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The Broken Classics (JOUR 4470)

The term classic refers to something that can stand the test of time and still be worthy of recognition.  Some of the classical ethical theories are still relevant today; the term almost fits, but not in a very flattering way.

Now, just in case any outsiders stumble onto this blog (and if you did…sorry), I’d like to give a quick ethics lesson.

  • “Intuitionist” moral reasoning – we’re born with a general sense of what’s moral
  • Consequentialism – the ends justify the means (if the consequence is good, the act is good)
  • Distributive Justice – a moral society will consider the needs and rights of all its members
  • Egoism – An act is only morally right when it promotes one’s long-term self interest

I think two of those four theories can still be applied to modern advertising and public relations.  The other two can be applied to our society, but not our advertising and PR practices.

I believe most people are born with a sense of what’s moral.  I don’t remember my parents ever telling me, “Don’t kill anyone!” as a child.  I just knew not to do it.  I find it strange that companies, which are made up of people just like you and me, seem to function with a completely different mindset.  Do you think pharmaceutical companies would blatantly state all their medicines’ fatal side effects in commercials if the law didn’t require it?  Probably not.  Generally speaking, it isn’t good business to tell your customer that your product could potentially kill them.  And that’s what it comes down to: “good” business.

In a modern application of Consequentialism, the “end” that justifies the “mean” will be money at least 75 percent of the time.  In my first blog post, I wondered whether HP’s announcement to stop producing the TouchPads was part of a PR stunt to generate buzz and public interest. It’s unethical to deceive your stakeholders, but if that was their plan all along, do you think they care now?  The TouchPads flew off the shelves at a discounted price, and HP now has a hit product on their hands.

Distributive Justice is similar to Intuitionist moral reasoning in its relation to modern American society vs. modern advertising and PR.  In America, we make a valid effort to give the minority a voice.  In modern advertising and PR, the minority only gets a voice when money is at stake.  If an advertisement is accepted by the majority of the middle class, but rejected as offensive by some of the wealthy upper class, the ad agency would pause and consider what the upper class has to say because they have more money.  However, if the ad is accepted by the majority of the upper class, and rejected by part of the middle class, the ad agency probably wouldn’t lift a finger.  That’s why the FCC exists.

For Egoism, I hate to beat an ethically dead horse with a broken ethical stick, but Enron still reigns king.  The executives involved in that scandal had nothing but their long-term self interest in mind.  Bernie Madoff is another A+ example of this theory.

Money is a thorn in ethics’ side.  Two of the four ethical theories mentioned above are applied in a negative way to modern advertising and PR.  And the other two would be applied in a negative way if it weren’t for laws forcing companies to do the right thing (which brings in the rules-based approach to ethics, deontology).

Shakespeare’s classics have been preserved throughout the years with their original meaning and value.  Unfortunately for PR and advertising ethics, its classics have been slowly twisted over time.  Rather than help the man who is dangling upside down from a third-story window, let’s just catch the money falling from his pockets.

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