Over summer I have watched (too much) TV. Unlike most people, I enjoy the ads (though I wish they weren’t so loud). I have always loved watching the creativity of those in the advertising industry as they seek to catch and hold our attention to promote their products. They are often more clever, funnier, and better produced than the shows they interrupt.
In one sense, advertising is a public benefit, not just in making entertainment available for people, but also in informing the community about products and services, and especially new developments. But what if these products and services are profitable enough to pay for advertising but are not beneficial for the community?
It is hard to measure the harm, or benefit, that advertising is causing. Seeing an advertisement once is not likely to change my behaviour. But, it is rare that an ad only appears once, especially with TV! Commercials have a profound effect as mantras upon the semi-comatose TV addict. Even though the advertisement may not get me to buy anything it can still contribute to changing perspectives on the world and the product. Companies pay for product placement as well as immediate increased sales.
This has even entered the political process, with mining companies and gambling clubs paying large amounts of money so as to appear responsible citizens. It is a process that works so well that some people complain that it undermines democracy by giving too much power to wealthy, special interest groups. Yet, how else can a special interest point of view gain a hearing in the mass media? It is only fair that, if journalists and media proprietors will not give your case, you can buy some media time to argue your case by advertising. If there is any unfairness it lies in other, less profitable, causes not being able to afford to buy similar media time. But that is not the fault of the advertising industry but of the journalistic and media proprietors’ censorious control of public media.
Censorship is always dangerous. It is always dangerous to give some people, especially those in authority, the power to control what is said, questioned or thought. Truth is very important and yet so hard to establish when information is suppressed. I hate the constant criticism of Christianity, but, because of it, I can discover the truth. Pity the poor Muslim, who is never allowed to hear criticism and so can never be told the truth. If I am not free to change my opinion or religion then I am not free to believe it either.
Censorship is a very dangerous response to perceived harm in advertising. The simple answer is that, if the product or service is legal then it can be advertised. But what is legal is not necessarily beneficial and if it is harmful, should it be promoted by advertising? Our government has led the world in censoring tobacco advertising. Not only has it stopped advertisements in mass media but it has also forced manufacturers to sell cigarettes in packages that advertise against their own product. One can only hope that this action is effective in reducing smoking in our community. There may be a desire to have it prohibited, but prohibition of substances and activities has been shown to be prohibitively expensive and difficult. We may not be able to stop the illicit drug trade, but at least, because it is illegal, it cannot advertise.
However, once such action is taken against a legal product, then questions can be reasonably asked about other legal, but harmful, products. What about gambling and alcohol? Here are two highly profitable industries that are causing massive harm to our community. There is overwhelming evidence of the health problems created by the Australian pattern of alcohol use. The criminal, social, family and personal consequences of the widespread use of gambling and alcohol are more than well documented. Yet, there seems to be no reduction in alcohol advertising and a decided increase in the promotion of gambling. The greatest abusers of alcohol, young men in a macho culture of sporting mateship, are the particular target of television advertising. It now seems that all professional sport is promoted by the gambling industry – the very industry that corrupts professional sport! If the advertising industry can be so heavily censored on the use of tobacco, why is advertising alcohol and gambling so prevalent?
It’s nonsense when people argue against censorship on the basis that advertising does no harm. If it did no harm, it couldn’t do any good either and nobody would be paying for it – let alone paying mega-bucks.
Objections to censorship that talk of the value of financial contributions to the sporting bodies, the community at large, and the media presentations are irrelevant. Exactly the same objections could be, and have been, used by the tobacco industry, to no effect. The differential harm done by alcohol and gambling compared to the universal harm done by smoking is also irrelevant. Apart from passive smoking, individual smokers basically harm themselves. However, alcohol abusers and problem gamblers cause damage not only to themselves but also to the whole community. This damage is considerably greater than that caused by smoking.
But is harm the only consideration in controlling the advertising industry? What about things that are wrong, not illegal in a free society, but morally wrong? Prostitution is wrong. It is always wrong to pay for sex. It is an abuse to use power, expressed in money, to gain sexual favours that otherwise would not be given for sex. The spin doctors of the “adult services” industry cannot persuade parents to wish that their sons and daughters would grow up to become prostitutes. We know it's wrong. So why should the advertising industry be allowed to promote it? Is it because without God, our community is not able to make such moral judgments? (Romans 1:32)