honest and to not misrepresent. Lying and misrepresentation is only profitable in the short-term, but devastating to a business in the long-term. If a particular company claims its toothpaste whitens teeth knowing full well that it doesn't, in the short-term they will see a boost in sales. In the long-term, they will see sharp declines in sales, which could lead to bankruptcy, because the product doesn't do that which was advertised and the company eventually loses all credibility (think late night "if this product was at the last supper, it would be Jesus" infomercials).

Incentive to lie and misrepresent only exists to an extremely short-sighted person. But, being that they are extremely short-sighted and extremely short-sighted people have a particularly hard time with becoming successful in any field of business, it's not likely that you'll ever see an advertisement by one of them.

Edited by Alexandros
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There are of course the many psychological techniques, like peer pressure, or the illusion of scarcity (a deadline before the price could go up) etc. In my experience, if you lie about these, you'll alienate precious clients. So use them, but only when what you are saying is actually true. (people do like your stuff, there is a good chance prices will go up etc.) These do in fact work, when used properly, and that's not determinism, just human nature.

I would appreciate if you elaborate on this. What I always hear is that the masses are just conditioned to respond to stimulus, persuasion techniques and the creation of false necessities (from a behaviorist perspective) in order to buy. If this is true, I think it’s really sad. I’ve always thought there was some deterministic notion in there, but I don’t know much about it to fully understand what’s wrong with it. How do you think one should handle this pressure? Is there such thing as ‘too much persuasion’ (in the sense of getting just invasive)?

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If this is true, I think it’s really sad.

It's not. Anyone who's ever done any marketing or sales work can tell you that it's impossible to sell someone something they REALLY DON'T WANT. You might be able to convince them to buy something that they're iffy about wanting, especially if it's minor enough to fall into impulse buying territory. But if it were *really* possible to create false need and push people into accepting anything by sheer force of technique and personality, everyone in the country would be an Objectivist by now. Yes, some people are inveterate cult-joiners, but this is their own fault.

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I would appreciate if you elaborate on this. What I always hear is that the masses are just conditioned to respond to stimulus, persuasion techniques and the creation of false necessities (from a behaviorist perspective) in order to buy. If this is true, I think it’s really sad. I’ve always thought there was some deterministic notion in there, but I don’t know much about it to fully understand what’s wrong with it. How do you think one should handle this pressure? Is there such thing as ‘too much persuasion’ (in the sense of getting just invasive)?

Luckily there is plenty of research on the topic. You can find some here. As an example there is this research.

As far as I know, to say that advertisment works just by conditioning is not true. Conditioning may play some role, however there are many other aspects that are important there. As an example of theory that is popular in psychology of advertising I may mention the dual process theory of persuasion which says roughly that there are two ways of forming attitudes (persuasion) one of which (peripheral) responds to some heuristic cues as is for example previously mentioned scarcity, argument from authority (one buy what the authority say is good), social proof (one buys what other buys) etc. The other route of forming attitudes (persuasion) - central - route responds to arguments, merit of the good and so on. Thus one may view the peropheral route as some lazy intuitive way to forming attitudes and the central route as "rational" way. As may be expected the central route is used when the stakes are higher and the peripheral route when the stakes are lower.

This was just one example of current theory and there are many other interesting theories but it may suffice to show that to say that advertisement works just by conditioning is simplistic. As to the other theories, some say that advertisement works as an information or as a complement to the good, I myself have a theory that advertisement may create a value (e.g. by placebo effect).

As an example how can advertisement "make a need" I see some quack medicines, alternative therapies and so on. Probably noone would buy some of those without advertisement, but it is necessary to say that even advertisement for this type of products doesn't work just by conditioning, but is mediated by shaping attitudes (particularly that the medicine would work) and by stupidity. You may find an example of that on my favourite blog.

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I would appreciate if you elaborate on this. What I always hear is that the masses are just conditioned to respond to stimulus, persuasion techniques and the creation of false necessities (from a behaviorist perspective) in order to buy. If this is true, I think it’s really sad. I’ve always thought there was some deterministic notion in there, but I don’t know much about it to fully understand what’s wrong with it. How do you think one should handle this pressure? Is there such thing as ‘too much persuasion’ (in the sense of getting just invasive)?

You're not creating false necessities, you're creating a positive impression of something that is in fact a positive. If you're selling something that isn't a positive, or if you're not a positive, in this next example, then there's a moral issue with that, of course.

