Strategic Comms Pt 37: Evaluating the Ethics of Your Message

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(This is the 37th in a continuing series on strategic communications. Click here for earlier segments)

By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group

Along with ensuring that your message is effective, how do you determine whether it’s ethical as well?  For instance, according to the Narrative Paradigm Theory, our interpretation of communication is based more on values and emotion than logic.  That is, this theory argues that the narratives that people develop as part of the culture that they share shape our beliefs and behaviors.[1]

However, as Bush and Bush discuss in their analysis of the ethics of advertising using the narrative paradigm, evaluating the ethics of messages is problematic for two reasons.  First is the pluralistic nature of moral philosophy, meaning that each individual has his or her own ideas about what is ethical and unethical.  And, second is the challenge of measuring ethics because there appears to be no single standard of evaluation.  As a result, these researchers used a framework based on the narrative paradigm.  They evaluated ads based on their narrative probability – whether they were consistent with the audience’s common knowledge in terms of myth, metaphor or convention – and their narrative fidelity – whether they were consistent with the moral character of the audience.[2]

To illustrate the importance of this type of assessment, the researchers state that a number of advertisements have been pulled after criticism from various publics.  For example, an ad by Nissan Motor Corporation for a Nissan 300SX Turbo was pulled after just one showing in the wake of criticism from numerous safety groups due to its promotion of excessive speed.  As a framework for advertisers to assess these types of ethical considerations, Bush and Bush recommend posing three general questions.  First, does the story/ad possess narrative probability?  Second, does the story/ad possess narrative fidelity?  And, third, what are the potential consequences of the story/ad based on its narrative evaluation?

By using a narrative paradigm together with the more traditional measures of a rational paradigm, you’ll be able to pretest your messages.  This will enable you to ascertain whether your messages will be consistent with the shared knowledge and moral character of the groups you hope to influence.

Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for Saint Consulting, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics.  He is also an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communications and the performing arts. Email

[1] Richard West and Lynn H. Turner, Introducing Communication Theory: Analysis and Application (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2010), 343-358.

[2] Alan J. Bush and Victoria Davies Bush, “The Narrative Paradigm as a Perspective for Improving Ethical Evaluations of Advertisements,” Journal of Advertising, Volume XXIII, Number 3, September 1994.

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