Americans have very different attitudes towards advertising. Some see it as promoting a richer lifestyle through providing information about the remarkable choices available to consumers.

But advertising also causes anxiety across the political spectrum. There is continuing concern that modern innovations in advertising have somehow tipped the balance of power between the firm and the person, resulting in irresistible manipulation. In previous eras, motivation research and subliminal advertising were the powerful innovations. Today it is highly tailored ads based upon tracking of past behavior.

Advertisers stoke these anxieties by making dramatic claims about these innovations—but they are, after all, advertisers selling advertising. In hindsight we know claims about motivation research were inflated and that the subliminal claims were a hoax. In general, when advertisers focus on the methods of selling and describe a power to sell anything to anyone, it triggers anxiety about autonomy, and thus calls for rules of the advertising road.

Some think that advertising is wasteful in that it adds expense to products; that it promotes materialism and superficial values; that it creates “false needs;” that it focuses on brand loyalty instead of upon comparative characteristics; that is relies upon emotional rather than reasoned appeals; that it increases barriers to entry; that it promotes monopoly; that it corrupts the independence of media; that is corrupts the young; that it is too repetitive, loud, or interruptive; and that it is tasteless or aesthetically objectionable.

[1] Some of these critiques are at times correct. But the more difficult question surrounds what can be done about these problems and the collective harm to the economy that might result.[2] Some interventions have perverse outcomes.

Adding to the complexity is that in most consumers’ minds, aesthetic, value-judgments, and annoyance with ubiquity of advertising are probably the most objectionable features of marketing. How should regulators, if at all, police the these dimensions of advertising? Subject to the limits imposed by obscenity laws and prohibitions on advertising illegal activity, we have to live with offensive advertising in most cases.

Students of the Commission must understand that the FTCA does not concern itself with general, ideological objections to advertising. Sometimes activist groups take up the FTCA to air objections to advertising generally, but they must find some hook in deception or unfairness to establish a legal basis for intervention.

[1] A pair of works by Professor Inger Stole Advertising on Trial: Consumer Activism and Corporate Public Relations in the 1930s (History of Communication) (2006) and Advertising at War: Business, Consumers, and Government in the 1940s (History of Communication) (2012) describe an era where there was seemingly much more skepticism of advertising’s value, but in modern times, it is clear that advertising is much more fully embraced as a useful economic tool and as part of the fabric of American life. For modern responses to consumerist advertising critiques, see William L. Wilkie & Elizabeth S. Moore, A Larger View of Marketing: Marketing’s Contributions to Society; and Y. Hugh Furuhashi & E. Jerome McCarthy, Social Issues of Marketing in the American Economy, both of which appear in Marketing and the Common Good (Patrick E. Murphy & John F. Sherry, Jr., eds., 2014). For a spirited and brief response to these critiques, see David Ogilvy’s essay, Should Advertising Be Abolished?, in Confessions of an Advertising Man (1963).

[2] For a spirited defense of advertising and the evils of its regulation, see Lowell Mason, The Language of Dissent 166-168 (1959).