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Ethical issues in advertising

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Marketing
Wordcount: 5319 words Published: 22nd Jun 2015

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Human beings create a number of different worlds. One of the worlds that human beings have created is the world of money, trade, commodities and exchange. To an outsider, this often feels like a world full of beauty and ugliness in equal proportions – messy, flashy, exotic and sometimes even scary. Advertisers are often so engrossed with the nitty-gritty of the profession and dealing with as well as outsmarting competition, that they are unable to observe and comprehend this phenomenon.

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The business arena can be viewed as the world of buyers and sellers, producers and consumers, bosses and workers, a world of money. It is in effect nothing less than an ontological category – A Way of Being. It is not accidental to who we are, but rather, it defines the way we relate to each other as well as to the world around us. However, we must realise that it is not the be-all and end-all, and that there are other ways of Being; the most fundamental of these being Ethics.

As per Geoffrey Klempner, Ethics is defined by an “I-thou” relationship as follows:

“When I engage another person in moral dialogue, there are not two parallel processes of practical deliberation going on, his and mine, but only one. “

This is in clear contrast with the case of a dialogue between traders or politicians, where each is privately deliberating as to how to gain the upper hand. In the former case, one is already committed to the practical consequences of agreement, and of doing the action which by the combined light of both the parties’ valuational perspective, is seen as the thing to be done.

Human beings can belong to more than one world, or even move between worlds. We live in the marketplace and also outside of it. We can either play the various roles assigned to us in the game, or we can step outside of our economic personae and observe ourselves from an ethical point of view.

Geoffrey Klempner has put forward three propositions as a ‘prolegomenon to a philosophy for business’:

  • Business and commerce take place in a frame, in an arena defined by unwritten rules
  • Normalethics is suspended within the business arena
  • The aim of a philosophy for a business is to understand the rules that define the business arena, i.e. to grasp from an ethical perspective, as tohow business is possible

When we claim that in the business world ‘normal ethics is suspended’, we do not deny the validity of rules of conduct, such as honesty and fairness. Without these universal rules and these values, the game could not be played. However, these obligations do fall far short of the demands of ethics.

Advertising plays a major role in consumer marketing. It enables companies to meet their communication as well as other marketing objectives. Advertising is typically used to inform, persuade, and remind consumers. More importantly, it reinforces their attitudes and perceptions. For decades, advertising has been a target of criticism. It has been hailed as an engine of free market economy, a capitalistic virtue, as, and as a promoter of consumer welfare. On the other hand, its detractors accuse it of an array of sins ranging from sexism to deceit and manipulation, as an economic waste to purveying of harmful products, from triviality to moral and intellectual pollution (Mittal, 1994).

Many see advertising as a threat to the self realization and to the cultural identity of the developing countries, since:

  • It brings to many people alien ethical values
  • It may deviate consumer demands in the developing countries to areas which might inhibit development priorities
  • It affects and can also often deform ways of life and lifestyles(Mac Bride, 1980)
  • Advertising is considered unethical in the following scenarios:
  • It degrades the rival’s product or a substitute product
  • It gives misguiding information/false information
  • It conceals information that vitally affects human life (e.g. Side effects of drugs)
  • It makes exaggerated claims
  • It is obscene or immoral or is against the broad national interest

Even though comparative advertising may be considered legal and given the fact that its widespread use may have granted it acceptance, the debate on whether it is ethical or not, still continues to rage. There is however no unanimity or common ground among advertising professionals and marketing clients with regards to such questionable practices. However, all of them agree to this one aspect, that while considering the question of unethical practices, the focus needs to be to safeguard the interest of buyers at the micro level and of the society at the macro level, since their satisfaction remains the key to marketing success.

The criticism has not been limited only to its intended effects on society, but also extends to its unintended effects. Most of the criticism has come from the “elite” observers of society. In contrast to this however, the general public has historically viewed advertising in a much more positive way. Criticisms of advertising have generally originated from the highest socio-economic classes. Since the earliest days of what now entails the modern marketing era and before, lower and middle class people have historically been more positive towards advertising. (Bauer & Greyser, 1968; Fullerton & Nevett, 1986; Steiner, 1976; Zanot, 1984).

