Truth and Deception in Advertising
There is much to be discussed about what the role advertising has in today’s society. Everywhere you look, and go there is usually some sort of advertising present. Whether watching TV, walking around a mall, or reading a magazine, people are bombarded with advertising. So it brings into question, what kind of role should advertising have, and what kind of ethics should merchants of products go by. There are many different opinions on the ethics merchants should have.
Some people believe they should have a tell all type of approach when making a sale, while others on the other end believe that merchants should do whatever it takes to make the sale, even if it means lying. Here I have presented the two opposite ends of the spectrum. I believe my own view on the situation lies somewhere in similarity with what Tibor R. Machan has presented in his paper “Advertising: The Whole or Only Some of the Truth? My views on the role of advertising and merchants lie somewhere with Machan’s idea of the merchant ethic, meaning that the buyer is trying to make the sale, however the seller needs to be honest as a business person and may not mislead or deceive, but they do not need to tell all. Caveat Emptor must play a role, meaning the buyer must beware, and a salesman does not have to obligation to tell all. I feel that a business person/merchant/advertiser does not need to straight up tell for instance the shortcomings or complaints about their product, however if the buyer asks about them then they need to be honest and tell.
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I feel this ethic with a twist is fitting to what I believe is best. The twist is that I believe that merchants should follow the merchant ethic until their own personal morals come about and interfere with this ethic. If one really cannot make a sale because their own morals tell them that it is not right (maybe the product is completely wrong to a customer who has no clue whatsoever about what he/she is buying for example) then they shouldn’t make the sale. However if advertisers follow the merchant ethic, and morals do not interfere then it should be followed.
Therefore I believe the best approach to advertising ethics is a merchant ethic approach with a twist on individual’s morals. In class there was an example brought up about how the merchant ethic may not be morally right. It was the example of the old lady needing a new roof on her house, and calling the first roofing company she see’s in the phone book, however this company has a more expensive kind of roof than what she needs, but she would not know. So it was asked if it would be right to hold the truth from the old lady as it is her role according to Caveat Emptor, to beware of this, or should the company continue on to make a profit.
I believe that this is where my twist in regards to morality would come into play. If the owner, or worker selling the roof finds it morally wrong to sell the roof to the old lady, then he/she shouldn’t. However if he/she does not feel morally wrong selling the roof to the old lady, then it is a case of Caveat Emptor, where the buyer is to beware, and as long as the seller does not mislead or is untruthful with any questions asked, then he/she should sell the roof. One idea that Machan opposes is Suppressio Veri, meaning the suppression of the truth.
This idea is different from Caveat Emptor in the fact that the seller is completely suppressing the truth. Even if the questions are asked, the right answer is not given. The buyer may try to be gaining more information in order to make a more rational choice on buying a product or not, but the truth is not given. Machan is quoted in his paper on the topic of Suppressio Veri as saying “Merchants must see themselves as having equal standing to customers and as having legitimate motives for furthering their own interests”.
He is saying that if the buyer is aware and asks the questions, it is wrong for the merchant to give the wrong answers or withhold the right answer. They must treat the seller the same way they would want to be treated if they had questions when purchasing a product. Suppressio Veri does not support this notion, instead puts the seller at an advantage over the buyer. Another notion that Machan brings up is the idea of how some from an altruistic sense (concern for well-being and welfare of others) would feel about the ethics of advertising/merchants role.
Of course those from an altruistic sense would favor the tell-all stance, and see Suppressio Veri as being wrong, As Machan says, “If we are to live solely to do good for others, then when we have reason to believe that telling the whole truth will promote others well-being, we morally ought to tell the whole truth to the person. So when a merchant has reason to believe that telling his customers about lover prices elsewhere (for goods which he sells at higher price) will benefit his customer, he ought morally to do so. This basis, not only an opposition to Suppressio Veri but also in part to the merchant ethic and Caveat Emptor, I see as having defaults. Machan mentions, as the theory of intuitionism state’s, “One should not promote one’s weaknesses, one should not volunteer information detrimental to one’s prospects. ” And then goes on to give a good example of why he believes the altruistic way fails, “I doubt anyone would seriously advise job seeking philosophers to list their CVs rejected articles and denied promotions-that would be counterintuitive”.
