Since its beginning in the early 1900s, advertising has been an omnipresent force that shapes our perceptions, influences our choices, and often defines our desires. But as we delve deeper into the ethical and philosophical aspects of advertising, we must ask: Does advertising conflict with the concept of Dharma, the moral and ethical path in Vedic philosophy? Is advertising inherently bad, or can it be harnessed as a powerful tool for positive change? In this piece, I try to explore the intricate relationship between advertising and Dharma, emphasizing that it’s not advertising itself but how it is used that determines its ethical implications.
At its core, advertising is a communication tool—a means to convey information, ideas, and products to a broad audience. Like any tool, its morality lies in the intentions behind its use and the consequences it produces. From this perspective, advertising is neutral; it’s neither inherently good nor bad. Instead, it becomes a reflection of the values, ethics, and intentions of those who create and employ it. As the Rishis say, “Everything in life is like fire. Fire can cook your food or burn your house, depending on how you plan to use it.” The fire itself is not responsible for destruction, for it has no consciousness or a mind of its own. It just does its duty.
Hence, one can argue that advertising can be a force for good when used responsibly. Brands and their agencies have the power to shape people’s behaviours positively by promoting social causes, health awareness, and sustainable living. In recent years, we’ve seen more campaigns advocating for environmental conservation, responsible consumption, and charitable contributions. These initiatives use advertising’s reach and persuasion to drive positive change, aligning with the principles of Dharma—which in this context can be better understood as the essence of sustainability and harmony—that encourage selfless actions for the greater good.
Critics often associate advertising with consumerism—a culture driven by the pursuit of material possessions and instant gratification. This consumerist mindset may seem at odds with the principles of Dharma, which advocate moderation and contentment. However, it’s crucial to distinguish between the content of advertising and the individual’s response to it. While some advertisements promote excessive consumption, the responsibility ultimately lies with people (aka the audience) to practice discernment and choose to align their actions with Dharma.
We all have to be aware of the choices we make daily, of their implications and how we are being influenced to act by the media landscape at large. We have to regain our power and control over our own mind in order to make better decisions.
In Vedic texts, the mind is a central element of human consciousness. It is seen as a powerful tool that can be either a source of liberation or bondage, depending on how it is cultivated and controlled. Advertising, in its role of shaping perceptions and desires, undoubtedly affects the mind. However, it is up to individuals to cultivate awareness, mindfulness, and self-control, as prescribed in the Vedic texts, to maintain harmony with Dharma.
The relationship between advertising and Dharma is a complex one, rooted in how this communication tool is employed and how individuals respond to it. Advertising itself is not inherently good or bad; rather, it is a reflection of human intentions and values. It can be harnessed as a powerful force for positive change when used to promote ethical causes and responsible behavior.
Ultimately, the concept of Dharma encourages individuals to exercise discernment and self-control in their interactions with the world, including advertising. By doing so, one can navigate the modern landscape of advertising without losing sight of their ethical and moral responsibilities. Thus, the “loss of consciousness” of an ad man can be transformed into a conscious choice to use advertising as a force for the greater good of all earthlings and not just humanity, aligning with the timeless principles of Dharma.
This is where I got to in exploring the intersection of advertising and Dharma. The search continues but it feels I’m clearing out the path of some old beliefs, sense of guilt and conditioning.