Have you ever watched a TV commercial and found it irritating or offensive? Do you suspect that advertising raises the prices of products? Have you wondered if it “forces people to buy things they don’t really need”? Do ads ever strike you as intrusive, repetitive, deceptive, manipulative, tasteless, or trivial?
These are all familiar complaints. Lots of people are skeptical of, and sometimes openly hostile toward, advertising. And their suspicions are encouraged by armies of economists, politicians, social commentators, and other rabble-rousers who create and disseminate a host of myths and lies about advertising.
Like capitalism, advertising is a force for good. Yet, also like capitalism, it has throughout its history been the target of misrepresentations and unjust attacks.
Jerry Kirkpatrick’s In Defense of Advertising aims to change all that. The author, a professor of business and marketing, is a longtime Objectivist. So it’s no surprise that he subtitled his book “Arguments from Reason, Ethical Egoism, and Laissez-Faire Capitalism.” An eloquent response to advertising’s critics, the book is packed with sound ideas and solid documentation.
“A major purpose of this book,” Kirkpatrick states at the outset, “is to demonstrate that advertising is, at once, a rational, moral, productive, and above all, benevolent institution of laissez-faire capitalism.” Following a summary of the collectivist philosophy that has dominated human history, and the individualist alternative, he writes:
[T]he moral justification of advertising cannot and does not lie in the claim that it provides for the “common good.” It is true that advertising does contribute to the betterment of every individual’s life . . . but this . . . is merely a secondary consequence. The moral justification of advertising is that it represents the implementation of an ethics of egoism—the communication of one rational being to another rational being for the egoistic benefit of both.
Accusations and Responses
Here are some of the most common charges leveled against advertising, along with Kirkpatrick’s debunking rebuttals (in abbreviated form).
Like capitalism, advertising is a force for good.
Advertising forces people to buy products they don’t need or want. Of course,the critics don’t argue that advertising employs physical force, but rather that it “manipulates” people by persuading or influencing them in unethical ways. A variant of this argument is that the persuasive techniques of advertising create needs and wants that wouldn’t otherwise exist, and that this process is somehow coercive.
Kirkpatrick notes that these charges rely on false theories of determinism. “[A]dvertising cannot get inside the minds of consumers to force them [to buy products]. . . . The consumer must choose to let the advertising in. . . . [T]hey still have the free will to evaluate what has been communicated—accepting or rejecting the premise of the ad—and, still further, they have the free will to act or not to act on the basis of the evaluation.” He also makes a powerful case against purported “subliminal” advertising—an urban legend that doesn’t seem to die, despite all the evidence that it never existed and cannot exist.
Advertising creates monopolies. Critics contend that a well-funded manufacturer, by spending enormous amounts on advertising, could erect barriers to entering a market that are so high that no would-be competitor could scale them. The monopolist could then charge extortionate prices and commit other evil acts. In his response, Kirkpatrick makes a useful distinction between the legal barriers created by government prohibitions and the obstacles posed by normal market competition. “Contrary to what the critics assert, advertising is a means of market entry, not a barrier,” he points out. Examples of upstart companies that have beaten Goliaths at their own game—notwithstanding all those “barriers to entry”—are legion, from Apple to Google to Southwest Airlines.
Advertising raises prices. Many people think so, perhaps because heavily advertised products seem to cost more. Kirkpatrick observes that advertising is simply one among many costs of production—a necessary expense to communicate the existence of a product and its benefits to prospective buyers. While an unadvertised, private-label product is sometimes cheaper than a well-known, nationally advertised brand, it’s the creativity and entrepreneurship behind the latter that makes possible the existence of the former, which is usually a “me-too” imitator. What’s more, buyers of the famous brand, even if it’s more expensive, often obtain benefits and assurances that the lesser-known rival can’t match. Lastly, Kirkpatrick presents compelling evidence that, over time, advertising lowers prices as a result of economies of scale and the creation of larger markets.
Advertising is offensive. This attack takes numerous forms: Advertising is repetitive, insulting, degrading, tasteless, and so on. Kirkpatrick offers some intriguing ideas on what “taste” really means, beginning with this definition: “[T]astes are concrete values that are morally optional.” For critics of advertising, in contrast, taste is a moral issue, and it’s always their particular preferences for which they claim moral superiority. In truth, the critics are often elitist and patronizing toward those who fail to share their supposedly elevated tastes and biases. As for the charge of repetition, it’s often a necessary strategy for the ad to perform its job of reaching its intended targets and becoming memorable.
Advertising Innocent, Critics Guilty
The power of marketers and advertisers is not infinite. It’s consumers who hold the real power. Contrary to the often-heard claims that “So-and-so can sell anything to anyone,” the success of most products depends upon quality, goodwill, reputation, favorable word-of-mouth, repeat purchases. “[G]ood advertising cannot sell a bad product,” says Kirkpatrick. “In fact, many an advertiser has said that the surest way to kill a bad product is to advertise it.”
The power of marketers and advertisers is not infinite. It’s consumers who hold the real power.
In sum, Kirkpatrick contends, advertising is not guilty of coerciveness or the sundry other sins of which it’s routinely accused. Instead, ironically, it’s the critics of advertising who violate human rights—or would if they had their way. Many advocate laws and regulations that would result in violations of free speech and the abrogation of property rights. Kirkpatrick provides some useful tips to help industry professionals and laymen answer the critics of advertising effectively, particularly their strident calls for government actions that abridge rights.
