Advertising: Commercial Rhetoric

by John M. Phelan

John M. Phelan, Ph. D., is Founding Director of the McGannon Communication Research Center and Professor of Communications and Media Studies, Fordham University, New York City.  He came to Fordham as Chairman of the Communications Department to redesign the curriculum when Marshall McLuhan was Professor of Communications there.  He is a media reform activist who works with many public interest groups.  Phelan’s writings include: Communication Control (ed.)  New York: Sheed & Ward, 1969.  Readings on the structures and motives of censorship from psychoanalysis to Chinese thought reform to the First Amendment.

Mediaworld:  Programming the Public.  A Continuum Book.  New York: Seabury, 1977.  Essays about the effect of modernization and industrialization on politics, leisure, art and religion through the media.

Disenchantment: Meaning and Morality in the Media.  New York; Hastings House, 1980.  Essays on censorship, ethinic programming, pornography, popular religious practices, media criticism, effects research, ritual and transmission models of communication.

Commercial Television Campaigns and the Public Interest.  New York: McGannon Communication Research, 1991.  Monograph on the genesis and ethos of public service campaigns; principles and case studies.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 22, 1997, pp. 942-946. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Modern advertising is not unlike total high-tech nuclear warfare. Both carry on practices from the dim past but each has so industrialized the process with advanced technologies that the fundamental activity is transmuted into something new that raises questions beyond standard discussions of right and wrong.

"Advertising." Entry for Dictionary of Theology and Society. Eds. Paul A.B. Clarke and Andrew Linzey. London: Routledge, 1995. Essay on the moral and ethical implications of commercial rhetoric and their adaptations for political, religious, public order and public service purposes.