Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Truth in 21st century advertising
With the advent of the 21st-century came the popularization of social media. It rendered the traditional form of mass advertising redundant, changing the way advertisers communicate with the market. Big data mining and analytics allow advertisers to precisely target audience and optimise reach. However, advertising is increasingly perceived by the public as a distortion of reality; something not to be believed, and in this chapter, we look into the truth and ethics behind this modern form of advertising from the perspectives of three disciplines: Psychology, Economics, and Philosophy, seeking to find common ground between the clashing ideas.
Psychology's Discourse on Advertising's TruthEdit
Today, numerous firms propose similar products and services, consequently standing out is the key to success. According to psychologist Harry Hollingworth, to produce efficient advertisements, firms need to capture the consumer’s attention, make a lasting impression, and motivate them to buy. The consumer's willingness to purchase a good or service will depend on their idea of the product, how they identify with it, and their confidence in the expected benefit. The consumer is convinced of the truthfulness of the advertisements promoting the merits of the product(s), and this trust is key to ensuring customer satisfaction and loyalty. The understanding of psychological elements enhances the precision of targeted advertising.
Psychologists have developed approaches to influence customer perceptions through advertising. Harlow Gale's theory focused on how colours and designs affect customers’ decision-making. Walter Dill Scott discovered that people form categories of mental images according to their dominating sense, so advertisers would need to refer to all the senses to appeal to each person. His theory is based on suggestion, mental imagery, perception, emotion, and memory applied to advertising.
According to psychologist Gary Lupyan, perceptions aren't objectively true because they are shaped by our past experiences, needs, values, and expectations. As a result, perceptions are subjective to each person. For marketers, consumers' perceptions are of more value than their knowledge of objective reality.
Our perceptions are shaped by the marketer's willingness to create a need and make people buy. Customers’ perceptions of the marketed product do not necessarily reflect reality, since they are provoked and conditioned by marketers. This approach to truth in advertising through psychology allows us to understand the impact of marketing techniques using psychology on people's perception of truth.
Philosophy's Discourse on Advertising's TruthEdit
Advertising is an innately utilitarian practice, seeking to “satisfy needs and wants through an exchange process”. However, this attempt to satisfy the customer does not necessarily mean that utilitarian advertising is ethical. For example, McDonald’s advertisements hold utilitarian value in that they satisfy the desires of many consumers, but the health implications of regular consumption of such unhealthy foods contradict the suggestion that these advertisements adhere to utilitarianism. In fact, many argue that the negative impacts of such advertisements overshadow the gratification they evoke in those who view them, so much so that the UK government imposed a ban on television junk food advertising before 9pm in an attempt to tackle obesity. However, from a purely utilitarian perspective, there are arguments to be made for both sides; hiding the truth of the repercussions of habitual junk-food consumption causes more widespread satisfaction among consumers who enjoy it, and it could be argued that this should be prioritized over showing the rather more grim truth of the realities of this sort of lifestyle.
Another major philosophical perspective on advertising is the deontological one. Deontology is the study of moral duty along the lines of good and bad. A deontologist would support the restriction of communication that deceives consumers or takes advantage of their psychological traits for the sake of profit. Therefore, from a deontological perspective, the truth is the most important factor in advertising. In 2019, prompted by advertisements for products such as ineffective weight loss drinks, the UK’s advertising regulator told agencies to eliminate stereotypes “likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offense”,  supporting the deontological perspective that advertisements should not portray anything untruthful.
Economics' Discourse on Advertising's TruthEdit
Since the beginning of the 21st-century, advertising has become a key business plan for firms and start-ups. Indeed, 80% of Google revenue per year comes from advertisements that they run on their platforms. Social media greatly benefits from this, as US social network ad revenues have nearly doubled from USD$21 billion in 2017 to USD$36 billion in 2019. However, advertising's success as a business plan has created significant monopolies such as GAFA, discouraging new firms from entering the market as they cannot compete against them.
Advertising has benefited from a new economic study called “behavioural economics” which adds "insights from psychology and empirical research on human cognition and emotional biases to economic model”. In the digital era, this means mass collection of user data, subject of the 2018 Facebook trial. The discipline of economics helps perceive 21st century businesses' main motivation: using data to provide more accurate ads, resulting in increased profitability. Therefore, platforms' key interest is the amount of time we spend on their services, resulting in them creating increasingly addictive content.
In terms of data collection, great emphasis has been placed on Artificial Intelligence, as it helps understand users' behaviour by analyzing large amounts of data. The objective of 21st-century businesses that run ads is to make you perceive them not as a tool but a necessity, motivated by the fact that a click on an Instagram ad is worth, on average, USD$1.3 of revenue. Therefore, the study of the economic discipline within the context of ads in modern businesses gives better insight on how regulations on data utilisation allowing a limited amount of data to be stored would prevent centralized economies such as monopolies and psychological addiction to technological services.
Tension and SolutionEdit
The prevalence of 21st-century digital targeted advertising brings concepts in behavioural economics, a subdiscipline developed from the foundations of economics and psychology, into practice. This interdisciplinary approach has led to marketing and media communication advancements, but also tension between disciplines and different camps of ethics theories. With the discrepancy between the understanding and theorizing on truth across disciplines explored in this chapter, utilitarian interdisciplinary practice has struck deontological concerns, with its coherence with the truth disputed. Despite the argument from some cognitive psychologists that to separate objective truth from subjective perception is impracticable, there remains a need to address the ethical issues raised amid a global climate of low trust levels.
Given the unreliable nature of consumers' perception, we suggest exploring the often overlooked works of communication ethics scholars for the implementation of Aristotelian actor-centred ethic principles in existing frameworks of advertising-communication advisory codes, which emphasize advertisers' practical ethical awareness instead of universalist ethic values. This should come not just as a legal mechanism but more as self-regulation, in response to frequent violations of articles on 'misleading advertising' and 'honesty' in regulatory codes of ethics. From the perceiving side of the issue, a trend of fact-checking political advertisements by institutions, combining positive evidence and political communication techniques, has become increasingly common. Exploration of the possibility of bringing the practice of truth validation into advertising for consumer products and services might provide interdisciplinary insight to truth-seeking in this issue.
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