Advertising and Consumer Autonomy

Subject: Entertainment & Media
Pages: 6
Words: 1751
Reading time:
7 min
Study level: College


Advertising is the backbone of the business industry because it provides critical information about products and services to potential consumers in a timely and cost-effective way. However, there have been heated arguments on the role of advertising and its morality in human society since some organizations take advantage of consumers by promising fabricated benefits. Nevertheless, the ethics of advertising is under criticism due to its ability to rob consumers of their decision-making capabilities. Individuals who criticize advertising argue that it is morally wrong as it undermines consumers’ autonomy by manipulating what they desire using problematic approaches. On the other hand, the defensive suggests that advertising falls within ethically sound business practices because its acts of manipulating are permissible. That being said, this paper argues against the notion that advertisement is immoral and undercuts individuals’ autonomy. Although consumers are informed about products, they are not coerced into making purchases. Therefore, business organizations have the right to apply various techniques to convince individuals to purchase their products.

The Concept of Consumer Autonomy and Advertising

Individual autonomy is a central concept of western enlightenment and the foundation of economic theories of consumerism. In layman’s terms, autonomy is associated with free will and is defined as an individual’s ability to act by their volitions and make choices without external influence. In the consumer context, autonomy refers to a person’s right to choose from a range of options and make decisions based on their will without influences imposed by any means (Wertenbroch et al., 2020). Hence, consumers enjoy the right to exercise autonomy when they select from a range of options without direct or indirect influence. Nevertheless, consumer autonomy is dictated by time, price, and information, encouraging a wealth of research on how consumers can navigate these barriers.

Over the years, advertising and marketing have become core business strategies and the top priorities in organizations. Unfortunately, advertising agencies are occasionally under attack because of unethical practices associated with sharing misleading information to potential consumers to encourage purchases. However, Todorova (2018) suggests that the ultimate aim of marketing and advertising is to solicit buyers toward making a purchase and hence make more revenue. The ease of entry into business industries has resulted in several producers and suppliers featuring similar products with varying capabilities. As a result, advertisers try to be as informative as they can but in a larger sense, more persuasive than their competitors, encouraging them to mislead consumers (Wertenbroch et al., 2020). Still, there is a fine line between rational and irrational advertising and deceptive and non-deceptive marketing. Since audiences are easily deluded into buying products, critics of advertising suggest that it creates unnecessary and detrimental desires.

The Ethics of Advertising

Robert Arrington’s paper, Advertising and Behavior Control,” is one of the few works that comprehensively separates the complexities of consumer autonomy into four components. The author suggests that interfering with an individual’s autonomy through advertising is not similar to deceiving them into purchasing products. Arrington describes thwarting people’s autonomy as knowingly falsifying the benefits or values of particular products or services, which is unethical and immoral (Carachilo & Pikas, 2018). Rather than undermining consumer autonomy, advertisers should target individuals’ problems and provide solutions to issues through product promotions. However, most producers do not adopt this approach because they inform consumers of their wants by creating and fulfilling desires. Drumwright (2019) argues that organizations take advantage of consumers’ dependence effect, which refers to manufacturing needs and wants in consumers instead of satisfying their intrinsic needs. As such producers have sovereignty over consumers since they have the power to manipulate them into buying things they do not need. Based on this account, it is unreasonable to foster human desires to satisfy them and make a profit.

Business advertisements can undermine individuals’ autonomy in four ways. They can either facilitate non-autonomous desires that individuals did not possess before, irrational desires, foster compulsive behaviors, or control consumer behavior. However, Arrington refutes these ideas since most human desires are culturally propelled and not innate (Carachilo & Pikas, 2018). For example, people love some types of music, food, and art. However, they must be exposed to these products to initiate an affinity for them. Instead, Arrington defines autonomous desires as ones that individuals learn and accept as their own. In that sense, if an individual is convinced by an advertisement to purchase a particular product, the choice is autonomous considering that the individual does not reject the desire. According to Todorova (2018), the manipulation of consumers’ desires is justifiable if individuals accept the process through which the desires are created. That being said, as long as business and product advertisements do not mislead individuals into making wrong purchases or buying items that do not work, they have a right to inform and create awareness about their brands for others to discover and use their products.

Arguments against Advertisements

Kilbourne is a researcher who has gone to great lengths to uncover the dangers of advertisements, particularly on how it affects women and girls. Over the past twenty years, the business landscape has changed drastically with the entry of new businesses into the market. As a result, most organizations thrive because of product differentiation, which obligates strategic marketing techniques to gain an advantage over other producers. However, Kilbourne (2019) suggests that advertising is pervasive because it exploits human beings into thinking that certain goods and products will satisfy their inner desires. Advertisements are toxic to the lives of individuals because they constantly sent a message that particular products can recreate individuals and transform their lives. This is possible because advertisement agencies have learned that it is easier to get to individuals’ pockets by tapping into their emotions.

