Advertising and telling the truth

We’re going to start talking about advertising this afternoon in my ethics class at Kent State. That’s always fun, particularly in a class with students who are majoring in news journalism, public relations and advertising. They bring very different perspectives to class discussions. Trust me.

And from past semesters many of the class discussions have centered on these topics: advertising aimed at children and taste and decency. For instance, here’s an ad we’ll talk about. And it comes by way of one of the students who wrote about it for a class assignment.

It involves an Equinox Fitness Center ad that features models dressed as nuns — and a naked man. Does it cross the line when it comes to taste and decency? Many think yes. You be the judge. It’s always interesting – and most times enlightening – to learn what the students think.

But while talking about advertising, we won’t look much at truth. The argument goes like this. An advertisement will most likely never disclose everything about a product or service. But as long as it is not deceptive or misleading, well then, OK. And if there is something dishonest, the government will step in with penalties and maybe more restrictive regulation. I would like to believe that advertisers would prefer to tell the truth — or at least not intentionally lie — rather than get their hands slapped or worse. But I guess that requires some sense of ethics.

Well here’s a situation that might illustrate those points. Apparently Dr. Robert Jarvik can’t row. And I’m concerned that maybe he can’t run either. Here’s why.

Jarvik invented the artificial heart. But more recently he has been the spokesperson for Lipitor, the cholesterol-lowering drug produced by Pfizer. In several TV ads I’ve seen (not sure about print) there’s Jarvik (I thought) rowing across a lake and running with his son.

Dr. Jarvik says in one ad (and I’m taking this now from The New York Times article by Stephanie Saul):

“When diet and exercise aren’t enough, adding Lipitor significantly lowers cholesterol.”

OK, fair enough. But here’s the rub. The article in The Times says that the ad agency used a double for Jarvik in the rowing scene. So now a congressional committee will take a look at Jarvik and the ads to see if they are misleading. Wonder if it is the same committee that will be grilling Roger Clemens on Wednesday? Probably not.

If the story about Jarvik using a double in one of the ads is true, why didn’t someone at the ad agency say no? That seems like it would have been the ethically correct thing to do. Perhaps telling the truth at that stage would have been beneficial in the long run. We’ll see. Many of the students don’t believe that they will ever be faced with a decision like this. I hope that’s true. But probably not.

And here’s what caught my attention when I first read the article. I liked the ad where Jarvik (I hope) is out running with his son. Don’t know exactly why, but I was thinking about that while on the treadmill.

And I was thinking that maybe it is too bad that I don’t need Lipitor. Otherwise, maybe I could do the ad.

By the way, if you take the time to read The New York Times article, don’t quit until you get to the statement that Pfizer provided via e-mail. It’s a hoot. Spin anyone?


2 responses to “Advertising and telling the truth

  1. You should have an interesting class, to say the least! I think the Equinox ad is eye-catching and provocative. The nun wearing the garter is more disturbing to me than the naked man or the overall context. But at least it was artfully done, as compared with, say, those Abercrombie & Fitch ads that so crassly use skin to sell overpriced tshirts and jeans.

    I had read about the Jarvik double, and I believe the ad is tainted because of it. He has been doing these ads for years now, and I always felt he was a highly reputable spokesman. The use of a double, to me, hurts Jarvik’s credibility.

    As an aside, I am driven to distraction by the Jarvik ad because the son has such an odd running gait. He barely moves his arms when he runs! If you ask me, the son needed the stunt double!


  2. Tim, It was an interesting class. Most are. The advertising majors tend to be libertarians. Creative advertising almost always trumps any concerns about taste and decency. That leads to some great discussions, particularly when we start looking at issues such as advertising aimed at children and others.

    And then there is the Jarvik ad. I still have a hard time understanding why an advertising would recommend using a double in a high-profile situation like this. Or in any other for that matter. And I’ll admit I didn’t notice the odd running gait of his son. It is his son. Right?


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