Theory and Society

, Volume 47, Issue 2, pp 175–206 | Cite as

Advertising morality: maintaining moral worth in a stigmatized profession

  • Andrew C. CohenEmail author
  • Shai M. Dromi


Although a great deal of literature has looked at how individuals respond to stigma, far less has been written about how professional groups address challenges to their self-perception as abiding by clear moral standards. In this paper, we ask how professional group members maintain a positive self-perception in the face of moral stigma. Drawing on pragmatic and cultural sociology, we claim that professional communities hold narratives that link various aspects of the work their members perform with specific understanding of the common good. These narratives allow professionals to maintain a shared view of their work as benefitting society and to perceive themselves as moral individuals. As a case study, we focus on the advertising industry, which has long been stigmatized as complicit in exploitative capitalist mechanisms and cultural degradation. We draw on nine total months of fieldwork and seventy-four interviews across three US advertising agencies. We find that advertising practitioners use narratives to present their work as contributing to the common good, depicting themselves as moral individuals who care about others in the process. We analyze three prevalent narratives: the account-driven narrative, which links moral virtue to caring for clients; the creative-driven narrative, which ties caring to the production of meaningful advertisements; and the strategic-driven narrative, which sees caring in finding meaningful relationships for consumers and brands.


Cultural sociology Narrative Pragmatic sociology Production of culture Professional ethics Stigma 



Both authors contributed equally and are listed alphabetically. We thank the many employees of the three agencies in this study, who generously donated their time and thoughts. We would also like to thank Jeffrey Alexander, Matt Andersson, Sorcha Brophy, Gary Allen Fine, Thomas Lyttleton, Candas Pinar, Samuel Stabler, and Frederick Wherry, all of whom provided insightful suggestions and feedback that improved this article. We also thank the anonymous reviewers and one of the senior editors at Theory and Society, whose reviews also strengthened this article.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Yale Center for Cultural SociologyYale UniversityNew HavenUSA
  2. 2.Department of SociologyHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA

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