As dominating shapers of public opinion, one would think advertisers strive to be a non-destructive force within their own culture. In today’s highly divisive world that may be hard to believe, but where does the madness begin?

“Goodwill” is simply acknowledging the impact of one’s own choices from a wider perspective. Every action has a reaction, so making a point to think ahead and avoid foreseen harm goes with the altruistic territory.

When it comes to human interaction, acting individuals are much more likely to bear the burden of negative effects ricocheting from their inflicted harm upon others. That said, advertisers—akin to corporations, organizations and government—are often more removed from personal damage resulting from campaign messages. It’s hard to pinpoint how obligated they are to act in goodwill regarding audiences, so…

Enter: The Golden Mean

Aristotle’s Theory of Virtue Ethics focuses on the moderate means between two extremes. Excess causes distress on both ends of the spectrum, so finding a “just right” balance will yield the most virtuous path.

Identically “sweet spots” relate to assessing how effective a message is on the ad-oriented scale.

If people see an ad as too negative, shock for the sake of shock, tasteless or destructive, they’ll criticize and mentally shut it down. On the flip side, ads so radically positive can seem unrealistic, exaggerated and dishonest, leading audiences to discredit and shut them down just the same.

Efficiency lies in equilibrium; Ads that touch viewers on both sides of the subject to make a valid point and get them thinking will always have the greatest, most socially-responsible impact.

Prime examples surround advertising’s recent takes on body image.

Transcending age, gender and social status, distorted self-perception brings out a unique social sensitivity. An increasingly hot topic, it has consequentially raised interesting ethical questions regarding media-backed messages.

Destructive Negativity:

Strong4Life, an anti-childhood obesity movement in Georgia, made headlines in 2011 and 2012 with a highly controversial series of billboards and commercials. The depressing photos and “fat”-based plays on words may have struck a thoughtful chord with some, but distastefully targeting vulnerable, youth audiences makes a far more potentially damaging statement.

Insightful wham or unhelpful slam? – via bodies in focus.com
Insightful wham or unhelpful slam? – via bodiesinfocus.com

Other hyper-negative advertising includes Pretzel Crisps posters featuring “pro-anorexic” innuendos and the Victoria’s Secret “The Perfect Body” campaign, pushing an unrealistic, single beauty standard.

Sensationalized shock value may quickly garner the most attention, but questionable tactics can end advertisers with more harm than help.

The Golden Mean:

Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” launched in 2004 to counteract mounting promotion of senseless beauty standards. Featuring a variety of ages and body types, the decade-plus initiative has resonated with millions of women to effectively transform beauty into ”a source of confidence, not anxiety.”

“Widening the definition of beauty” - via Dyaksov.com
“Widening the definition of beauty” – via Dyaksov.com

Countless commercials, print ads, PR events and online videos comprise the shining example of “Golden Mean” approach. Crafting genuine, down-to-earth messages to continuously touch upon a basic though vital point is the campaign’s key. Regardless of how much viewers subscribe to media-fueled distortions of body image, Dove’s pieces strategically present information in ways that can get anyone at least pondering the issue, if not instantaneously convinced.

Positivity Pushing Dishonesty:

Pros and cons are attached to almost everything. Advertisers may choose to focus on one side, but the other’s existence cannot be denied.

When an ad’s message is so forcefully positive, audiences are likely to question the legitimacy of its claims. Unrelated to body image, yet still a clear case in point: The “death-cheating” health benefits of POM Wonderful juice.

Literally life saving…really? - via The Guardian
Actually life saving…really? – via The Guardian

Just like individuals, advertisers greatly vary in how obligated they feel to cater their craft in socially responsible manners. While a standard cannot be set (much less enforced), they should not perpetuate already tricky and unnecessarily destructive cultural issues, such as unrealistic body image.

While you can’t change wrongful acts taken by fellow ad professionals, you can make a conscious effort to honor your valued audiences. Examples of what not to do can be just as useful, so let no lessons go to waste.

Taking the more virtuous path will reap far greater benefits for advertising forces in the long run.

Altruistic veins may pump through a perfect world, but we’re far from that picturesque ideal. He who persuades has the power, so we can all do respectively right by our audiences through responsible communication on collective as well as individual levels.

(Featured image via Premier Business Experts and Obafuntay.com)

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