Autonomy and Manipulation: Refining the Argument Against Persuasive Advertising

Journal of Business Ethics 175 (4):689-699 (2020)
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Critics of persuasive advertising argue that it undermines the autonomy of consumers by manipulating their desires in morally problematic ways. My aim is this paper is to refine that argument by employing a conception of autonomy that is not at odds with certain forms of manipulation. I argue that the charge of manipulation is not sufficient for condemning persuasive advertising. On my view, manipulation of an agent’s desires through advertising is justifiable in cases where the agent accepts the process through which the desires were developed. I show how the standard manipulation objection proves too much as it would also condemn cases of that kind. I argue that this distinction is especially important when we consider the implications of “new media.” In addition to increasing vulnerability to manipulation, new media have considerable impacts on well-being. By siding with the traditional autonomy argument, we would be compelled to take an implausible stand against all forms of manipulation through advertising, but I suggest that only a proper subset of those cases are morally problematic. This conclusion opens up a space for persuasive advertising that is permissible while nevertheless condemning cases that violate consumers’ autonomy.

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Tim Aylsworth
Florida International University


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