I feel like one of the main theories that would automatically be compared to modern-day advertising would be Egoism. As an advertising major, I'd love to be able to disagree, but some of the comparisons directly relate.
According to our Ethics class discussions, Egoism designates what is morally right only if it advances long-term self-interest. That means, whatever is good for yourself is moral. The definition of Egoism seems pretty outlandish to me. There are so many things wrong with it, in my opinion. It's a very selfish and self-serving way to think about life. As long as I'm doing well, nothing else matters.
We used the example of politicians in class. They seemed to be at the forefront of almost all of my classmate's minds when it came to Egoism. According to this theory, Arnold Schwarzenegger keeping his love child a secret from his wife (and the public) for more than 10 years is morally correct because it was in his own self-interest to keep it a secret. If this particular information had come out earlier, he may not have been able to become a working politician at all. So, for all those years, his "moral" choice to stay hush-hush worked in his favor.
In advertising, I view late-night infomercials or commercials in the same light as politicians. They are selling me silly diet pills or useless cookie jars. Not only are some of these products useless, but they also don't always work as promised. According to Egoism, morality has nothing to do with the consumer getting faulty products, but all to do with how the company's profits soar.
I'm sure there is someone out there that may put this same perspective on all kinds of advertising. If it's not water, air or shelter it surely doesn't even need to be advertised. That debate can be saved for another day. Most of us the in the advertising industry don't really plan on living up to the moral code of Egoism. I sure don't plan on it. I don't want my moral consciousness to depend on how awesome I do for my own self. I don't think that taking down others would make me feel very good about myself at the end of the day. Which, in my mind, defeats the purpose of having morals at all.
Another popularly talked about ethical theory is Emmanuel Kant's philosophy. In his theory, all moral actions must be the result of good will, or else they are not moral at all. This one is harder to wrap my head around just because most of our actions aren't truly derived from our own good thoughts, but from rules and the cultural pressures of what are right and wrong.
In the advertising field, Kant's theory couldn't hold up very well. Sometimes rules and regulations are the sole reason that certain words and phrases must be used, not good will. In medicine commercials particularly, companies are required by law to list all side affects and warnings. I can almost guarantee that if those weren't laws, they would not be included in the advertisements. These facts give a negative vibe to the entire commercial. Does the company really care if the public knows all the terrible things that may rarely happen as a result of taking this medicine? Probably not. Since they don't put these facts in commercials from the kindness of their hearts, Kant's theory says that this is an immoral action altogther. I really think that it would be difficult for anyone to get through an entire day using Kant's theory on morality.
Regardless of what these two theories state, I do believe there is a way for advertisers to be moral. However, my standard is based on personal beliefs and current American culture. It's hard to define right and wrong when there is no definite true answer.