Here is why I feel the tell all, altruistic approach to advertising fails. Merchants and business people go into the business world for the most part with one goal in mind, to make profit. If a merchant is telling his/her customers about the faults, or shortcomings of their product (without being questioned about it) then they are only hindering their own progress and success. Another good example Machan gives is the dating example. He says “When we go out on a first date, we tend to deck ourselves out in a way that certainly highlights what we consider our assets and diminishes our liabilities. We are not altruistic in the fact that we tell the person we are on a date with for the first time all our faults, and problems. The argument made by Professor Proessel in class was that dating is private personal life, where a salesperson is a public role, and because of that public role the other person relies on you to make a rational choice. I see this argument as being faulty. I believe that whether it is dating or a salesperson/merchant, both situations they are not telling-all because they feel they are doing what is best for themselves.
In the dating situation you are not telling the person you are on a date with your faults because you may want another date with them, and by telling the person the negatives about yourself may not get you that second date. In the salesperson situation you are not telling the faults of the product because the buyer may have a problem with the faults and the chances of them buying the product may go down. Therefore generating less profit for yourself or the company you may work for as well others may see you as being unsuccessful at your job.
Both situations the individual is doing what is best for themselves, no matter if it is private or public life, and the altruistic approach may hinder that success in both cases. However I see amounts of altruism can be helpful and often moral, as well tie into the twist I feel added to the merchant ethic would be best. I will come back to the example of the old lady and the roofing company. Machan explains maybe advertising should be thought of more along “Rawlsian lines”. He goes on to say “According to this view we owe help to others only if they are found in special need”.
This would be the case in the situation with the old lady and the roofing company, and explains the twist I feel added to the merchant ethic fits best in advertising. Those who are in “special need”, and morals override the merchant making the sale; the buyer deserves the right advice, even if they don’t ask the questions (practice Caveat Emptor). The old lady because she is in what I see as being “special need” with no knowledge about the product, and oblivious to the fact it is not right for her own roof, deserves to know the truth, as it is morally right.
The next argument some may have coming from an altruistic side of things, is that the Caveat Emptor approach is not moral. I feel however that those merchants who practice Caveat Emptor, or the merchant ethic are moral. As Machan puts it, “It is a person’s moral responsibility to promote his rational self-interest”. He is saying here that morally, a person needs to do what is best for them. And if it is practicing Caveat Emptor in order to succeed, than morally that is what is right.
Machan goes on to say, “The responsibility of merchants is to sell conscientiously their wages, not to engage in charitable work by carrying out tasks that other persons ought to carry out for themselves”. Once again adding to my argument that Caveat Emptor is moral, Machan says that it is moral for merchants to try and sell their products at all costs, not give the downfalls of their products, or tell the buyers where it maybe sold at a lower price when they could find that information out themselves.
I am however believe like I have said before, that if the questions are asked, a business person/merchant must answer them truthfully, not practicing Suppressio Veri (suppressing the truth). “None of the above endorse cheating, deception, false advertising, and the like”, is how Machan puts it. Caveat Emptor is a moral practice as long as you are truthful when the buyer requests you to be so. Machan however does mention a situation in where he believes that it is both morally right and best for the individual to tell all. The exceptions to this are those cases in which we have special obligations arising out of special moral relationships such as friendship, parenthood, collegiality, and so on”. I agree with Machan, as I believe you are obligated to tell those you are closest with everything about the product you maybe selling them. You are not only looking out for them and what is best for them, but also you are doing what is best for yourself by keeping good relationships with those closest to you. Here I have explored the ideas presented by Tibor R.
Machan in his paper titled “ Advertising: The Whole or Only Some of the Truth? ” For the most part I agree with the ideas he has presented. Like Machan, I believe that business people/merchants must practice what is known as the Merchant Ethic. Buyers therefore must practice Caveat Emptor (let the buyer beware). Merchants/sellers are trying to make a sale and gain profit therefore I do not feel that it is the responsibility of them to let buyers know about possible shortcomings or faults of the products or services they are selling as it could hinder them if they do so.
Instead it is the responsibility of buyers to find out these shortcomings, or ask the questions to the merchants (which they must answer truthfully, and not practice Suppressio Veri), in order to find out what could be a fault of the product or if it is even right for them. The one area that I differ from Machan is what I called adding a bit of a twist to the merchant ethic. That is I feel morally it is right for those in “special need” to be let known by the merchant/seller if the product they are about to purchase really is not right for them.
I gave the example that was given in class of the old lady buying a new roof for her house. She really has no information or knowledge whatsoever about roofs, and is in a vulnerable situation given her status. Therefore she deserves to know the truth because morally it is right. With this twist, and what I believe is common sense, to let those closest to you (family, friends, coworkers, etc) know about the product, these are the only ones that should be left out of the merchant ethic, and sellers/merchants should look out for them because morally it is the right thing to do.