In India, we are still unaware of the extent to which these intellectual criticisms reflect the more widely held consumer beliefs and attitudes. To understand the viewpoints and opinions of the Indian public, we must examine as to how advertising is perceived in terms of its economic, social and ethical impacts.


Advertising is omnipresent in today’s world, with a large proportion of human and also material resources are devoted to the field of advertising. Advertising has a number of benefits, which we can classify under the following heads:

  1. Economic Benefits of Advertising
  2. Advertising plays a very important role in the process by which an economic system is guided by moral norms and is responsive to the common good that contributes to human development. It is an essential part of the functioning of the modern market economies, which exist, or are emerging in many different parts of the world as well as those which seem to be the most efficient instrument for effective utilization of resources and also for effectively responding to the needs of different socio-economic kinds.

  3. Benefits of Political Advertising
  4. As a free and a responsible media, in a democratic system, it helps to counteract the tendencies towards monopolization of power on the part of oligarchies and also the special interests. Thus, political advertising can make a significant contribution by informing people about the policy proposals and the ideas of parties and their candidates, also including new candidates who were hitherto unknown to the public.

  5. Cultural Benefits of Advertising
  6. Advertisers have the opportunity to exert a strong influence on decisions pertaining to media content. They do so by supporting the material of excellent aesthetic, intellectual as well as moral quality that is presented with the greater interest of the public, and is particularly done by encouraging and making it possible for media presentations to be oriented towards those minorities whose needs go unnoticed and thus un-served.

  7. Moral and Religious Benefits of Advertising
  8. It has often been seen, that benevolent social institutions, including institutions of a religious nature, make in-depth use of advertising in order to communicate their messages. These may be messages of faith, messages of patriotism, messages of tolerance, or even messages of compassion and neighbourly service. The advertised messages may be those of charity towards the needy, messages concerning health and education, as well as constructive and helpful messages that not only educate, but also motivate people in a variety of ways.

High involvement in all aspects of media-related activities, including advertising, has today become an essential part of a highly comprehensive pastoral strategy.


Advertising’s visible social role makes it a target for criticism. Some of today’s customers believe that a great deal of advertising is unethical because:

  • It adds to the price of the products
  • It is untruthful
  • It tricks people
  • It targets vulnerable people

Numerous advertising-related issues are often left to the discretion of the advertisers and are based on ethical concerns:

Advocacy à Advertising tries to persuade the audience to do something that is not correct. It is not objective or neutral.

Accuracy à Subtle messages trouble critics, especially when aimed at groups such as children, the elderly or the disabled.

Acquisitiveness à Consumers are continually persuaded that they continually need more and more new products. However, consumers make the final decision.


Even though a section of the media and the public lambasted the advertisers and the advertising agencies for the falling scores of decency and taste in advertising, such advertisements raged on and they have now become the order of the day. Brands that were far-fetched from carnality have started showing all-consuming lust in their advertisements.

This trend is prevalent in India as well. It began when on 23rd July 1995, a Mumbai tabloid published a photograph of an advertisement for Tuff shoes that showed models Milind Soman and Madhu Sapre, posing in the nude with a python wrapped around them, just about covering the vitals. The protests and controversy dragged on for a long time. The nation pooh-poohed the audacity of the couple, while the advertisement agencies defended their creative rights.

The slogan of advertisers now-a-days is “Love it. Or Hate it. Or think it is offensive. But you have to notice it.”

Advertising is largely criticized since selling carries a stigma. Centuries ago, Anacharis had said, “the market is a place set aside where men may deceive each other”. Even to this date despite the significant rise in consumerism and despite the efforts to counter market deception, buyers are still gullible and are not particularly on the guard against deception.

Under intense competition and declining profits, the perspective of organizations shifts from what is best for the society in the long run, to what is best for the company in the short-run. The advertisers claim that ethics are fine for the secure however all the slipping that a company needs is the desire for a greater market share.

Since advertising pertains to a large audience, it belongs refers to the 4th quadrant of the grid shown below. Thus, the question to be asked by advertisers is, “What makes a good society?” Advertising thus must address the most controversial, collective level welfare issues.


Advertising ethics affects both the practice of our lives and of business, in subtle as well as prominent ways. Ethics in advertisements concern us all in one way or the other. The areas under the scrutiny of the critics are:


For sex related products

Instead of generating awareness among people about the necessity of safe sex and the benefits of birth control, condom advertisements continue to intrigue the audience and especially the youth with the unique feel that it has to offer.