Although advertisements should be designed to be informative, most of them sell ideas instead of products. Parekh & Shrank, (2018) perceive advertising as the skill of arresting human minds and intelligence to make money. However, in the process, these ads are hurting women’s self-image by creating unrealistic objectification of beauty. Kilbourne points out that no woman naturally looks like the ones featured in model magazines. Some of the images shown in these magazines have gone through numerous applications, including Photoshop, meaning that even models have not attained the proposed perfect standards (Balog, 2020). In time, young girls and women attempt to reach these standards by purchasing numerous ointment products to make their skin flawless and surgical operations to achieve a curvy body or slender face. Therefore, advertisements are intrusive in individuals’ lives and a threat to the development of society due to the power they have over people’s perceptions and reasoning.

In the new age, consumer autonomy takes a more complicated perspective since artificial intelligence solutions make people assume they are in control. Technological devices are used to do house chores, secure homes, drive cars, and make life more efficient. Nevertheless, skeptics claim that these solutions rob individuals of their autonomy by making decisions on their behalf, which is destructive to consumers’ well-being (Carachilo & Pikas, 2018). The truth is that artificial intelligence systems use sophisticated software and algorithms on consumers’ online behaviors, thus allowing marketing agencies to deliver relevant advertisements. However, other people perceive the approach as intrusive and suggest that it reinforces irrationality, cynicism, selfishness, social competitiveness, anxiety, and materialism (Drumwright, 2019). Regardless, it is impossible to curb the implications of new media because they have revolutionized human interactions and efficiency while increasing their vulnerability.

Final Thoughts and Stand Point

The argument about the role of advertisements in undermining consumer autonomy is complex because there are several factors to consider. Although supporters of this notion have solid points to back up their arguments, the final decision on whether to purchase a product or not depends on the customers exposed to the advertisements (Wertenbroch et al., 2020). Individuals are responsive to their external environments, which are based on cultural factors and social beliefs. Therefore, it is unreasonable to declare advertisements as misleading because people can obtain desires from other places as well (Carachilo & Pikas, 2018). For example, many individuals in society perceive driving fast and expensive cars as satisfactory, allowing them to aim their ambitions to a particular level. Subsequently, an individual may see someone else wearing a watch or using a product and gain a desire for that product. Thus, given the insatiable nature of human beings, advertisements do not create desires. Instead, it informs individuals of the solutions to curb some but not all of their desires.

All forms of advertisements are justified as long as they do not mislead people into purchasing products. Big pharmaceutical companies are among the organizations occasionally caught up in a web of controversy because they sell drugs to individuals who do not need them. Most of the time, these organizations alter medications or their potency and promise unreal benefits. Thus, these forms of advertisements are destructive and a form of coercion because they obligate individuals to purchase unworthy products (Drumwright, 2019). However, if advertisements deliver information in a way that entices a consumer to learn more about the product or try it out, it does not undermine the individuals’ autonomy because it does not force the purchase decision. A person still has the chance to decide whether buying the product will alleviate their issues or not. Given the stiff competition among industries producing similar products, advertisement is inevitable because it allows individuals to differentiate quality goods from fake ones.


Business organizations rely on marketing and advertising for market diversification and promotions. Therefore, advertising is a priority in all organizations that sell goods or services to consumers since it allows them to create awareness and solicit purchases. However, most individuals suggest that advertisements are intrusive and deny consumers their autonomy. According to the supporters of this idea, advertisers take advantage of individuals’ desires to sell them ideas of how certain products will satisfy their needs. In the process, buyers make rash decisions and end up buying non-beneficial items. Subsequently, advertisements are destructive because of their ability to change individuals’ preferences and reasoning as in the case of ‘the ideal woman seen in magazines.’ Thus, they are destructive to human society and continuous development. However, consumers are never forced to make purchasing decisions as they are only exposed to information about goods and services. Therefore, they make consumer choices based on free will, meaning that they are exercising autonomy. In addition, individuals gain desires from their surroundings and not necessarily through advertisements. Hence, advertisements are warranted as long as they do not knowingly deceive people.


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Carachilo, G., & Pikas, B. (2018). When philosophers disagree a philosophical analysis of marketing advertising. Journal of Marketing Development & Competitiveness, 12(2). Web.

Drumwright, M. E. (2019). Ethics and advertising theory. In Advertising theory (pp. 503-522). Routledge.

Kilbourne, J. (2019). “The More You Subtract, the More You Add”: Cutting Girls Down to Size in Advertising 1. In Race/gender/class/media (pp. 131-135). Routledge.

Parekh, N., & Shrank, W. H. (2018). Dangers and opportunities of direct-to-consumer advertising. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 33(5), 586-587. Web.

Todorova, R. (2018). Knowledge, reality, and imagination in advertising discourse. KNOWLEDGE-International Journal, 22(1), 297-301. Web.

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