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Question 149: To what extent may advertisers appeal to subconscious motives?

I am vice-president for marketing of one of the largest and oldest manufacturers of windows in the United States. Our products are available nationwide and are used chiefly in residential construction and remodeling. Cheaper windows are available, but ours are well designed, made of good materials, carefully crafted and inspected, and marketed solely through honest and well-managed distributors. In short, we have emphasized quality, and, as a result, our name is respected by architects, builders, renovators, and the public.

Our advertising strategy has not changed in nearly half a century. Central to it is a brochure that includes photographs of some fine uses of our products, but mainly consists of factual information about their quality features, different styles, available options, sizes, and so on. We mail this brochure to anyone who asks for it, with a covering letter and information about dealers in their area. To attract attention and stimulate requests for the brochure, we have advertised in journals and magazines directed toward both professionals and consumers interested in residential construction and renovation. We also have taken space at builders’ conventions and at home shows open to the public. Our displays, as well as our journal and magazine ads, have been similar to our brochure, simply presenting our products attractively and providing factual information, though, of course, less of that than the brochure.

Recently, we decided to increase our advertising budget substantially and begin using television in an effort to increase our market share. Our advertising agency account executive just retired and his successor, a bright young woman, Ms. Grey, urged us to take an entirely new tack. Underlying her proposal is a general theory based on psychological research. In the past, she points out, our ads assumed that rational considerations motivate people to buy our products. While such considerations are significant in buyers’ choices about features, type, and size, she argues, their preferring one brand to another is due almost entirely to emotional factors, and our television ads should focus on selling our brand.

Consequently, Grey proposes that our new ads and brochure use certain images that research proves attract attention, put our product in settings whose architecture and furniture manifest affluence and high fashion, feature paid endorsements by celebrities, emphasize sunlight (which, of course, comes through any opening in a wall as well as through our windows), and so forth. While the brochure still would contain plenty of factual information, the emphasis in our advertising as a whole no longer would be on showing that our products are of high quality but on appeals to subconscious motives—“pushing the right buttons,” as Grey puts it.

Personally, while wanting to increase our advertising budget, I had reservations about the rest of her proposal. Our past strategy has served us well, and I am anxious to avoid doing anything that would damage the company’s reputation. Therefore, I proposed an alternative to the management committee: reduce prices by cutting costs without compromising quality, and make “The same familiar quality at a new low price” the theme of our TV advertising. But the management committee decided not to invest in the new equipment needed to cut costs. I then argued that we increase our advertising without using television or departing from our traditional approach, but the decision was made to adopt the new strategy. Still, I retain ultimate authority to decide what will and will not go into the ads and the new brochure.

It seems to me that “pushing the right buttons” sometimes is nothing but a way of manipulating people, and I am anxious to avoid mistreating our potential customers. How can I draw reasonable lines to limit our use of the methods of persuasion Grey advocates, so as to keep this new approach from going overboard?


This question calls for the derivation of norms for advertisers. Advertising intended to arouse emotions is morally acceptable only if it is meant to contribute to a morally good response to the persuasion. This norm is violated in various ways: the motivated action itself is wrong for all or some; the motivating imagery is deceptive; intense emotion is meant to displace or interfere with rational reflection and choice; or the emotional motive is irrelevant. Advertising has two distinct though closely related motivational goals: to attract attention and to motivate a specific decision. In pursuing either, advertising can motivate wrongly. In advertising windows that will be used in ordinary settings, using architecture and furniture that manifest affluence and high fashion is generally intended to arouse emotions allied with false values. Since all testimonials should reflect the real choice of a competent judge, it is wrong to purchase a testimonial from a celebrity who has not used the product.

The reply could be along the following lines:

You are right to want to avoid harming your company’s good name. Its reputation, earned by competence and honesty, is of great value in attracting new customers and retaining the business of old ones. Managers intent solely on short-term profits all too often ignore this value. But even if short-term profits increase, they are likely to harm their companies’ long-run profitability.

Even apart from how it affects subconscious motives, advertising can go wrong by deceiving the public, encouraging self-indulgence and waste, and representing immoral attitudes and behavior as acceptable, clever, or funny. At the same time, persuasion playing on subconscious motives is not necessarily wrong. In presenting your products attractively, the brochure you have been using already strives to give a good impression. And a good impression, rather than being the conclusion of an argument, is a subconsciously motivated response to perceived features of objects or persons. Indeed, persuasive arguments usually include and are accompanied by various elements aimed at eliciting an emotional response: certain tones of voice or graphic styles, a presentation organized to maximize its psychological impact, figures of speech, appealing examples, and so on.

Still, playing wrongly on subconscious motives almost always is an important element of morally questionable advertising. Morally good persuasion arouses emotions that could lead to or be part of an intelligent and morally good response to the persuasion. Advertising playing on subconscious motives is morally unacceptable if the emotional response it arouses would not be part of a morally well-integrated evaluation of what is being promoted or of a reasonable response to the advertiser’s message. Thus, morally acceptable advertising arouses emotions that lead people to consider using a product or service that might help them fulfill some of the responsibilities of their vocation, while morally unacceptable advertising arouses emotions that do not serve that purpose but are more or less directly at odds with it.

