Pedagogic Cacophony: The Teaching of Ethical, Legal, and Societal Issues in Advertising Education

By Stuhlfaut, Mark W.; Farrell, Mike | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Pedagogic Cacophony: The Teaching of Ethical, Legal, and Societal Issues in Advertising Education


Stuhlfaut, Mark W., Farrell, Mike, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


The teaching of societal, legal, and ethical issues is critical to an advertising education because the subjects increase students' understanding of the field, raise their awareness of broader effects beyond the promotion of products and services, and inform students of their responsibilities as professionals. This study examined how these subjects were taught at ninety-one universities and colleges in the United States. It found complex and cacophonous structures with high level of variation by which the courses were organized. An analysis of seventy-five syllabi found diverse sets of goals, extraneous content to advertising, little agreement on textbooks, and inconsistent standards to measure student performance.

While the main mission of adver- tising education is to instruct students in the management, creation, and implementation of strategic communi- cations, courses that cover ethical, legal, and societal issues add context and depth to give students a greater understanding of the field. Without a foundational level of knowledge in these three subjects, future advertising practitioners are destined to be mere "bricklayers rather than architects."1 This article examines the structure and components of ethical-, legal-, and societal-issue courses, as the courses exist in the current curricula of the advertising academy at U.S. universi- ties and colleges. The purpose is to determine if any general conclusions can be drawn from an overview of the manner in which these courses are organized and taught.

For this investigation, teaching ethical issues about advertising is defined as pedagogy related to the behavioral conduct of people in the advertising field and to their relationships with peers, clients, authences, and greater society. The teaching of legal issues about advertising is defined as pedagogy related to the resolution of matters within the framework of various legislative, judicial, and regulatory bodies of government. The teaching of societal issues is defined as pedagogy related to examining the institution of advertising and the social or cultural system in which it exists.

Research Agenda

The need for this examination is acute. Christians2 discussed the teaching of mass media ethics from a philosophical perspective, but no survey of pedagogy specifically related to practical teaching of ethical, legal, and societal issues in advertising was found. Literature related to the teaching of advertising law was scant.3 A course about advertising and society was listed as part of a concentration for an ideal curriculum in advertising education;4 yet, no literature was found that discusses how educators teach or might teach subjects such as advertising's role in the American economy and consumer culture, stereotypes, and the portrayal of gender and ethnic images, the effects of advertising on children and other vulnerable people, the promotion of controversial products, the influence of political advertising, and the use of social marketing.5

The literature on teaching ethics was much more developed but limited to particular topics that were ancillary to the question of what comprises an education in advertising ethics. Researchers have studied practitioners' perceptions of ethics,6 the factors influencing students' reactions to ethical dilemmas,7 educators' moral qualifications to teach advertising ethics,8 impacts of ethics instruction on advertising and public relations graduates,9 and whether advertising texts adequately cover ethical issues.10 Researchers comment on the relevance of ethics to advertising education,11 and the educator's role in teaching ethics.12 Martinson advocated particular methods of teaching advertising ethics but did not provide broader information about how the academy addressed the subject.13 The most recent survey of teaching ethics in mass communication was only partially relevant here, because it surveyed journalism ethics courses.14 Even more problematic, that study, instead of directly examining the curricula, asked educators to report their educational goals, research, and teachingrelated activities, and perceptions about mass media ethics as a subject within journalism and mass communication programs. …

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