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Advertising Primed: How Professional Identity Affects Moral Reasoning

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Moral reasoning among media professionals varies. Historically, advertising professionals score lower on the Defining Issues Test (DIT) than their media colleagues in journalism and public relations. However, the extent to which professional identity impacts media professionals’ moral reasoning has yet to be examined. To understand how professional identity influences moral reasoning, if at all, and guided by theories of moral psychology and social identity, 134 advertising practitioners working in the USA participated in an online experiment. While professional identity was not a significant predictor of moral reasoning, an interaction effect between gender and identity priming occurred. This finding suggests that we reconsider moral psychology theory’s explanatory power for media practitioners and consider how the complexity of professional identities in concert with gender and professional training, among other variables, interact to affect moral reasoning. In addition, advertising practitioners participating in this experiment scored higher on the DIT than those tested previously.
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Vol.:(0123456789)
1 3
Journal of Business Ethics (2021) 171:175–187
https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-020-04429-0
ORIGINAL PAPER
Advertising Primed: How Professional Identity Affects Moral
Reasoning
ErinSchauster1· PatrickFerrucci2· EdsonTandoc3· TaraWalker2
Received: 2 August 2019 / Accepted: 8 January 2020 / Published online: 20 January 2020
© Springer Nature B.V. 2020
Abstract
Moral reasoning among media professionals varies. Historically, advertising professionals score lower on the Defining Issues
Test (DIT) than their media colleagues in journalism and public relations. However, the extent to which professional identity
impacts media professionals’ moral reasoning has yet to be examined. To understand how professional identity influences
moral reasoning, if at all, and guided by theories of moral psychology and social identity, 134 advertising practitioners work-
ing in the USA participated in an online experiment. While professional identity was not a significant predictor of moral
reasoning, an interaction effect between gender and identity priming occurred. This finding suggests that we reconsider moral
psychology theory’s explanatory power for media practitioners and consider how the complexity of professional identities in
concert with gender and professional training, among other variables, interact to affect moral reasoning. In addition, advertis-
ing practitioners participating in this experiment scored higher on the DIT than those tested previously.
Keywords Moral reasoning· Moral psychology· Advertising· Identity priming· Experiment
According to recent statistics, 84% of global consumers
“seek out responsible products whenever possible” (Sustain-
able Brands 2015) and 56% of U.S. consumers suggested
they would stop buying from companies they believed
were unethical (Mintel 2015). In response, marketers and
the brands they promote are engaging in brand activism,
corporate social responsibility, philanthropy, and other
socially responsible marketing practices. Advertising is an
essential promotional practice of marketing, but one that
has historically been criticized as unethical. Considering
the complexity of producing and placing persuasive content
across various platforms with varying degrees of oversight,
and involving many players from advertising practition-
ers and the clients they represent to media producers and
publishers, ethical problems abound. As one might expect,
when asked, consumers suggest that advertising practition-
ers are untrustworthy by comparing the profession to that of
automobile sales (O’Barr 2006), a perception that increased
slightly in 2019 when consumers were asked to rate the
honesty and ethical standards of various professional fields
including advertising (Gallup 2019).
In media ethics scholarship, findings extend beyond
consumer perceptions to suggest how media practitioners
apply moral reasoning. When compared to their colleagues
in other media fields such as journalism and public relations,
advertising practitioners score lower on moral reasoning
measures, such as the Defining Issues Test (DIT) (Cunning-
ham 2005), a widely used, valid and reliable measure used
in moral psychology (Rest etal. 1999; Xu etal. 2017). The
theory of moral psychology, based upon the seminal work of
Piaget (1965) and Kohlberg (1981), initially suggested that
individuals engage in higher levels of moral reasoning as
they age and advance in education (Rest etal. 1977). Since
then, ethicists have applied the DIT to assess moral reason-
ing and to compare reasoning between professions such as
* Erin Schauster
erin.schauster@colorado.edu
Patrick Ferrucci
patrick.ferrucci@colorado.edu
Edson Tandoc
edson@ntu.edu.sg
Tara Walker
tara.g.walker@colorado.edu
1 University ofColorado Boulder, 1511 University Avenue,
Boulder, CO80309, USA
2 University ofColorado Boulder, Boulder, USA
3 Nanyang Technological University, 50 Nanyang Avenue,
Singapore639798, Singapore
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
... When they are offered, training programs can vary in both design and implementation; and the extent to which they impact moral reasoning for professionals is unclear (Fraedrich, Cherry, King, & Guo, 2005). While much of the moral psychology research examines the impact of ethics education in college (see Bebeau, 2002), and those examining practitioners have found an increase in moral reasoning due to professional training (e.g., Doyle, Frecknall Hughes, & Summers, 2013), it has also been suggested that for media practitioners, ethics training is not a significant predictor of moral reasoning (Schauster, Ferrucci, Tandoc, & Walker, 2020). ...
... The current findings also suggest that ethics training had no significant impact on moral reasoning similar to recent study utilizing priming (Schauster, Ferrucci, Tandoc, & Walker, 2020), but contrary to a long line of literature in business ethics (e.g., Kaptein, 2015;Ruiz et al., 2015;Trevino & Weaver, 2001) including a study utilizing the DIT (Doyle et al., 2013). Yet by comparison, education was a positive predictor of moral reasoning. ...
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