When I teach my business ethics courses, I spend a good deal of time on the basic principles of advertising. This is a branch of business that is very visible to the public and is often subject to ethical scrutiny.

We know that certain pitfalls plague advertisers—they are tempted to exaggeration, excessive gimmickry, offensive or shocking plays by means of which to attract attention to their product or service, etc.

But there is nothing inherently wrong with advertising, despite what many might think. It involves the promotion of what one has for sale, product or service, so potential customers would seriously consider its purchase. Much of the gimmickry is nothing but an hopeful effort to be inventive in capturing the attention of the purchasing public. This is really no different from what we do when we send out our resumes, introduce ourselves to new acquaintances, and generally make our way with people we encounter in the world—namely, attempt to cast a favorable image of ourselves. And while there is nothing at all morally objectionable about this, it, like other efforts on our part, has its temptations and vices.

The trouble is that we live in a culture in which folks have been taught by most of its moral preachers and teachers that only when you serve others do you do deserving things. Or at least you must intend to do good for others to be a good person. Which means that most business people, especially advertisers, have no chance at all to make the moral grade if they are honest about what they want to do.

Never mind how much good they actually accomplish, the fact is that most people in business are striving to improve their own lot, not primarily those of other people. The fact that they couldn’t get far in this effort without also doing what others regard as their own interest is not the crucial ethical issue. Most philosophers and other moralists in our time

be good to others, first and. foremost, and since business looks silly saying this, business cannot make a very credible claim to having moral worth.

An example should suffice. The Prudential Corporation, which is mostly involved in offering people a great variety of financial services, advertises what it has to offer by making the claim that its "sole purpose" is to give its customers a certain sate of mind, such as peace or security. How incredible, and how obviously so. Furthermore, how pathetic!

No one can seriously believe that the owners of The Prudential, investors and others, are truly concern, first and foremost, let alone solely, with giving customers a good feeling or a satisfactory mental state. That may be a means by which to earn their living, of course. Everyone in business has to strive to find a line of work that will bring customers satisfaction, naturally. But to claim that one’s first, not to mention sole, objective in business is to benefit other persons is going to be seen for what it is by any intelligent person, namely, a ploy, a scam, a plain old lie.

Still, one can at least have some appreciation for why people in business, especially those who are most directly involved with the public—namely, advertisers—are tempted to pretend they are altruistic dogooders, selfless servants to humanity.

Those who teach business ethics at most universities and colleges, those who write and edit the texts and scholarly journals, are mostly convinced that a human being can only do what is right by becoming a servant to others. Self-interested conduct is wrong, they hold, or at best something we just have to do now and then but without gaining any moral credit for it. Robert Kuttner writes a book called "Everything is for Sale" while Earl Shorris another called "A National of Salesmen," each essentially belittling selling, advertising, and making all those who do these things out to be villains. So hiding that one is in sales or claim that being in sales is really to follow in Mother Teresa’s footsteps is understandable.

Just observe how often people in business are honored not for what they accomplish as professionals but for such extracurricular deeds as philanthropy, public services, cultural and political patronage and the like. A physician, educator, scientist, artist, and even an athlete are honored for what they do in their line of work. But someone in business is, to quote David Letterman, "a money grubbing scum," unless one manages to acquit oneself by various community services.

In fact, however, that moral stance the moralists have managed ‘to sell us is itself off base. Not that benevolent conduct, generosity, charity, compassion, kindness, are not ethically meritorious. Without these virtues one would be living a pretty barren life. But they are by no means the sole or even greatest source of moral merit in human life. Courage, honesty, prudence and other virtues. are vital and are not concerned primarily with benefiting others. And, ethics in general involves making the best of life, paying attention to doing well at living, whether on the private, familial, community, social or political fronts. To isolate the social as the sole forum for gaining moral credit is a grave mistake. Human beings ought to strive for excellence on many fronts, not only when their fellows need them.

Business need not have as its sole purpose helping others. Its primary purpose is to advance the success of the enterprise, to do well for those who own the business to make it turn a profit, to prosper.

This is nothing to be, ashamed of, so no advertisers should succumb to the temptation to pretend they aren’t being prudent, first of all, and because they are they take their customers’ interest very seriously. It is sad that a firm called The Prudential does not even understand the meaning of the term used for its name, to whit, that every human beings ought, as a matter of morality or ethics, be prudent in life and seek to prosper.