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Advertising is Immoral

Peter Gildenhuys says many adverts are saturated with sophistry.

The American burger chain Hardee’s is frequently criticised for its ads featuring hyper-sexualized women. Using sex to sell burgers however is not the only way to go wrong when persuading people to buy things. All advertisers are persuaders, but it’s possible to go about persuasion in either morally legitimate or morally illegitimate ways. Here I want to argue that nearly all advertisements are immoral.

Usually, when advertising is immoral, it is immoral in the way that lying is immoral. We say too simply that ‘lying is wrong’. We mean that it is wrong by default. There are exceptions, but you’ve got to make the case for them. An individual act of lying may be morally permissible, even mandatory: one must lie to the Nazi officer about the Jews hiding in the attic. However, most advertising is immoral because most of it is sophistry, sophistry is generally wrong, and the circumstances of the production of this sophistry are unexceptional.

The Sophists, in ancient Greece, were wandering teachers who offered instruction on a wide variety of subjects, including philosophy and also rhetoric. According to Plato’s dialogues, Socrates didn’t really get on with them, partly because unlike him they charged money for their teachings. A common charge was that in teaching rhetoric they were teaching people how to make weaker arguments seem stronger and more persuasive – a very useful skill if you are in politics or pursuing a case in the Athenian law courts, but a positive menace if your main concern is the disinterested pursuit of truth. From this has come the modern sense of a sophist as someone who tries to slickly persuade people of something without caring about the truth or falsity of their claim or whether what they say should persuade. Lying and sophistry are deeply analogous. When we lie to people, we try to get them to believe what they should not believe, and when we act as sophists, we try to persuade them by what should not persuade them.

The practice of sophistry is immoral for the same reason that lying is immoral. Lies and sophistry both involve taking advantage of people, manipulating them, treating them as though they were mere objects and not people with intrinsic value and integrity. We must not for our personal benefit willfully disregard the fact that there are things that are right and good for people to think, do, and be. We do just this when we lie, and when we practice sophistry. In each case, we aim to make something the case which should not be the case.

© Cecilia Mou 2022

The Messi Truth

The soccer star Lionel Messi is a sophist, whether he realises it or not. He appears in ads for Pepsi products. These ads use Messi’s celebrity to persuade people to buy Pepsi. Surely Messi knows that a picture of him flexing his muscles next to a Pepsi logo doesn’t constitute an argument for buying the product? But there he is, flexing away, just the same.

People may say I am being unfair to Messi: they may remind me that I don’t know what’s in his head. Perhaps Messi does believe that people ought to be persuaded to buy Pepsi products by the ads in which he appears. So perhaps I may not allege Messi to be a sophist without better knowledge of Messi’s views on what should and should not be persuasive.

Taken to an extreme, this sort of objection risks making accusations of sophistry, as well as accusations of lying, impossible. But we must sometimes make measured allegations about what others think, like one does in a court of law.

Out of a desire to be scrupulously fair, I will withdraw my contention that Messi is a sophist, pending further investigation. Instead, let’s suppose that he is a Socratic Interlocutor – someone willing to be convinced by good reasoning. I will do Messi the honor of treating him as someone who would be prevented neither by pride, nor anger, nor pecuniary incentives, from recognizing his own wrongdoing or ignorance. (In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates’ interlocutors do not generally meet this standard; but Socrates’ treatment of them makes clear that this is the standard expected.)

Let’s investigate, then. Consider first the question, should one be persuaded to buy Pepsi products just because Messi appears – sometimes shirtless – next to a Pepsi logo?

Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi going a bit off-message
© ДМИТРИЙ САДОВНИКОВ 2017 Creative Commons

Clearly not. This is not because Messi’s endorsement is worthless in a general sense. He is arguably the best soccer player in the world; one would be right to trust him about all sorts of matters related to soccer. But one ought not be persuaded to buy soft drinks because firstly, Messi is not an expert nutritionist, and moreover, such experts caution against soda consumption. Drinking soda will make you look less like shirtless Messi, not more. So the ad shouldn’t persuade.

Whether Messi knows that people shouldn’t be persuaded to buy Pepsi products because of his endorsement is a more difficult question. On the one hand, this hardly seems like a borderline case of sophistry. I have little difficulty determining that Messi’s ads should not persuade. Can’t Messi tell, too? But on the other hand, it may never have crossed Messi’s mind to think of himself as being in the business of persuading people to buy products by means of techniques that should not work. He may have simply believed that endorsements are part of the package deal of athletic stardom, and thought no further about it. So, then, perhaps Messi is not a sophist – but only because it’s never occurred to him to consider whether he was one or not! But that Messi’s image ought not to persuade people to buy Pepsi products is something which any Socratic Interlocutor could easily be convinced by the sort of simple reasoning we’ve already put forward. If Messi-the-Socratic-Interlocutor is reading this now, he will doubtless withdraw his endorsement of Pepsi products forthwith.

