The Holy See
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"Ethics in Advertising'

Brussels, Belgium
28 October 2003


First of all, please permit me to congratulate the World Federation of Advertisers on your 50th anniversary.

Since I first became aware of this organization about 10 years ago, when we were preparing our Vatican document on "Ethics in Advertising", I have been impressed both by the professionalism and concern for integrity on the part of the staff and members of the organization with whom I have come into contact. Congratulations on the professional and ethical standards you have been setting for the advertising community for the past 50 years.

First of all, I know the tremendous good that advertising can do; and I refer not only to the public interest campaigns which are sometimes sponsored by the industry itself or by individual agencies.
I refer also to the fact that you contribute in no small way to economic, social and even moral progress.

The role of good advertising

Sound advertising makes useful products and services known; it contributes to wider employment; it educates the public; in so many ways, it contributes to raising the standard of living; it promotes understanding and tolerance.

In fact, on many occasions, I have said: "I love advertising". I read it, I look at it, I listen to it, because I'm truly interested. Because you're really trying to get people's attention, advertising is among the best communication being done in the world today:  through production values, through design, through choice of words and images. I am a fan of advertising, even though I'm not much of a consumer.

I have also said on many occasions that the Catholic Church has been engaged in advertising since the time of Jesus; we call it evangelization, or making known the Gospel, the Good News of Christ; we really believe our message; and we offer much more than a lifetime guarantee. Our promise, the promise of God, is eternal, and you can't get a better guarantee than that.

On the other hand, more than 30 years ago, the then Pontifical Commission for Social Communications, at the urging of the Bishops of the Catholic Church who had gathered at the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, issued a pastoral instruction entitled "Communio et Progressio" (Communion and Progress), in which it was said about advertising: 

"If harmful or utterly useless goods are touted to the public, if false assertions are made about goods for sale, if less than admirable human tendencies are exploited, those responsible for such advertising harm society and forfeit their good name and credibility".

"Being is better than having'

On a more profound level, I would like to discuss with you several principles and concerns.

The first principle is: Being is better than having.

There are some people who think that if they don't have the fanciest car or the latest shoes or the shirt with the correct logo, they are "out of it", not worthy of the esteem of their peers.

You and I know that "being is better than having", that our essential God-given human dignity is not based upon the possessions which we have. We also know that our dignity is enhanced not by the shirt we wear or the car we drive but by the virtues we manifest and by our authenticity and integrity.

I think you, as advertisers, face a terrible dilemma:  you obviously want to sell your product or service, but very few of you, I am convinced, want to make people feel bad or unworthy if they cannot afford to buy the product or service you are advertising.

In short, in your advertising, try not to put poor people down, even subconsciously.

Emphasize quality, emphasize efficiency, emphasize even better grooming and cleanliness and good appearance - but please do not suggest that a possession is going to make one person better than another person.

Perhaps not one of you even or ever intends to communicate that message, but that is the message which some people receive, and some young people, in particular, wind up with a very poor self image; not because of who they are but because of what they do not have or cannot afford.

Treat each person with respect

Truth is or at least should be a basic principle in advertising as in all communication, and a basic truth for all of us to consider is that being is prior to and indeed essentially better than having.

A second principle is: Each person must be treated with respect.

It frankly surprises me that, as women rightly fight for equality of treatment in politics and in business, they are still so often exploited in the media in general and in advertising in particular as objects, as sex symbols. Such exploitation has now apparently been extended to men as well.

Thus, while no one would deny the justifiable attraction of love and romance in life, I think we would all resent being treated as objects rather than as persons. We resent it as employees if we are treated as factors of production rather than as persons; we can resent it in advertising if individuals depicted are portrayed as objects rather than as persons and, indeed, if we - the audience of consumers - are treated as so many numbers to be reached instead of as persons to whom an important message is to be communicated.

I would hope that communication in general, including and perhaps especially advertising, would keep in mind the priority of the dignity of the human person:  the dignity of the persons portrayed, the dignity of the individual members of the audience to be reached.

Promoting the common good

A third principle of ethics in communication is the common good.

A growing concern in democratic societies is the ethical aspect of political campaigning.
While the document of our Pontifical Council for Social Communications, "Ethics in Advertising", published six years ago, recognizes the advantages of political advertising for informing people about candidates and about issues, it also notes that political advertising can obstruct the working of the democratic process when, for example, "the costs of advertising limit political competition to wealthy candidates or groups, or require that office-seekers compromise their integrity and independence by over-dependence on special interests for funds".

"Such obstruction of the democratic process also happens", our document notes, "when, instead of being a vehicle for honest expositions of candidates' views and records, political advertising seeks to distort the views and records of opponents and unjustly attacks their reputations".

It is to be hoped that, in political life, office-holders and candidates of integrity will enlist advertising agencies of integrity to present their views in a sound and attractive manner, thus contributing to an intelligent dialogue in society.

It is also to be hoped that sound campaign financing legislation might be passed in all nations with a view to helping candidates present their message without financial contributions corrupting or co-opting them.

Frankly, I think that sound campaign financing legislation is an imperative in many countries, including my own, the United States of America - including a requirement that radio and television stations make time available to all candidates with a proven significant constituency to present their positions in a responsible and informative manner. It is one of the ironies of campaign financing legislation that it must be passed by the very legislators whose offices are being sought by others. Those in office sometimes understandably seek not to level the playing field of electoral competition but to tilt it in their own favour. It can demand political heroism to offer an opponent an equal chance.

Advertising has lasting influence

As you know, advertising profoundly affects the values and the morals in society, and not just people's buying habits.

I hope you realize your own power and that you continue to use it responsibly, as so many of you do.

I would like to conclude with a word of admiration.

The presentation of the Good News of Jesus Christ could benefit from the creativity and skill of the advertising community. Jesus himself did it well, with his parables - but we who follow him have often been guilty of the fault which many consider the greatest sin of all in the modern world - we are often dull. Since I believe that we have the most important message in the world, please help us to be interesting in making it better known.

But whatever product, service or candidate you advertise and no matter how you do it, I would hope you would keep in mind our ultimate purpose in life and make of all of your advertising messages that are true, worthy of the dignity of the human person and helpful to the common good.

The recently beatified Mother Teresa of Calcutta, while she didn't use advertising, became an advertiser's dream. She motivated us all to be better and never to forget the poorest and apparently least members of society.

She made of every day and of every action what I would hope we would wish to do with our creativity, no matter what product or service we are presenting; realize the dignity and impact of your work and make something beautiful for God.