Selling the War? System-Justifying Effects of Commercial Advertising on Civilian Casualty Tolerance



In times of war, news media coverage of the plight of civilian casualties plays a critical role in shaping attitudes regarding war's human costs. We proposed that these attitudes may also be surreptitiously influenced by the commercial advertisements that often accompany this coverage. Specifically, we hypothesized that when newspaper articles pertaining to civilian victims of war are flanked by luxury ads, conservatives, relative to liberals, will subsequently exhibit less concern for these victims. This proposition was based on the notion that commercial ads, particularly those promoting luxury items, make salient the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” and thereby, at least implicitly, threaten the legitimacy of the current socioeconomic system. Drawing upon system justification theory, we posited that this threat would lead individuals with stronger system-justification tendencies (conservatives), relative to those more open to challenging the current system (liberals), to show greater tolerance for civilian war casualties in order to defend the system's integrity. Evidence consistent with this hypothesis was found in a quasi-experimental study (n = 329).