Psychology for Sale: The Ethics of Advertising Professional Services

Article excerpt

Abstract

Policies regarding advertising of professional services by psychologists have become somewhat less restrictive over time; however, there remains a tradition within the discipline to avoid any semblance of competitive advertising practices. This paper presents an historic review of policies concerning self-advertising by psychologists in the United States and Canada. Although not currently prohibited by Canadian guidelines, three advertising practices are still generally regarded as failing to meet expectations of professional integrity: 1) claims of unique abilities; 2) claims of comparative desirability; and 3) appeals to a client's fear and anxiety. The position is taken that psychologists can stay within their ethical boundaries using these types of advertising practices while promoting the welfare of clients and maintaining the profession's ethical standards.

Significant changes have been made to the ethical standards and codes of conduct concerning the advertising of psychological services (Frisch & Rebcrg, 1991; Koocher, 1977, 1994). It was not very long ago that even the use of boldface type was considered a violation of the American Psychological Association's (APA) policies regarding appropriate advertisements in telephone directories (Gocbel & Beach, 1981). Canadian guidelines regarding advertising have also become somewhat more liberal in recent years, yet there remains some stigma within the profession associated with advertising practices that have the slightest semblance of competing for clients. The argument most often made against these practices is that they fail to meet expectations of integrity and, in doing so, harm public confidence in the discipline (College of Alberta Psychologists, (IAP, 2002). For example, the following advertising practices are still generally discouraged within the psychological community: 1) claims of unusual, unique, or one-of-a-kind abilities; 2) claims of the comparative desirability of one service over another; and 3) the use of statements appealing to a client's ear and anxiety if services are not obtained.

This paper discusses the evolution of restrictions on advertising by psychologists in the United States and Canada. The discussion will focus on the cowieM/ of conventional advertising by psychologists rather than on different yorwi of advertising that may be generally regarded as distasteful (e.g., television commercials). With this review completed, it will be argued that it is possible to abide by the ethical standards of the profession and maintain public confidence in the profession, even while using more assertive advertising strategies in the announcement of psychological services. In contrast to previous stances that individual advertising is not in the best interests of the profession (Frisch & Reberg, 1991), we offer the position that individual advertising is feasible and that fewer selfimposed restraints on these practices can promote the welfare of clients and maintain the ethical standards of the profession. The paper concludes with a general injunction that encourages more bold advertising practices among psychologists, both as an expression of freedom of advertising, and as a service to psychological clients.

The History of Restrictions on Advertising by Psychologists

As early as 1953, one of the APA's ethical principles regarding advertisements stated that a psychologist should "describe his /Mc^ services with accuracy and dignity, adhering to professional rather than to commercial standards" (APA, 1953, p. 27). These principles became even more specific over time. For example, Principle 1Ob of APA's 19R7 Ethical Standards of Psychologists stated that:

Individual listings in telephone directories are limited to name, highest relevant degree, certification status, address, and telephone number. They may also include identification in a few words of the psychologist's major areas of practice; for example, child therapy, personnel selection, industrial psychology. …