Wanted: saints in advertising Ethics: Vatican document on ethics in advertising calls on industry to be truthful

Sun Journal

and when attracting consumers, avoid seducing them.

November 11, 1997|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Archbishop John P. Foley, the Vatican's point man on communications, stood before a roomful of advertising executives last week at Baltimore's Belvedere Hotel and called on them to be saints.

In order to uphold high moral standards of truthfulness and social responsibility, he said, those who work in the advertising industry might have to make sacrifices.

"Thus we hope that the advertising industry may produce its share of saints. We also foresee it may produce its occasional martyr," said Foley, a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism and the former editor of the diocesan newspaper in Philadelphia. "So be good advertisers," he said. "And be saints."

Foley, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Social Communications, was in town to speak on a recent Vatican document on ethics in advertising. Three years in the making, it is the most comprehensive word on the subject ever issued from the Holy See. Given the widespread cynicism much of American public holds toward advertising and advertisers, does Foley expect to be taken seriously?

"When I say 'Be saints,' I'm not trying to be funny," he says, "but to say we should be all that we can be personally. We're all called upon to be saints, including advertising professionals, in that they should never compromise their principles. They should never be dishonest. They should never lie. They should never attempt to seduce. They can attempt to attract, but not to seduce two very different things.

"And I think that establishes greater confidence in all of society. Because one of the problems about advertising, whether it's commercial or it's political, is that people tend to say you can't believe it. And that creates a widespread cynicism. So the only way you overcome cynicism is with integrity."

Positive stressed

Although the Vatican document does criticize some aspects of the advertising industry -- particularly when it bends the truth or appeals to a crass consumerism -- its first word is positive. Advertising "has significant potential for good, and sometimes it is realized," the document says.

"Advertising can play an important role in the process by which an economic system guided by moral norms and responsive to the common good contributes to human development," it says. Political advertising "can make its contribution by informing people about the ideas and policy proposals of parties and candidates, including new candidates not previously known to the public."

And some ads are just fun to watch. "Advertising can brighten lives simply by being witty, tasteful and entertaining," the document says.

But when advertising is used, not just to inform, but to persuade and motivate consumers, many of its excesses occur, according to Foley.

"I find it very difficult to understand ads which seem to have nothing to do with the product that's being sold," he says. "You see a naked body and then they give a brand name. Well, what are they selling? I think it's demeaning to the human person. It's using individuals just as sex objects. It isn't indicating the quality of the product or the durability of the product."

The poor called susceptible

Pope John Paul II has been very critical during his pontificate of the consumerism of the West, and the document on advertising reflects that sentiment, warning of advertising's "corrupting influence upon culture and cultural values," particularly on the poor and on developing nations.

The Vatican document points out "the cultural injury done to [developing nations] and their peoples by advertising whose content and methods, reflecting those prevalent in the First World, are at war with sound traditional values in indigenous cultures."

"One of the great dangers in advertising," Foley says, "is to equate having things with happiness. That's the underlying danger I would say, when that really isn't what fulfills us.

"And that can be really frustrating for those who have no money, for the poor, children [and those] who feel left out, who feel like second-class citizens because they don't have the latest 'in' thing. And I think that's a very seductive and misleading message, that having is happiness."

Some political advertising is singled out by the document for criticism, particularly when its cost limits political participation to the wealthy, or when candidates use ads to distort the views and records of their opponents.

One solution would be for electronic media outlets to offer free air time for candidates, Foley says. "I know it's difficult in our society where you have one market which has so many people who are running for office," he says. "But the idea that you can't have access to the media unless you buy time -- and once you buy time, you attack your opponent -- I think that leads to great cynicism and distrust of the whole political process."

Regulation advocated

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