Advertising. Ethics for Everybody?

In his book Goods: Advertising, Urban Space, and the Moral Law of the Image, Italian Philosopher Emanuele Coccia reads advertising as a collective imagination of The Good Life. What are the benefits of that perspective? Take everything at face value and act accordingly.


Advertising sucks, that is the mild description. It is noisy, follows you everywhere and constantly unloads an imagery of falsehoods upon you. Meeting a commercial is like talking to a person you cannot trust. The person’s interest is purely strategical, there is no open discourse, only purpose: to make me buy something. And that makes it unethical.

We have learned that by heart, so we automatically raise our defense — consisting of  indifference, incredulity and distrust — whenever an advertisement crosses our perception. A large part of my brain says this is the right way to deal with it. But other parts tell me that despite all my efforts, I am still receptive to the statements and images I am being presented with.

If advertising is ubiquitous, there should be a different way of dealing with it. Switch from defense to offense, from passive to active.

Advertising: a moral inventory

By fighting off advertisements, we put ourselves at the center of attention. I am the target of an advertisement, all I see is the struggle that unfolds between me and the signage that tries to engage me. Italian philosopher Emanuele Coccia is trying to shift this perspective by looking at marketing as if it were a „moral discourse“. Which means advertising is just an infinite sequence of various statements about the world. 

By processing advertisements, our society is trying to figure out what the good life is all about. Each product, each advertisement is making a statement about itself, how it is built into the world and why it should be purchased — and then it’s the customer’s turn. How do you decide what to buy? Price point? Quality? Circumstances of production? The lifestyle promises created by marketing departments?

These decisions come in huge numbers and leave signifcant traces for the forensics of your life. Your ethics are readable (be it for yourself or Big Data). According to Coccia, advertising is about the knowledge of Good and Evil. I’d like to add that you, as a consumer, reinstate the respective aspects of that knowledge with every transaction you make. Advertising is, in itself, a constant fight about what is right and what is wrong, and you participate in that fight.

Everybody is a Target

As such, advertising is probably the largest public discourse on morals and ethics. The vast majority of advertising is accessible for everybody. Although there might be a wide range of expensive products you can’t buy, you can still look at its ads, regardless of your education, wealth, gender, race, class, age.

Obviously, advertising creates, circulates and reinforces any conceivable injustice, sexism and racism. (Even worse: you have to admit that these are vital parts of many people’s ethics). The point being: despite huge differences between products, prices and target groups, the gestures and rhetorics of advertising have a common vector. There is no escape.

Goods, Embodiments of the Good

The backbone of advertising — the content — are the goods on display. First of all, Coccia notes that our culture „has produced a historically unsurpassed multitude and variety of objects, and even the most common, basic things have been made with historically unmatched care and attentiveness when it comes to their design and production.“ (translation mine, from German, which is itself a translation from Italian, so…)

Combined, advertising and its content work as a kind of code. The discourse, in a feedback loop, generates new goods. Each product is a result of previous iterations and the discourse, an embodiment of goodness at a specific point in time. Advertising, then, puts the good on display so everybody may hear its message. And a new cycle begins.

So the actual messengers of Good are the goods. But to their formation, advertising is essential, for it delivers context and attribution. Without it, goods would be dull things. 

Sinnangebote für Dinge

From mimesis to proposition

The question remains: how can advertising be about morals when its aim is to sell, when insincerity is a structural given. Coccia’s succinct reply is that „truth is not needed for moral imagination. To think about goodness and fortune, it is not obliged to believe in what it sees or says.“ Advertising simply deals with a „different, higher world, which is more intense than the one we are living in.“

In other words, advertising dreams goodness and places it as demand. As with every virtuecrat, its normative gesture is annoying. However, this small shift in perspective transforms a problem of rightful representation (of truth, life, reality) into a bundle of different and debatable subjects such as political, aesthetical or environmental problems. 

In this regard, advertising is not about the past or the present, but about the future. Where is this product, this company headed to? What is it about to do? Asking whether a product is really good is not about realism, but about its attitude and approach to the world.

The Ad is the Product

The biggest problem with Coccia’s stance of advertising as moral discourse is the absence of negation. Ads are based on images and their obligation to say yes. A proper discourse would provide a possibility for saying no. Not here.

This is where you, the customer, enter the stage. Ask yourself: how many times did you buy a product although you were repelled by its ad? Agencies thrive on slogans like „there is no bad publicity“ when they should not. You are required to look more closely at what they are showing off.

The new deal is: advertising not only presents a product, it is a vital part of said product. When buying (or not), I vote for (or against) both. Decent marketing is a mandatory requirement. You do not comply, you do not get my money. And, dear companies: since you are so eager to get ratings and reviews, how about a feedback channel regarding your ads?