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"Ethical Advertising" is an Oxymoron Under Capitalism (2024-01-08)

Example illustration used to help define the term 'oxymoron' quoted from the *beyond the word 'english* blog, 3 february 2013. Example illustration used to help define the term 'oxymoron' quoted from the *beyond the word 'english* blog, 3 february 2013.
Example illustration used to help define the term 'oxymoron' quoted from the beyond the word 'english blog, 3 february 2013.

I admit that originally the title of this thoughtpiece stopped at the word "oxymoron," but on further reflection and some perusal of my trusty dictionary, it became clear to me that this was too simplistic. After all, the word's basic meaning refers to drawing attention, and that is necessary in any economy and under many conditions, not just economic ones. If we are going to run a ceremony, set out to teach others, gather a group of people to work on a big project, or trade, we need to somehow catch the attention of the other people we need to do these things with. The current form of advertising is not this utilitarian however. As we all know too well, it is actively designed to support mass government surveillance with a market cover and to try to manipulate people into buying things they would not otherwise have chosen to buy. Capitalism demands constant expansion on a finite planet, so now the marketing drive is shifting to experiences, because as David Harvey has observed, these are ephemeral. The experiences entail "service work" as well, which in turn has recently been vaunted up into the hyper-exploitation scheme of the so-called "gig economy." But then again, this has revealed another verb, "marketing," which my dictionary and thesaurus alike treat as a synonym to "advertising." This is probably true for earlier periods, before the professionalization of propaganda by the likes of Edward Bernays in the early twentieth century. It is notable that in contrasting the dictionary definitions of "advertise" versus "market," it is the latter that mentions "to promote" at the front of the main definition.

Still, if advertising is undertaken while striving not to gather information about the people who see the advertisements apart from trying to insure it reaches somebody in sensible numbers

. After that, whether a person chooses to buy the product depends on the product itself and what they think it will do for them. If the product in question is genuinely useful or attractive, then it doesn't need to be "sold" with a sprinkling of soft pornography or absurd claims of any other kind about what buying the product will say about the buyer, if anything. Of course, the trouble under current conditions is that not everyone or every business striving to sell a product has equal opportunity to present their attention-grabbing efforts to the world of people they hope to reach. We are past the point where merely screaming louder will work, it is now far more a matter of corporate cartels striving to block competing products out of the market all together first by preventing competitors from advertising successfully, then at all, and then sinking their products if they possibly can. But the corporations are warring with each other at even greater levels than before as they try to find ways to create pseudo-products from enclosing all forms of entertainment, digital technology, communication, and so on. They are actually in trouble, so they are resorting to the last port of call for such organizations, military pork barrel contracts, and possibly the most mendacious and vicious advertising modes devised in recent human history after extremist religions.

The end result for the moment is that we have a peculiar sort of stand off. There are companies and other sorts of organizations that need to let people know they exist and what they hope to sell or do in return for the money or labour they would like to get in exchange. For those genuinely seeking to advertise ethically, they are fighting their own leaning towards believing claims that the primary way to get the word out today depends upon "social media." It's easy to drop making ridiculous claims and paying for softcore pornography shoots. But the myth of "social media" has considerable traction, although it is slipping. Still, such businesses and organizations are fighting the constant messaging that if they don't use poisoned "social media" then they really won't have any way to reach potential customers or contributors in enough numbers to survive. It's a sort of "fomo for organizations" situation. There is an interesting counter argument to this idea though, quite apart from the evidence of flailing and survival issues under present conditions of late capitalism.

An important inspiration for this thoughtpiece is a pair of blog posts by the president of the purism computer company, which has been building a solid reputation for its cell phones and computers. Their phones and laptops are of particular note for the privacy-conscious worried about surreptitious listening and photographing, because they are designed and built with hardware switches to turn microphones and cameras off, as well as wifi and bluetooth. Obviously if purism flogged its wares in the manner of today's apple computer (not the clever and low budget marketing from its more precarious days) or microsoft, then that would be so inconsistent as to eviscerate the whole point of their operation. Purism markets itself as a "social purpose corporation" after all, and puts considerable emphasis on its commitment to free/libre software, privacy, and security. So it makes sense they would be worried about how to deal with the conundrum of advertising in this day and age in Is Ethical Advertising Possible? and Purism's Ethical Marketing Principles. They are being transparent, which is definitely to their credit. I am not sure if anyone has pointed out to the president that if you have one blog post asking about ethical advertising, it is pretty obvious you are setting up to say "Of course there is, we know how!" Perhaps as in the case of many on and offline publications, somebody else writes the headlines and titles.

Now, what is the counter argument then? Why, that people who are interested in the type of product a given business sells or in working for a particular organization don't just sit around waiting to have information shoved in front of their faces. They talk about what they have in mind with friends and family. They read relevant publications, including blogs that cover their interests either directly or obliquely via a reasonably sane group of regular contributors and commenters. Since in real life we don't actually live in a world of total warfare of all against all, people share tips and suggestions for possible sources and opportunities. Those are the places where the genuinely relevant and constructive policies win out regardless of overspend on advertising. There is a real lesson in the fact that people don't share tips about which product to buy or place to work or volunteer with based on crazed slogans and grotesque imagery. They share tips on how to filter out the organizations that use crazed slogans and grotesque imagery. Experience supports just such wise curation. The reasons for late capitalist advertising to focus on the "youth market" with its lack of experience and proneness to fads and peer pressure into doing things many would otherwise choose not to are very clear.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2024
Last Modified: Friday, April 19, 2024 21:57:50