Sometimes the product or service cannot be rightly used by anyone—for example, pornography or the service of a prostitute—and any attempt to arouse emotions to purchase it is wrong. Sometimes the service or product could be rightly used by some people but not others—for example, various medical treatments and drugs, including tranquilizers and analgesics—and an attempt to arouse emotions in those who should not use it is wrong. Sometimes the play on subconscious motives uses images that deceive, without asserting anything false. For example, deceptive packaging can generate the false impression that a brand offers better value for price than it really does; trick photography can create an illusion that a product has more desirable attributes than it has; clever imagery can suggest misleadingly that using a product will meet subconscious desires and interests. Sometimes persuasion aims at arousing emotions so as to lead to action without adequate reflection, and thus attempts to forestall the contrary choice that some people should make. For example, easy credit and various sorts of insurance often are promoted by arousing desire and fear while the information required to make a prudent decision is omitted or carefully concealed. Sometimes the emotions aroused are simply irrelevant to the product or service being promoted. Erotic desire is used to draw favorable attention to all sorts of things, and doing so is wrong not only because deliberately attempting to arouse that desire is wrong except within marital intimacy but because it has nothing to do with reasonable consideration of most products or services, preference for them, or use of them.350

In applying the norm just explained in order to avoid wrongly using nonrational means of persuasion, one should distinguish between two motivational goals of any advertisement or, more generally, of any instance of persuasive communication. The first is to attract the attention of the intended audience, encourage receptivity, and effectively communicate (get the message across). The second is to induce a specific interest and decision—for example, an interest in a particular brand and the decision to buy a product of that brand rather than a competitor’s. While some features of a communication can serve both goals simultaneously, something might be justified as serving one goal that would be unjustifiable if meant to serve the other. For example, certain photographs that might legitimately be included in a brochure describing a medical textbook in order to show the quality of its graphics might be abused in a medical journal advertisement as an attention-getting device. Conversely, using carefully selected colors or graphics in an ad is reasonable insofar as it helps get the message across, but unjustifiable if it in any way wrongly motivates interest and decision. This can happen when a product is deceptively packaged to resemble a different brand, when colors and graphics are chosen as part of motivation inconsistent with reason (for instance, when novelty in advertising a new line of products is used to suggest that they are desirable for their novelty), and so on.

The preceding analysis can be applied to Grey’s proposals that you mention. Unless an image shown by research to attract attention arouses emotions inappropriately, it can be used to help get your message across. Emphasizing sunlight also seems legitimate. While any opening in a wall admits light as well as your windows do, it goes without saying that a good window admits light without the disadvantages of other kinds of opening. Of course, deception must be avoided. For example, it would be wrong to suggest that your windows admit more light than others comparable to them and wrong for a photographer to use artificial light to give the impression that windows will do more than they can to brighten a room.

What about presenting your products in settings far richer than those in which they ordinarily will be used? That might be done, as will be explained below, to provide one premise of a rational argument to prefer your brand. But what if it is done independently of any rational argument? Wealth, social status, and stylishness are not fundamental human goods, and people who regard them as if they were have false values. Feelings allied with those false values simply cannot be integrated with a reasonable response to your products. So, it would be an abuse to appeal to those feelings by using architecture and furniture that manifest affluence and high fashion in order to interest people in your products. Contrast this abuse with showing tasteful furnishings in modest rooms featuring your products—for example, a family dining room with the table laid to celebrate a holiday, birthday, or some other special occasion—the scene bathed in sunlight coming through several of your windows. The feelings evoked by such a presentation can be integrated with a reasonable plan and choice to use your products in building or remodeling a home.

Someone might argue that people expect ads to show products like yours, not as they will appear in an average-priced home’s typical room, furnished and decorated for a few thousand dollars, but as they would look in a stunning room of a luxurious house, with furniture and decoration costing far more. People like to see products in attractive settings, the argument will continue, yet know very well that the setting is just part of the ad. Nobody thinks buying a few good windows will turn an average house into an opulent mansion. So, the argument will conclude, there is nothing wrong with using the setting proposed.

People do expect to see advertised products in luxurious settings because ads often use such settings; but the precise question is whether their use is morally acceptable. If an affluent and stylish setting does not motivate people, using it is pointless; if it does motivate them, its specific features must arouse their feelings. True, using such a setting need not make an ad deceptive. But can the feelings its features arouse be allied with a reasonable choice to use the product in the typical room of an average home? Do not such feelings belong to someone always restless for more and better material things, whose choices of products feed that insatiable desire?

What about paid endorsements by celebrities? Employing as a spokesperson someone well known to an audience can help get a message across, and an individual with a familiar persona can project the “personality” of the advertiser. However, the use of celebrities and their testimonials not only sometimes appeals to false values, such as wealth and status, but often is deceptive—for example, because the advertiser knows that the celebrity does not believe his or her testimonial to the product. Advertising should project what the company truly is and aspires to be, not merely whatever seems likely to appeal to some segment of the market. Moreover, any testimonial should be truthful.

Considered together, the two norms rule out purchasing the endorsement of a celebrity who has not used a product. However, you could conduct a market survey among celebrities to identify some who have recently installed your products or purchased properties that have them. Since the windows are good, your survey is likely to find some well-known people who are delighted with them. You could solicit honest testimonials from among them. Nor do I see any reason why it would be wrong to pay celebrities a reasonable fee for any time and effort involved as well as for allowing use of their names, photographs, and so on.

If you find some celebrity who chose your windows when building or remodeling a magnificent mansion, your advertising could legitimately show them in that setting and draw the true conclusion that their fine qualities motivated even a person of such means to prefer them to other available windows. Of course, such an ad also would motivate viewers subconsciously, by evoking favorable feelings related to wealth, social status, and stylishness. This psychological effect, however, need not vitiate showing the windows in that setting. In making a sound argument for preferring your windows, you can legitimately accept its effect of causing those feelings, which you could not rightly intend to arouse.

350. Various sorts of abuses of advertising are described by William Meyers, The Image Makers: Power and Persuasion on Madison Avenue (New York: Times Books, 1984); many instances of unethical emotional motivation in advertising are discussed with considerable psychological insight by Carol Moog, “Are They Selling Her Lips?”: Advertising and Identity (New York: William Morrow, 1990).