E.g. Moods Condoms

For health care and professional services

The slimming centres which promise miraculous weight reduction and the cosmetic surgery clinics which assure a permanent solution to all beauty problems.

E.g. VLCC Slimming Centre

For vices with fatal effects

  • Tobacco chewing ads
  • Commercials of alcoholic beverages that tempt the non-alcoholics to have a sip
  • Gambling

In early 2001, the Government of India announced that it would table a bill banning the tobacco companies from advertising their products and from sponsoring sports and cultural events. This example brings to the fore both the commercial and ethical dimensions of such a ban. It helps us to understand the role of ethics in a business decision and to understand where to draw the line in making decisions, which involve both ethical and commercial considerations.

The element of social responsiveness as well as social responsibility attached to a business ethics dimension results in corporate strategy or even in formulating a business policy.

Thus, we see that the connotation of ethics goes beyond the illegal acts of professional managers or even entrepreneurs. It covers the entire gamut of business operation, including ethics in advertising.


Puffery refers to the exaggerated claim of a product’s superiority or it could also be the use of subjective/vague statements that may not be true in the literary sense.

The Uniform Commercial Code is responsible for standardizing sales and business practices throughout the U.S. It makes a distinction between puffery as well as any specific or quantifiable statement about the product quality or the performance that constitutes an “express warranty.”

For example, a diner advertisement promoting what it claims to be the “world’s best cup of coffee” would classify as puffery. Such a claim would be almost impossible to substantiate, and no reasonable consumer would fall for it and take such an exaggeration at its face value. Puffery often makes use of the superlative form of a word, like “best” or “greatest”. Puffery might also at times exaggerate the advertised effects of a particular product.


One that is transferred in such a way that the receiver is not consciously aware of receiving it.

Subliminal means something that registers below the level of the conscious human mind. The brain perceives all the information in theory however the mind does not interpret the information for a meaning. Numerous studies indicate that quite often, we actually do perceive information at the subliminal level.

A good example would be as to how often one would notice when the speedometer in the car is about to roll over to a bunch of zeroes. One doesn’t consciously notice the mileage on the car ever so often, but the zeroing does make us pay attention. While driving to work, how many cars do we pass? What makes and models were they a part of? The only ones that we paid particular attention to were most probably the really neat cars or those cars which were driven by the people we recognize.

If we notice something consciously, then it ceases to be subliminal anymore.

Inserting subliminal messages in advertisements is an inherently misleading action. It involves an attempt to manipulate the thinking of a person, without the person even realizing it. The West has seen a considerable number of subliminal advertisements and related hullabaloos. This is primarily because the advertisement, marketing and the regulating media themselves have been quite active while raising such issues. During the US Presidential elections of the year 2000, it was found that a political advertisement for the candidature of George W. Bush subliminally flashed the word ‘RATS’ while criticizing candidate Al Gore’s plan for prescription medicine. While the ad maker was prompt in denying that the quickly flashed word was in fact a subliminal message designed to sling mud at Gore, a large number of people, however, had concluded that ‘RATS’ was indeed inserted with the surreptitious intention of subliminally causing the viewers’ to associate Al Gore with vermin. The questionable word appeared on the screen only for a microsecond, thus passing by so fast that it was almost not recognizable to the conscious mind, especially when the mind was already passively lulled by television. As per the theory of subliminal advertising, the image would, actually register in the viewer’s subconscious mind, thus causing the viewer to negatively associate candidate Al Gore with a rat/rodent.


Use of questionable appeals

The advertisements that bank on negative appeal and fear like neighbour’s envy, feud, jealousy etc. are part of this category.

Nimbus’ Neo Sports (Neo) had bagged the telecast rights for the India-West Indies and also the India-Sri Lanka series to be held in India.

In January 2007, an ad campaign was launched by Nimbus with the pay-off line being ‘It’s tough being a West Indian in India’. One of the advertisements in this series showed a West Indian desperately searching for some water to quench his thirst, as his palette is unable to handle the spicy Indian food. However, the Indians put their dirty fingers and their dentures into the water in order to deny him from having a drink.