It is easier to tag those creating the ads as sophists. Advertisers are concerned with the effectiveness of their ads, and, sadly, what does work to persuade and what should do so are not the same. Over and over again, advertisers use the same techniques – celebrity, sex, beauty, fear, shame, jingles, humor – to sell a wide variety of products. These techniques should not persuade people to buy many of these products, since they are not reflections of the product itself, and there’s little reason to think the advertisers don’t know this.

For another example of advertising sophistry, consider the car salesperson who ties balloons to a used car to sell it. Tying balloons to cars is a tried-and-tested technique for boosting car sales. Here we can be confident that the salesperson knows that balloons should not persuade someone to purchase a car. She works at a car dealership, is an expert of what makes cars more or less valuable, must constantly value them accurately to do her job well, and would never herself purchase a car just because it has any number of balloons tied to it. Indeed, here we see a good test for advertising sophistry: Would you allow yourself to be persuaded by the technique, given the choice? To shackle oneself to a persuasive technique is to take a risk to act without good reasons. But we must aspire to be the sort of people who surrender to argument, as good Socratic Interlocutors do.

Advertising that is not sophistry is possible, but it would be almost unrecognizable. A video ad that was just a descriptive text, perhaps with some shots of the product for sale, would be permissible – depending, of course, on what the text says and the shots are like. But ads of this sort are vanishingly rare.


Many podcasters promote commercial products on their podcasts. Are they all sophists? Here, the situation is more nuanced.

Let us confront Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer and Tommy Vietor about their promotion of a home security system on their podcast Pod Save America. The promotion is clearly meant to cause people to purchase the system, and the podcasters would no doubt concede that their promotion is meant to be persuasive. Can the rest of the case for sophistry be made here?

Let us first allow that the podcasters constrain themselves to tell only the truth about the product they promote. Still, should their audience be persuaded by the podcasters’ assertion that a particular security system is “the right way to protect your home”? I submit the answer is no. The podcasters say exclusively positive things about the product, which is bound to give only a partial picture of its features. A biased and partial picture of a home security system should not persuade anyone that it is the right way to protect their home. Moreover, the podcasters have likely made no effort to evaluate the product themselves. Even if they had done so, they are hardly home security systems experts engaged in thorough assessments of their relative value. For an actually useful more reliable evaluation, the Pod Save America promotion can be helpfully contrasted with the review of the same system in Wirecutter, the New York Times product review website. Rachel Cericola, the author of the review, tested not only this one but also several other home security systems. She has over ten years of experience writing about home technology systems. She cites her sources. If nothing else, she is not paid by a home security company to say what she does about its product. Were she ever discovered to be taking money from the firms whose products she reviews, her credibility and authority would instantly be destroyed. The reason for this is simple: assessments paid for by a firm to evaluate its own products cannot be trusted.

May we condemn the Pod Save America podcasters as sophists, then? Let us be no less fair to them than we were to Messi. Socratic interlocutors could easily be persuaded that their promotion falls short of what should be ethically persuasive. I doubt, as I did with Messi, that the podcasters have much contemplated the ethics of their promotions, but they would surely come around to our view.

If, in order to be honest, podcasters and other broadcasters must live up to the standards of a professional product reviewer, then should we not condemn all who promote products on their shows without those standards?

Doing so risks going too far. The salesperson who hawks her wares by loudly declaring their characteristics and prices is no sophist; but neither is she offering an impartial, thorough review. Similarly, a podcaster paid to say nothing but true things about a product is little more than a salesperson’s microphone. So if the salesperson is no sophist, then neither is the podcaster. The question of which broadcasters are sophists turns on what, exactly, they say. A broadcaster who non-deceptively announces only value-enhancing features of a product does no wrong, even if they mean to cause people to buy the product. They might defend themselves from the allegation of sophistry by saying, “I mean to supply people with premises for reasoning about the product I’m promoting by declaring true facts about it. I am neither obliged to say true things about the product that detract from its value, nor obliged to say all the true things about the product that are relevant to its value. That may not even be possible, since customers vary in what they value. I could not reasonably be expected to supply all the premises my listeners could use in reasoning about whether they should purchase the product. Instead, finding out from me that ‘Safe House’ [let’s call it] is easy to use might prompt a listener who had been hesitant to buy a home security system to further research the product and then ultimately buy it. Someone who is being persuaded to buy the product in this sort of way is not being manipulated, but is instead being respected as a full-fledged rational person. I persuaded them by something that should be persuasive: premises in an argument.” The broadcaster might also acknowledge that their promotion might cause naive individuals to purchase the product by a route not involving judicious reasoning. Still, they may insist that such a possibility does not undermine her entitlement to supply her listeners with premises for their reasoning about whether to purchase the product. It’s the naive listener who is on the hook for allowing herself to be carried along in the way she has.

So the Pod Save America podcasters do nothing wrong when they inform their audience that ‘Safe House’ is easy to use; but they start to stray when they proclaim that it is “the right way to protect your home.” They mean to persuade their audience of this; but their audience should in no way find this proclamation persuasive just because they say it. Moreover, this endorsement taints the other merely descriptive claims they make. Indeed, the claim that ‘Safe House’ is the right way for anyone listening to Pod Save America to protect their home is nakedly false as a generalisation. Pod Save America has many listeners, and for some, the right way for them to protect their home is a dog.

