Published: July 15, 2020

This summer, CEOs, strategists and creative teams have been sweating over more than the heat.

After shifting their messaging last spring to address the global coronavirus outbreak, companies are now grappling with a national––and international––outcry over issues of persistent and systemic racism, not just in our criminal justice system but in all areas of society. 

Increasingly, many of the world’s biggest brands are being tested by their moral backbone. Watchful consumers are refusing to support companies who turn a blind eye, or to accept empty hashtags and false promises as progress. And by harnessing the power of social media, they’re able to hold organizations immediately and visibly accountable.

“No longer will people let brands stay silent. They have a platform and a network to people. They have clout and a reputation among these people. And they have financial resources,” said Erin Schauster, an assistant professor in the Department of Advertising, Public Relations and Media Design at CU Boulder’s College of Media, Communication and Information (CMCI).  “Consumers demand that they take a stand, and we want them to engage in a high level of moral reasoning to do it well––to have the most positive influence that they can have.” 

Schauster is a co-author of the new study, “Advertising Primed: How Professional Identity Affects Moral Reasoning,” along with Patrick Ferrucci, associate professor in CMCI’s Department of Journalism, Edson Tandoc, associate professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and Tara Walker, who earned her PhD from CMCI’s Department of Advertising, Public Relations and Media Design in the spring of 2020. The study is the second in a three-part series examining how media practitioners in journalism, advertising and public relations rate in terms of moral reasoning. The series will soon be accompanied by a fourth, overarching study examining how moral reasoning compared across the three fields. 

The good news for advertising: researchers found that today’s practitioners are engaging in a significantly higher rate of moral reasoning than those previously tested.

“We found that, overall, the reasoning increased since the last time it was tested in 2005. Great news, frankly, and I would kind of expect that based on practices in advertising today,” Schauster said. “We see more socially responsible practices like corporate social responsibility and brands––like we're seeing right now with the racial injustice––engaging in what's called brand activism and taking a political stand.”

Each of the 134 advertising professionals who participated in the online experiment were given the Defining Issues Test (DIT)––a widely-used measurement in the field of moral psychology––and assessed in the form of a P-score, with a higher P-score indicated that practitioners engaged in higher levels of moral reasoning more often. Recent participants earned an average P-score of 39.27, compared with participants from a 2005 study who earned an average P-score of 31.64. 

In addition to comparing how overall scores have changed, the researchers tested advertising practitioners to find out whether or not––and to what extent––their professional identities influenced their level of moral reasoning. 

Each participant was prompted with a set of moral dilemmas––some that were media specific, and others that were just about “life things,” Schauster said. Those who were primed received prompts beginning with the phrase, “as an advertising practitioner...” leading them to consider their professional identities while forming a response. 

Primed individuals tended to score a bit lower, but the difference wasn’t significant, the study found. When examining these results based on participants’ gender identification, however, the researchers noticed a surprise twist: While primed women scored lower on moral reasoning than unprimed women, primed men showed a different pattern.

“When they were asked to think like an advertising practitioner, their moral reasoning scores went up, and that's not what we would expect,” Schauster said. “We would expect anyone––when thinking like an advertising practitioner––their moral reasoning to go down, because that's what the 2005 study found.

One explanation for the variance could be a discrepancy in training and resources, she said. 

“That's really what's interesting about this study and we do attribute that to socialization,” Schauster said. “If you look at the information on advertising industry makeup, those in leadership positions are typically men. Well, those in leadership positions also have access to different resources. And we would assume that some of those resources are impactful ethics training.” 

While lower-level practitioners may receive some ethics training, researchers suspect that the variance could point to a need for more effective training and resources at all levels of the field.

“Ethics training is being done, but is it, is it influential? Is it effective?" If we don't know what's effective, then it's just this meaningless task that businesses are wasting resources on,” Schauster said. 

Already, results from the advertising study, compared with the team’s 2019 study, “Journalists Primed: How Professional Identity Affects Moral Decision Making,” and a 2020 study, "Public Relations Primed: An Update on Practitioners’ Moral Reasoning, from Moral Development to Moral Maintenance,” hint at the way the media landscape has evolved since 2005.

Previously, journalists have scored the highest on moral reasoning, with advertisers scoring the lowest and PR practitioners scoring somewhere in the middle. While that trend seems to have continued––with journalists scoring higher than advertisers in recent studies––there also seems to be a leveling-out among the fields. 

Ultimately, though, far more research is needed in order for researchers to understand the broader picture, Schauster said.

“We don't need to just revamp ethics training for it to be influential. We need to understand how ethics training works. And that requires more research, too.”

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash