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The meanings of ethics in and of advertising

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Advertising presents special difficulties for business ethicists. Ads are trivial entertainments, yet advertising culture has been held up as a metaphor for a general moral degradation in the post‐modern epoch. Ads confuse us since they are a new and unfamiliar form of communicative discourse which we find difficult to place in an ethical category. This, mainly conceptual, paper attempts to explore how ethics in and of advertising may be subject to examination within a broadly social constructionist perspective. The paper sketches out a view of social constructionism which draws significantly on the ‘turn to language’ in psychology. It then attempts to discuss how ads might work, or rather, as the paper suggests, how ads mean. The social constructionist view point entails a rejection of cognitivist schemes of advertising psychology in favour of a mutualist framework within which ads and consumers jointly construct meanings which are essentially indeterminate. This ontological perspective has implications for ethical treatments of the field. The notion of meaning making as a psychological principle leads the discussion into an initial consideration of how normative approaches to advertising ethics might be framed. The self regulatory system obtaining in the UK is offered as an appropriate example. An underlying theme of the paper is that discussions of ethics in relation to advertising cannot rest upon a simplistic cognitivist notion of how ads ‘work’ upon consumers’ minds. The paper tries to show that a broadly social constructionist approach may offer a richer scheme for examining advertising ethics in its local, mediated, indeterminate and socially constructed character.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Oxford Brookes University School of Business

Publication date: January 1, 1999


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