Sophistry & Sophistication

It might be objected that my position must be flawed because it condemns such a wide swath of practices. Not only is nearly all visual or radio advertising sophistry, but many of my favorite podcasters are also sophists. Salespeople face strong incentives to engage in sophistry; and sophistry is arguably an institutional requirement for trial lawyers. How then could such a common practice be immoral?

Well, how could such an immoral practice be so common?

Part of the explanation of the pervasiveness of sophistry is normalisation: we have grown so accustomed to it that it fails to trigger moral alarm. But more needs to be said about how things got this way in the first place.

One immediate reason why advertising remains common despite its often immoral character, is that advertising is not necessarily sophistry. As we noted, one may broadcast information about a product intended to persuade consumers to purchase it without engaging in sophistry, at least in the case when one is supplying one’s audience with (what ones thinks are) true premises for reasoning. The possibility of ethical advertising makes a blanket prohibition on all advertising problematic. It also provides cover for sophists.

Another reason why sophistry in advertising is pervasive is no doubt that it is difficult to police. Partly this is because sophistry is doubly relative. Sophistry is relative to the persuader’s attitudes, just as lying is relative to a speaker’s attitudes. It is also relative to the content the persuader means to persuade us of.

Considering the first type of relativity first: persuaders vary in attitude about what should be persuasive and how persuasive it ought to be, and only some of them enter into sophistry. They will also differ as to what actually is sophistry. The persuader-relativity of sophistry makes it harder to police due to there being no universal, shared standard that could be used to sort legitimate from illegitimate persuasive techniques. Still, we Socratic Interlocutors may agree about some practices. On trial for his life, Socrates himself refused to placate or supplicate the jury. The Athenians are ungrateful, he said, and pleading for your life is humiliating. Being pled to is humiliating. And both are humiliating because pleading is sophistry, and sophistry is wrong, and everyone knows it, so begging at a trial ought never be convincing.

Defendants at trial may no longer supplicate, but other persuasion techniques are more difficult to police because whether they ought to be convincing depends on what they are meant to be convincing of. This is the second sort of relativity I mentioned: the relativity of sophistry to persuasive content. Rodney King’s beating by Los Angeles police in 1991 was filmed from a nearby balcony by a bystander who then sent the footage to the local TV station. At the subsequent trial, the officers’ defense attorneys kept replaying the footage of the beating in slow motion. After a while, it looks less severe that way, and its victim less compliant. Of course, viewing slow motion footage ought not convince you of such things, and the attorneys no doubt knew what they were doing. But showing slow motion footage is not always sophistry. It might be honestly used to persuade us of something that can only be recognized when the video is slowed down. Here we see how the relativity of sophistry to content makes a blanket prohibition on some persuasive techniques difficult – even techniques often used as sophistry.

A determination of whether any given instance of persuasion is immoral also exhibits a third sort of relativity: relativity to exceptional circumstances. Consider how O.J. Simpson’s lawyer Barry Scheck might plead that his persuasion is permissible. Scheck knows how induction works: he knows that the plausibility of a case mounts and falls as evidence is discovered and discredited, bringing rational credence along with it. He also knows that when part of case against a defendant falls apart, much of the rest still stands. But you would not know he knew these things judging by the analogy he made between the prosecution’s case and ‘roach-infested spaghetti’. Perhaps Scheck might justly say: “Yes, I use the analogy for its effects; it disposes the jury to pronounce my client innocent. The emotion of disgust I trigger in my listeners helps induce them to repudiate the prosecution’s whole case on the basis of my finding flaw with some aspects of it – something I recognize that one should not do with inductive arguments. But causing the jury to repudiate the prosecutor’s case is my job. Indeed, I must behave as I do to exhibit fidelity to my client’s interests. I must do all that is both legal and in my power to secure my client’s acquittal. For these reasons, my circumstances are exceptional and my conduct is permissible.”

We might indeed look upon the legal institutions that make sophists out of trial lawyers and agree that it is best to allow both prosecution and defense attorneys to persuade however they can, in the hope that their dirty tricks cancel each other out. Whether or not this is the best way to achieve a fair trial, it illustrates how condemning an action as sophistry requires us to do more than identifying it as sophistry: it requires consideration of whether the circumstances are exceptional. To take a clearer case of exceptional circumstances that make sophistry morally permissible, it would surely be appropriate to convince a Nazi officer not to search the attic for Jews by means of reasoning one knows to be false.

We face, then, a trio of difficulties when seeking to denounce an act as sophistry: sophistry is relative to persuaders’ attitudes; relative to persuasive content; and permissible in exceptional circumstances. But we must not make the mistake of thinking that the relativity of what counts as condemnable sophistry means that sophistry cannot be constrained. We similarly lack a shared understanding of what’s true, but this does not keep us from frowning upon the practice of lying, nor from applying social sanctions to those who lie without special justification. We must be ready to challenge people to defend themselves when we find them employing sophistry, and that includes advertisers.

© Peter Gildenhuys 2022

Peter Gildenhuys is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.

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