Thursday, April 3, 2008


In an earlier post, I went after sexual stuff in advertising. It's time to move on to food. The following argument is valid:

  1. It is wrong to intentionally make someone feel inappropriate hunger. (Premise)
  2. Some food advertising intentionally makes people feel inappropriate hunger. (Premise)
  3. Some food advertising is wrong. (By (1) and (2))
Inappropriate hunger is basically hunger when one is not in need of food.[note 1] I don't know for sure that (2) is true, but it seems plausible—certainly food advertising can make one feel inappropriate hunger, and it would be surprising if this weren't intetional. Premise (1) is surely close to the truth at least. Maybe it needs some qualifier like "prima facie", or maybe there is a lack of consent condition that needs to be added (it seems plausible that it is permissible to do medical research where inappopriate hunger is induced in consenting subjects). But I suspect that even if one appropriately qualifies (1), this will not affect the application here. That something like (1) holds seems to be a clear consequence of the fact that either hunger in general or at least inappropriate hunger is a bad.

I suppose few people dispute (3). The likely health consequences of some food advertising are sufficient to establish (3). But what's interesting is that this argument provides another reason, a non-consequentialistic one, to object to the advertising.

There are analogies to other kinds of induction of desire in advertising. But not all induction of desire is problematic. Induction of an appropriate desire is in itself unproblematic. Thus charity advertising that induces a desire to help the needy is not problematic (assuming there isn't something else wrong there), since a desire to help the needy is appropriate.

Let me end with a question: Suppose that advertisers limited themselves to morally licit advertising: no induction of inappropriate emotions, no false statements (and that includes not making statements about your product being better than the competitor unless you believe it on good grounds), etc. How well would advertising work then?


Heath White said...

A brief google of "history of advertising" tells me that false statements have been around forever, but the conscious plan of inducing desire where it did not before exist is a post-war phenomenon. I did run across this quote (President Calvin Coolidge, 1926):

"Advertising ministers to the spiritual side of trade. It is a great power that has been intrusted to your keeping which charges you with the high responsibility of inspiring and ennobling the commercial world. It is all part of the greater work of regeneration and redemption of mankind.”

No idolatry there, right?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, telling someone that a product will make housework easier is an induction of desire. I assume you mean "by non-rational means" or something like that?

War-time propaganda induces desires by non-rational means, and some of it qualifies as advertising in some general sense. I wonder if there is any connection between the (alleged) sprouting of desire-inducing advertising after the war, and the desire-inducing propaganda during the war.

p.s. That's an amazing quote!

Anonymous said...

I like this line of argumentation, but I confess that I don't find this argument as compelling as the last. For one, I think premise 2 is very problematic. One issue is the distinction between creating hunger in someone and appealing to someone's hunger (or affection for certain foods); when I see a commercial for, say, ice cream, I have never experienced the feeling of hunger arising where there was none previously. If anything, I become more aware of a hunger that already exists, and the hunger now has an object: ice cream.

Where I think this argument falters and the previous does not is the idea that sexually-based advertising in some way makes a person the object of my desire in an inappropriate way. When I see ice cream advertising appealingly (and I am hungry - I would not feel so if I had just finished a thoroughly satisfying meal), I think, "You know, I would like to have some ice cream." Conversely, the desire that results from sexual stimulation seems to be using that person's body as a means to satisfying a sort of sexual hunger, which I think we can agree is an inappropriate desire and hence immoral to induce upon another person.

Weird question, in that light: Suppose advertisers in the future have some sort of technology that allows them to detect when a married individual is viewing their advertising and can project an image of that person's spouse in such a manner that the image of the spouse is engaged in a sort of sexual advertising for a product. Would this be wrong? The desire itself wouldn't be inappropriate, prima facie, but I think there's still something wrong about it (besides perhaps the invasion of privacy and exploitation of one's appropriate sexual desire for one's mate - or maybe that's part of the wrongness).

To your last point - honest and equitable advertising - advertising would be a very different game. I'd have to say that advertising would become far less beneficial for many companies, especially those that rely upon gimmicks and that sort of thing to sell their products. Brand names would probably still benefit quite a bit if laws were to go on the books to ensure fairness in advertising, I'd bet.

Anonymous said...

Quick clarificatory question for you, Dr. Pruss, regarding this comment: "Induction of an appropriate desire is in itself unproblematic."

Do you think this applies to induction of sexual desires as well, or is this an example of how sexual cases are different?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yes, I do think the induction of inappropriate sexual feelings is wrong. That seems hard to dispute. Maybe you were wondering about whether the induction of appropriate sexual feelings is wrong. Here, I guess, I want to say it may depend on context and means, and also on the sense of "appropriate."

Generally, I think there are a lot of objections to use of sex in advertising. One objection is due to non-consensual manipulation of the viewer's sexuality. Another is due to the objectification of persons depicted. And yet another is due to the inappropriateness of using love and the sacred for commercial gain (a thesis prohibiting this would need to be carefully formulated; there is nothing wrong with making money from Viagra, for instance).

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

Premise one seems problematic, at least to the extent that inappropriate hunger means being hungry when one doesn't need food. Depending on how strictly we construe "need" the premise will either be false (because it would rule out too much), or it will be inapplicable (because it will turn out never to be the case that one is hungry when one doesn't need food). Perhaps there is some non-arbitrary middle position, but if so this needs to be spelled out.

I also have questions about Premise 2. The fact that you say only that "some" food advertising is designed to induce inappropriate hunger makes it hard to deny flat out, but I would think examples of such advertising, if they exist, are probably quite rare. In general the purpose of food advertising is not to make you run out and buy whatever is advertised immediately upon seeing the ad. The point of the ad is not to induce hunger, but to make it such that when you do get hungry, the advertised food is what you choose to eat.