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Communication & Media

News & Events

Ethics class opens student's eyes

04/07/2005

By Jillian Nolan, Assistant Managing Editor

The Media Ethics class offered here is designed to teach students how to make ethical decisions in journalism, advertising and public relations. We review past cases and use ethical models to conclude what would be the right thing to do.

Taking that class with professor Howard Good has taught me so much more than the course description implied. I only have the class once a week, but I hear Good's lessons over and over in my head. The day after the class, my friend Adam and I talk about what Good taught us and what we liked most about the class. Recently, we both agreed that there was one of Good's lessons that was stuck in our heads.

He told us that TV commercials convince us that we need to go out and buy things to make our lives better. When that doesn't work, we go out and buy new and improved things to make our lives better. A vicious cycle.

It's amazing how little I'd thought about that before this class. And it's even more amazing how easily those commercials convince consumers that they need all the junk they're offered: The Ab Lounger, Cold Heat Soldering or Liquid Leather Repair. Even commercials for Gap are trying to convince us that we need their khakis- they'll make us feel just like Sarah Jessica Parker.

I'd like to say that I'm immune to these commercials, but the truth is I'm not. I doubt anyone is completely. Deep down inside we're all just product junkies, desperately searching for our next fix. We are, as the Media Ethics textbooks say, Gap-wearing, Mercedes-driving beings. We have little identity beyond that.

Commercials have such a strong effect on everyone because, as much as we can deny it, there's a little piece in all of us that wants so desperately to fit in more than we do, be more popular than we are.

I've never let my need-to-buy disease affect me so much that I thought I needed a Cold Heat Soldering kit, but there are a lot of people who don't know where to draw the line. That's what keeps all of the As Seen on TV stores in business. Most of the things people order off the TV end up in a corner collecting dust and piles of clothing.

It's not that illogical to think we need all these fabulous items. Before owning an Ab Lounger, many people probably think to themselves, "If I had that, I'd be in better shape and do more sit-ups. It makes working out so much better." Then they get it and realize they have just as little time to do sit-ups as before - and maybe the contraption doesn't make sit-ups that much easier.

There are two ways for us to stop ourselves from being so easily convinced that we need useless things. The first would be to change advertising - gut the system - so commercials and billboards only told us the essentials. We couldn't allow companies to play to our weak "peer-pressure side." But that solution is illogical. The entire advertising industry would be destroyed. There would be no competition among brands.

The second would be to educate ourselves. The few weeks I've been in Media Ethics have shown me just how insane some of those commercials are. I've learned to identify what in each commercial is making consumers so desperately want to buy the product. After we've mastered the skills of analysis, we must decide what we need, not just what we want.

We are far from being immune to advertising tricks, and that's not entirely bad. It's part of what keeps our society running. In a country built around consumerism, we need people to want to buy things, even if those things are useless.