“Ask a Priest: Should a Christian Work in Advertising?”

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Q: I have recently got the chance to maybe work as a copywriter in an advertising agency. I needed to learn as much as I could about copywriting. Most tutorials always seem to focus on manipulating and tricking people into buying products. I, however, think it could be done in a more transparent and honest way. While I was making this decision, I came across some article that stated that a Christian shouldn’t work in this field, as deception in some level is required when trying to sell something. I know this seems over the top, as I’m sure most places use certain ethics when creating ads. But I tend to have scrupulous tendencies. Should I be as bothered as I am? Aren’t there other Christians working in the advertising field? -M.H.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Advertising has elements that range from the good to the bad to the ugly. Should you be concerned about the ethics of advertising? Yes. Does that mean you need to avoid advertising altogether? No.

As with other things dealing with moral issues in the real world, we need prudence. We also need ideals that guide us and help us improve the moral climate around us.

Advertising can be a hothouse for manipulative practices, no doubt. Many advertisers would openly admit that. Some even pride themselves on honing the skills of manipulation. Others would simply shrug and say, “What’s the big deal? Whatever it takes to sell a product is OK … that is what we are paid for.”

But advertising can have a genuinely positive side. The Pontifical Council for Social Communications, in its 1997 document “Ethics in Advertising”, said that “advertising can be a useful tool for sustaining honest and ethically responsible competition that contributes to economic growth in the service of authentic human development.”

So where does all this leave you? Perhaps a few points are worth considering.

Advertising is a wide field. Some is good, some is not so good. Ad firms adhere to varying standards of ethics and tastes. The key is to ask whether the specific firm you would be working with is basically ethical.

Among the questions you could ask are: What kind of values and standards do its managers embrace? What is the work environment like? How do the staffers talk about their audiences? Are they out to simply manipulate people? Or are the staffers motivated by a sense that they are helping businesses reach customers with genuinely helpful products and services?

Does the firm produce ads that are generally tasteful? Or are the ads sexually suggestive or otherwise morally offensive? What kind of clients does the firm have? Do the clients peddle immodest clothing or other objectionable products? Or do the clients have a reputation for unfair work practices?

All these factors could figure in on your job decision.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you can only join a “perfect” ad firm. If perfection were a criterion for our accepting a job offer, most of us would be facing a long unemployment.

Christians are called to leaven in the world. If you enter advertising, you should see it as a field in which you are called to be leaven. You could aim to imbue a Christian outlook into your office and into the principles that guide a firm. By helping your colleagues to keep the true welfare of people in mind, you could help the firm make a positive contribution to society.

Maybe that sounds too idealistic. But the Church believes that any kind of social communication – advertising included – can serve a genuine public good.

For now, you might want to read “Ethics in Advertising” and take all this to prayer. See where the Holy Spirit is leading you.

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