Advertising is evil by default

Advertising sets out to subvert the will of the public: it is, therefore, evil by default. I recognise that it is possible to mitigate this in various ways, so as to avoid that evil: but you must make the case for every advertisment's exemption from this default judgement.

It does, sometimes, happen that someone seeing an advertisement is thereby made aware of a product or service that actually would benefit them, of which they were previously unaware. When this happens, it's possible that the advertisement is good. It isn't guaranteed: there may be something better for them, that they haven't found out about, that would make the advertisement redundant and, indeed, harmful – by keeping them from recognising the benefits of the better option. All the same, it does arise, sometimes that an advertisement leads to a good outcome.

Of course, we all have our business to be about; and need to connect to those with whom we can do business; so we need to make known our availability to play our parts in that. Announcing one's business, to bring it to the attention of others, is a proper part of doing that business. One must therefore be permitted to announce one's business; and this may be described as advertising. To the extent that it is done honestly, with a clear intent to enable others to fairly judge whether it is in their interests to connect with one's business, this is a decent and respectable part of doing business. All the same, any time a client is brought in by this, whose interests are ill served by doing business with you, the attempt to advertise your business has done harm. We may forgive you any charge of evil in this if you have honestly taken diligent efforts to avoid it, but the hazard of causing this harm implies a duty to take such care, neglect of which is indeed evil, just like neglecting to keep a dangerous animal or machine from doing unwarranted harm, when one keeps one (for some decent and proper purpose, of course – for example, a guard dog).

However, the mere notice of availability for business is not what most folk mean when they speak of advertising, much less when they complain of it; though it formally is an example of the category, and those who advertise in the more usual sense are eager to justify the category by this example, what folk usually mean by advertising is the business of trying to drum up extra custom, beyond that arising from those who seek you out. It is thrust into the attention of anyone the advertiser can even begin to hope might be a plausible customer, without regard to how many others are exposed to it in the attempt to reach these, and it is crafted to maximise the number of purchases of what it advertises; it does not maximise the number of good hits, only of hits. The advertiser's only concern, in wasting the time of those who are exposed to the advertisement and not interested in what's offered, is the added cost of exposing those folk to it; the waste of their time is not the advertiser's problem. The advertiser is as happy to make a sale to someone with no actual use for the product as in making a sale to someone who desperately needed it; indeed, the latter would likely have found the product, given only the mere publicising of availability described above, without the advertiser's intervention, so the former is more to be valued, as a sale gained, than the latter. The latter (with such needs as would have lead them to a supplier) is less apt to gain the advertiser's client income, after all.

The advertisement meets its intended goal even if most of those who, as a result of the advertisement, buy the product or service advertised are, in fact, harmed by so doing. That intended goal is the outcome the advertising agency sells to the provider of the goods and services they could advertise. The advertiser's goal is to maximise revenues, not benefit to the public. Of course, members of the public for whom the advertised product or service is a genuine benefit are an easy audience to reach; but they would most likely have found the product in any case (although they might have found it from a competitor; in which case we must consider whether that was a better outcome) and, when that is a small audience, the advertiser can be more effective by reaching some broader audience. If there is some broad audience whose wills are easily swayed, an advertiser is better able to sway that audience than to recruit purchasers who genuinely benefit from the advertised product or service. As it happens, humans have some fairly well-understood cognitive failings that make most of us fairly easy to fool, with the result that there is a broad audience of folk whose wills are easily swayed, regardless of whether they benefit from that swaying. Furthermore, whether advertising to those who benefit from that which is advertised or not, an advertiser can be more effective by exploiting those cognitive biases; and advertising is lucrative, so those biases have been well-studied, along with the ways to exploit them. (The ways to subvert them or immunise the public against them have received, proportionately, little funding.) Advertising's stated goal isn't necessarily tied to doing good (or evil) but, thanks to humanitiy's well-studied cognitive biases, it is apt to be incidentally prone to doing evil.

Even when the advertiser doesn't consciously abuse the well-studied cognitive biases of humanity, advertisements which unconsciously do so tend to be more effective; and an advertiser who has seen others' advertisements, that exploit those biases, is apt to come up with ideas that unwittingly exploit them in similar ways. Those who craft such advertisements will, thanks to their effectiveness, be rewarded in the market for advertising, prosper and do more of the same; consequently, the advertising industry, as a whole, is rife with such acts of evil. Unless the advertiser scrupulously studies the known cognitive biases of folk so as to take care to avoid abusing them in formulating advertisements, the results shall corrupt the will of at least some of the public; which is a harm to the common weal.

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