Go Directly To Jail. Do Not Pass Go

How ethical are advertising executives? The answer isn’t pretty, judging by a new study. While working primarily with journalists, researchers at the University of Missouri and Louisiana State University conducted an online survey with a group of 65 ad executives to measure their reaction to moral dilemmas contained in a standardized psychological exam known as the Defining Issues Test (DIT).

The result? The ad folks scored a paltry 31.64 out of 100, which has them trailing all sorts of groups, including seminarians/philosophers (65.1), medical students (50.2), physicians (49.2), journalists (48.7) nurses (46.3), undergraduate students (43.2), Navy personnel (41.6), adults in general (41), orthopedic surgeons (41) and accounting auditors (32.5). When asked to deliberate ethical scenarios specific to their industry, ad execs scored 22.7, lower than high-school students (31) and prison inmates (23.7). They responded to moral conundrums pragmatically, by and large, weighing implications primarily in terms of how they would affect their business.

“It’s not surprising. But should it be that way? I don’t think so,” says Lee Wilkins, a professor at the University of Missouri and co-author of a book based on the study, The Moral Media: How Journalists Reason About Ethics. “There’s ample evidence that a utilitarian calculus makes people distrustful and does not allow them to do their best work.”