Would you say that when you go out on a date (or, if you're like me and don't go on "dates", go to a party where there are attractive women), dressing up, acting cool and casual, flirting etc, (which are applications of the same techniques salesmen and advertisers use), you're creating false necessities and, if you're doing it well enough, are going to make every woman at the party run after you like in an Axe commercial, or would you rather say that you are being pleasant, putting your best side forward, and are being happy and positive rather than your usual self?

The same is true for a salesman who who knows how people react to what he is doing and saying. People do tend to react in a certain way to other people's actions and words (especially actions, tone of voice, body language, attitude, but also to specific information you are conveying). Personally, I couldn't tell you the "Why?" in detail, because I'm not a psychologist. I just know the answer to "How?"-or I'd like to think I know it pretty well, and I can use my knowledge to let's say a moderate or acceptable extent. Being able to relate and be convincing to people, in a conversation, doesn't make you Alec Baldwin in "Glengarry Glen Ross", though. (as much as I love his acting in that, I don't love the character)

As far as the masses being conditioned, that isn't true in the least. People, to a great extent for very logical reasons, like those people who are attractive, confident (which just means honest and competent), pleasant, fun, dynamic, etc. The "evil capitalists" did not condition us to be this way, we to some extent evolved like this, and to a greater extent we learned and chose to be like this, using our minds. Not only is it not forced on us to be like this, it is in fact, most often, a good thing. Being a consumer is not a bad thing, so liking being a consumer isn't either.

Edited by Jake_Ellison
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  • 2 weeks later...

Strong concurrence with above post by Jake on selling something that isn't positive, and Alex on honesty being in your best interests.

Tangential, rhetorical question: Is an intent to mislead the same as lying?

I think so. Being "not false" isn't enough. An honest advertisement is one that puts forth the positives of the product. It doesn't need to necessarily indicate the limitations of the product, but it should not give people the even the impression of meeting needs that it doesn't.

...an attempt to gain a value by deceiving the mind of ohers is an act of raising your victims to a position higher than reality, where you become a pawn of their blindness, a slave of their non-thinking....their rationality, their perceptiveness becomes the enemies you have to dread and flee...

Downplaying or spinning negatives is dishonest and makes you subject to the ignorance, stupidity, or irrationality of others.

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Marketing is an issue i have had difficulty accepting as well. For those who defend it, I'd be curious to hear what you think regarding the very obvious difference between the pictures and videos of BigMacs or Whoppers and the actuality. These sorts of techniques strike me as both dishonest and effective, so I would like to know how to resolve it.

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Tangential, rhetorical question: Is an intent to mislead the same as lying?

I think so. Being "not false" isn't enough. An honest advertisement is one that puts forth the positives of the product. It doesn't need to necessarily indicate the limitations of the product, but it should not give people the even the impression of meeting needs that it doesn't.

I don't think there is a need to bring intentions into this. The only way to lie is by giving out false information. Guessing people's intentions isn't going to tell you if they're lying. But "Don't set out to lie to people" is a good advice to give to a salesman.

Advertising is just a form of communication. You don't communicate with someone by guessing what their needs are, and fulfilling them to your best ability, you let them tell you what their needs are, or, if they don't talk back, decide what their needs are by themselves.

If a beer commercial has attractive women in it, you're not claiming to be meeting people's needs for attractive women, you're meeting their need for beer, but you're describing a party atmosphere, where beer should be drank in the company of women. You're not deceiving anyone by introducing sexuality into a beer commercial, even though you're intentionally moving away from a scientific discussion on the effects of alcohol, toward the most pleasant experience you could have while drinking beer, and painting a possibility rather than giving a guarantee.

By the way, my tangent: Top Gear, in their latest episode, did about 25 minutes on how to make a commercial for a VW diesel. They raised some good points, and allowed VW's ad execs to try and explain how it's supposed to be done, and then came up with the greatest parody off a good commercial (which made it very funny, and one of my favorite episodes).

Marketing is an issue i have had difficulty accepting as well. For those who defend it, I'd be curious to hear what you think regarding the very obvious difference between the pictures and videos of BigMacs or Whoppers and the actuality. These sorts of techniques strike me as both dishonest and effective, so I would like to know how to resolve it.

It is dishonest, you're right. I'm not sure if it's effective (it pisses me off, so for me it would be a huge negative), but if it is, I can't speculate what distortions in the marketplace they are exploiting, because I'm not qualified to. But in every mixed economy there are plenty of hidden reasons why something stupid could work for a while.

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By "intent to mislead" I was trying to introduce the Clintonesque style of "communication", with lines like "I did not have sex with that woman", which (whatever you think of the justification of the investigation or the technical accuracy of the claim) was calculated to give people the wrong impression.

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