Although business people deserve more respect for their honesty than they receive, a common complaint is that they take advantage of consumers through dishonest advertising. Instead of providing useful information for making rational choices, advertisements often appeal to consumers’ emotions to persuade them to buy products regardless of need. This complaint is true and obvious to all but the most naïve people. Advertisements are designed to convince consumers to favor one product over others, and presenting solely unbiased and unemotional information would seldom be the best way to accomplish this goal.
Thoughtful people recognize that politicians advertise themselves and their policy recommendations in similarly biased and emotional ways. The question is not whether businesspeople or politicians have the strongest moral commitment to truthfulness in advertising. Both groups will deviate from honest practices when they expect that the benefits of doing so will exceed the costs. The important question is “Who can most easily mislead their customers with emotional statements, unrealistic promises, and biased information: businesspeople or politicians?”
People are less likely to be swayed by dishonesty and emotion when responding to business ads than when responding to political ads for two reasons. First, businesspeople are attempting to persuade people who are usually spending their own money; politicians are trying to persuade people who are deciding how they want to spend other people’s money. The motivation to minimize mistakes by carefully considering claims about costs and benefits before a decision is made and by evaluating those claims in light of post-decision experience is greater when one is bearing all of the cost of the decision than when others are bearing most of the cost.
The second reason why misleading claims are less effective in promoting commercial products than in promoting political products is because the choices that consumers of commercial products make have more decisive effects on outcomes than do the choices of consumers of political products. When people purchase a product in the marketplace, they get the product they choose, and they get it because they chose it. The probability that a voter’s choice will be decisive is increasingly small in state and federal elections, and seldom greater than a fraction of one percent in most local elections. Given such a low probability of any one person’s vote determining the outcome of the election, voters have little motivation to be concerned about the accuracy of the political claims being made.
One might think that professors would be more honest than both businesspeople and politicians when promoting their products’ value (that is, in their teaching and research). Unlike politicians, professors try to sell their products to customers who can decisively accept or reject them without being directly affected by how many others make different choices. However, many undergraduate students are glaringly indifferent to what professors have to say, so professors have more latitude than businesspeople to benefit from exaggerated and duplicitous claims.
Professors have to be more restrained when publishing than when teaching because other professors will evaluate the truth of their published claims. It is true that academic promotions may be earned and scholarly reputations enhanced by exposing the errors in published work. However, professors are often less concerned with the truthfulness of articles written by other professors than one might think. Professors anxious to get their own articles and books published are often less interested in whether the publications they cite are correct than in whether the publications are accepted as correct by academics with views similar to their own—the people most likely to decide whether their books and articles will be published and cited.