Kiwi Polemicist

April 30, 2009

• Advertisers should be free to tell lies

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Lindsay Mitchell has a very interesting advertisement from 1865, where the makers of Holloways Ointment claim that their potion can cure, amongst many other things, cancers and fistulas. These lies show how much freedom people had in 1865, and sadly it also shows how much freedom we have lost today.

I believe that advertisers should be free to tell lies. Why so? An advertisement is a communication between a seller and a potential purchaser, and it is no business of the state’s. The state should butt out and mind it’s own business. State control of what advertisers say is no different to having Big Brother listening to every word I say to you in order to ensure that what I say is truthful. Furthermore, a false advertisement does not in and of itself cause loss to anyone.

State censorship of advertisements is also:

  1. interference in the free market: businesses that are free to lie in their ads and do so get their just desserts and go broke. Fear of a bad reputation regulates behaviour because a bad reputation equals a bad bottom line, and it’s an article of faith in business circles that an unhappy customer will tell far more people of their experience than a happy one will. Despite what the Communist Manifesto says, the desire for profit is a good thing because it keeps businesses honest
  2. paternalism: it assumes that people are incapable of checking the claims of advertisers themselves
  3. fostering dependence on the state: the state loves having people dependent upon it (because this gives power to the state), and censoring advertisements feeds the delusion of those people who think that the state is their parent and protector
  4. preventing the learning that comes from experiencing consequences of actions: if someone bought Holloways Ointment and it didn’t cure their bunions as claimed, they’d think “That was a waste of money, I’ll be more careful next time”. That person has suffered the consequences of their failure to check the claim, i.e. a loss of money, and learnt a lesson. When people are shielded from the consequences of their actions they become stupid and soft, and they’re unable to cope with life because they expect life to be fair and easy. That’s exactly what we see today: many people who are stupid and soft because the state and their parents have shielded them from the consequences of the actions (click here for more on that).

Note that I said I believe that advertisers should be free to tell lies. I also believe that is wrong for advertisers to tell lies, but (1) that is not a justification for censorship, and (2) it is not the state’s job to impose morality upon advertisers. Better a few fictional advertisements than a nanny state/police state. We don’t need the state to “protect” us when private organisations such as the Consumers Institute do a splendid job of that.

By now you’re probably throwing your hands up in horror and thinking that Bad Big Business will rip off everyone if my scheme is followed: that’s a Socialist/Marxist notion. I am not proposing open season for advertisers: when a consumer has suffered loss as a result of false advertising he should be able to obtain redress of four or five times the loss. Once again, the profit motive keeps businesses honest.

Caveat emptor: buyer beware.

~~~~~~~~~~

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