I was surprised at how much enlightening content Kirkpatrick was able to pack into a short book: the fallacious dichotomy between “persuasive” and “informative” advertising; why a product’s intangible, psychological features and benefits are often as important and valuable as its physical ones; objective definitions of fraud and deception; an extensive discussion of how advertising is viewed by the Neoclassical, Chicago, and Austrian schools of economics; and a detailed refutation of the false and destructive theory of “pure and perfect competition” that has infected much of economics.
Do I have any criticisms of In Defense of Advertising? Yes, a few.
First, this paperback edition is a reprint of the original hardcover, which was published in 1994. Except for a few minor corrections, the author tells us in a brief new preface for this edition, “the text is unchanged—because this is a theoretical defense of advertising and theory does not often change.”
Well, maybe not. But the world does change. A lot has happened in the past thirteen years. For example, online marketing has increased enormously. Search-engine advertising and auction sites such as eBay make possible an unprecedented targeting of markets and allow sellers and buyers to find each other with previously unimaginable efficiency and speed. Simultaneously, this revolution has created a host of new ethical and legal problems: spam, phony websites, porn, sleazy types who infiltrate ads into other people’s computers without their permission, and so on.
The author would doubtless argue that “the fundamental things apply” still, and that his theories remain valid despite all these technological developments. If so, don’t we deserve to know how they are relevant to this very new and different world?
The examples of advertising that he cites are also dated. Madge the Manicurist? Mr. Whipple? “Ring around the collar”? These commercials are so ancient that the only place they can now be seen is in an advertising industry museum. Kirkpatrick concedes as much in his preface where he briefly describes each spot, so that those who are young, or lacking photographic memories, won’t be totally clueless.
In addition to more current examples, more examples would have improved the book. The author’s sources are almost entirely other books and articles in scholarly journals. Those are fine, of course, but in addition to theory, there’s a real world out there. I didn’t get the impression that Kirkpatrick had sought out or interviewed the producers of goods and services, the ad agency staffers and others who create their advertising, or the consumers who experience the advertising and buy the products.
Examples of ads—preferably with illustrations—would have served another purpose. Some criticisms of advertising are justified. A lot of it is awful, primarily because it doesn’t fulfill its intended purpose: selling the product. It’s created by self-proclaimed “creative” people solely—or so it often seems—to “entertain” and to win industry awards and the plaudits of their peers. (To be fair, Kirkpatrick does mention this problem, but only briefly.)
A few years ago, a dot-com company generated attention with a TV commercial in which hamsters were shot out of cannons. Do you remember what it was selling? Neither do I. The company soon folded. That “clever” but ineffective ad is sadly representative of much of the stuff that’s produced in “general” advertising—that is, advertising for TV, radio, magazines, billboards, and so on. Its creators can get away with it because, surprisingly enough, no good methods exist to measure the effect of a specific ad on sales.
In contrast, I worked for more than three decades in direct marketing—that means direct mail, ads with coupons, e-mail, infomercials, and other media where every order is coded and tracked to its source. The direct marketer is aware of the cost and return of each ad, down to the penny. This is not to say that all direct marketing promotions work perfectly—but when they don’t, the direct marketer knows it.
Though the book does supply a few rules for judging the quality of an ad, had it shown us what constitutes good and bad—that is, effective and ineffective—advertising, it might have been more interesting and useful.
Too Much Philosophy?
In Defense of Advertising
provides a strong foundation in philosophy, specifically Ayn Rand
’s philosophy of Objectivism
. Kirkpatrick focuses on ideas and traces them down to their philosophical roots. His analysis is original, profound, and provocative. As an Objectivist, I applaud that approach, which should be practiced by more writers.
But the book is so steeped in Objectivism
that one wonders about the intended audience. Although the author cites the marketing principle that you should know your market, I sometimes doubted that he knows his!
The book is so steeped in Objectivism that one wonders about the intended audience.
He claims to be writing for advertising industry professionals and intelligent laymen as well as scholars. But that seems inconsistent with the lengthy explanations of Ayn Rand
’s epistemological theory, the proliferation of Objectivist terminology and buzzwords, and the like. A reader unfamiliar with Rand is likely to be perplexed by the frequent references to “intrinsicism,” Kant, and “the primacy of consciousness.” For such a reader, large parts of the book may appear unfamiliar and difficult, and he may become discouraged and abandon it, which would be a shame. Or a reader might mistakenly assume that he must accept Objectivism
in its entirety in order to be persuaded by the author’s conclusions about advertising.
Kirkpatrick states that he was obligated to supply the complete philosophical foundation for his arguments and conclusions, and that necessitated a lengthy discussion of Objectivism
. To some extent, I’m sympathetic to this view. Many superficial writers never identify the principles, if any, underlying their positions. Still, not everything necessitates Objectivism
as a prerequisite. As one commentator wryly noted, the Founding Fathers were able to give us some pretty good ideas—and they had zero knowledge of Objectivism
What approach might the author have taken? He could have briefly outlined the basic principles of Objectivism
, sufficient to ensure that readers understood the foundations of his ideas and arguments, and then referred them to the bibliography. Or perhaps the “deeper” material could have been included in an appendix, where it would have been available but optional. Or maybe this should have been two
But enough quibbling. In Defense of Advertising
gives us, perhaps for the first time, a proper moral
, not merely “practical,” justification for advertising, just as Ayn Rand
did for capitalism and egoism. In that light, my largely structural objections are relatively minor. This is a book well worth reading—one that fully lives up to its advertised claims.