In the world of advertising, it is not unusual to have products endorsed by actors or other celebrities, with the intention of giving more authority to the product. But what is the reality behind the product-spokesman connection? Does the company have an ethical obligation to present their product fairly, and does the spokesperson have an ethical obligation to present themselves accurately?
I recently fired off an e-mail to a local radio DJ, who is a celebrity on a smaller scale:
“Out of curiosity, when you endorse products on the air (Festival, Sleep Number bed, AT&T etc.) are these products you personally like or are you speaking on behalf of the sponsor regardless of your personal feelings?”
His response was:
“As I answer your question, I am moving my feet and feeling my Goodfeet Arch Supports, I just got off my AT&T phone with my wife who instructed me to pick up a few things from Festival on my way home. I will eat lunch and then lay down in comfort on my Sleep Number Bed. I hope this answers your question. Thank you for listening.”
How true any of this response is, I cannot say for sure. But it puts the spokesperson (in this case, the DJ) in an unusual predicament. If he were an unidentified actor, he could say what he wanted and the message could be a “dramatization” or simply a script, and we would think nothing of it. But when the DJ appears as himself, and he says he “loves” a product, this is a statement made in his own voice: it is a claim that must be either true or false. Does the DJ have an obligation to be truthful?
I believe he does. The DJ has an obligation to the listeners who place their trust in him to get an accurate view of his endorsements. To publicly present himself as someone who thinks the AT&T family plan is “perfect” and then turn around and use Verizon for his phone service is dishonest and immoral. Furthermore, it erodes the integrity of the DJ’s personality, as he has consciously decided to blur the lines between honest praise and corporate shilling.
On a more national level, the issue is similar. We have sports figures and pop stars who endorse products. I suspect that the star does not approach the company to talk on their behalf, but instead the company asks the star, regardless of the star’s personal preferences. A man who drinks Coke may be asked to endorse Pepsi, for example. If he agrees, this may be dishonest and immoral, depending on the presentation. Simply appearing in an advertisement does not make one dishonest, even if they do not support the product, but a vocal endorsement would be unethical.
Coke and Pepsi are relatively harmless in their advertising. But other ads can be downright deceptive to the point of bold-faced lies. A recent television ad for Freescore.com is a case in point. It features Ben Stein, who is identified as an “economist and financial writer” sitting on a park bench discussing the importance of knowing your credit score. At one point he says “I went to Freescore.com and found out my score for free” because “you can’t fix errors on your credit report if you haven’t seen it”. While it is probably true you can’t fix errors you don’t know about, the rest is dubious.
When Stein appears in eye drop commercials, he does not personally endorse the product, he simply appears in them. But with Free Score, he adds his weight as an economist, and claims (1) that he personally uses Free Score and that (2) the service is free. He is here likely being dishonest and immoral, and tarnishing his reputation as a respected economist. I do not think it is true that Stein has ever used Free Score, and the service is only “free” for a seven day trial.
We believe that truth in advertising is important; we don’t want companies to claim their products do things they clearly do not do. But I think there is something to be said about the truth in presentation beyond mere product claims. Celebrities should be ethically obligated to endorse only products they truly use and believe in, or else make themselves dishonest and their endorsement meaningless. Companies, likewise, should not attach names and faces to products that cannot present an accurate view.
If celebrities and corporations think that being on television or the radio suddenly makes anything said flexible in the truth department, they are dead wrong.