Ethics in Advertising

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, people are confronted with the enormity of the Doctors actions. The “I have a dream speech” is remembered as one of the most powerful speeches to encapsulate the civil rights movement. On August 28, 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to millions of Americans on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. MLK spoke to the millions that marched about struggle and perseverance, about the importance of faith and non-violence. King’s speech resonated with the millions that attended and will be remembered for many years to come. “I have a dream” is in part so powerful because of how emotional it is. MLK spoke from his heart and from his personal experience. Emotion, however, is understood to be a powerful component to public speaking and persuasion in general. It is for this reason that marketing and advertising works to illicit an emotional response in the viewer. Now this doesn’t mean that the “I have a dream speech” is at risk of getting hijacked for marketing gains or that we can expect to see it in advertisements. We must however take time to acknowledge the ethical aspect of emotional ads.

12 years a slave

Here we have a movie ad for the critically acclaimed film 12 Years a Slave. The movie takes place in pre-Civil War United States, and focuses on a free African American man who is abducted and sold into slavery. The hardships he endures are demoralizing, taking the film into deep emotional waters. On top of the piece’s obvious ties to the subject and content of King’s widely celebrated speech, the ad for the film took things a step further with implementing bits and pieces of the actual audio into the movie preview.  But doesn’t this raise the question of ethics in these ads? Is it moral to use something as real and as powerful as King’s speech to pull at the heart strings and promote one’s product or service?  With so many variables, the answer’s complexity leaves room for argument on both sides!

Pathos is a rhetorical appeal and universal form of persuasion that successfully gains the audience’s attention by appealing to the emotions. How many times are we motivated to support something simply because we find it to be “pathetic”? Organizations such as UNICEF, ASPCA, and the Humane Society seek donations by sharing shockingly emotional campaigns. Although we are free to advertise ourselves, our beliefs, and our ideas as we please, the thought of having to guilt someone into believing us appears unethical. As mentioned, 12 Years a Slave uses excerpts of “I Have a Dream” to capture viewer’s attention and obtain financial gain. The film industry is not a charity, non-profit organization, or public relations event… so does it seem to be deliberately toying with our feelings to gain another purchased ticket. Some might argue that with freedom of speech, these persuasive methods are ethical and simply a method to gain our attention, particularly if they are used for the non-profit organizations who seek to benefit society. What do you think? Is it ethical to buy our emotions for financial gain? Is it even ethical to buy our support for others in financial gain?

-Jami Taylor, Ty Thomas, Austin Johnson