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Another advertisement showed a West Indian couple along with an Indian boatman, on a boat-ride. On reaching the centre of the deep lake, the boatman throws the oars into the lake and then disrobes; giving the impression that he would assault the girl. Then, he jumps into the lake leaving the distraught couple stuck in the middle of the lake.

Media experts have opined that what according to Nimbus was a creative way of showcasing the competitive spirit in India, as well as creating hype around its new sports channel, had actually trod the fine line between creative and unconventional advertising and respecting the ethical sensibilities of the people.

It was felt by some critics that the two advertisements that were shown in the campaign, were in bad taste and also was offensive, since it showed people being mistreated, on the basis of colour/nationality. The advertisements were also criticized for showing Indians in bad light as India has always been known for its hospitality.

Stereotypical appeals

This includes sexual or racial stereotyping. Advertisements that imply that a woman, whether in the kitchen or in the boardroom, must look sensuous and inviting under any given circumstances, is an apt example of advertisements creating stereotypes. The fairness creams are also responsible for stereotyping the dusky women as being socially less desired for marriage.

Other stereotypes that are often portrayed and concretized through advertisements are:

  • Racial & Ethnic Stereotypes
  • Senior Citizens
  • Gay & Lesbian Consumers


Given their wide reach and influence on the audience, we must realise that advertisements have significant impact on society in the long run:

Value formation

Advertisements are responsible for moulding society and the material wants of the people. The advertisements which display scantily clad female models in effect commoditize women. Moreover, the deluge of advertisements that increase ones propensity of consumption makes one feel that it is essential to possess a certain commodity in order to show that one belongs to a particular section (generally, higher echelon) of the society.

Media content

This refers to the information content of advertisements. Those advertisements which suggest the usage of preserved food items without even the slightest mention of the fact that many of the preservatives used have been proved to have carcinogenic effects are part of this category.

Use of deception

The advertisements of brands which conceal their negative aspects are included in this category. An example of this is the advertisements of cosmetics which say nothing at all about the long-term effects of using their products on a regular basis. Also, the advertisements of various educational institutes that wrongly claim to provide 100 percent placement to their students fall into this category.

Advertisements targeting children and adolescents

The advertisements that target the vulnerability of the adolescents and the children result in the creation of role models whom these kids are expected to emulate. This in turn shapes their dreams and aspirations in a truly unbecoming way.


Voice/Tone of the advertisement

Comparative advertisements that thrive on inflicting vitriolic attacks on rivals are an example of this category. Copying of ideas and plagiarising of advertisements in the ad world is another such menace.

Impediments to research on Ethics in Advertising

There exist certain impediments to research on advertising ethics:

Lack of practitioner interest

Research is often impeded by the inapplicability of published findings to the business operations. Another reason for the same might be the disinterest of corporations in sponsoring research on advertising ethics as also is the funding constraint that cause researchers to rely only on a convenience sample.

Lack of sound measures and framework

Research is also impeded by a lack of psychometrically sound measurement scales and also a lack of theoretical frameworks in the field of advertising/marketing.

Lack of relevant theories in related disciplines

Research is also sometimes hampered by theoretical shortcomings in the fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology, management, philosophy and advertising/ marketing.

Lack of academic interest

Research is often impeded by the lack of a journal editor and the difficulty that researchers face when trying to relate ethical issues to the traditional advertising issues.

Why be ethical?

During the 83rd Annual Management Conference of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, Keith Reinhardt, the Chairman and the Chief Executive of the US $15-billion company DDB Worldwide Communications Group, quoted the legendary co-founder of DDB, Bill Bernbach: “All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of the society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.”

It might be misconstrued that Reinhad is against the edgy and the unconventional advertising means, however, that is not the case. He is against prurient sex, filthy humour and violence in advertisements. By making a success story out of the advertisements that are offensive to public decency, the message being put forth is disturbingly clear: the more rude and shocking you can be, the more successful you will be in advertising your product. Moreover, such advertisements send out faulty signals to the youngsters who represent and shape the future of our society. The people to blame for this are young creative directors who take pride in their eccentric thought process. Not only this, but the advertising industry also encourages this through machineries from Cannes to Clios that help place such creations on the pedestal. Passion is, without doubt, the most important ingredient in creative achievement. However, its flame need not necessarily leap for bullets, obscenity and falsehoods alone. It is essential to reinforce the virtue of positive passion in today’s advertising world. It is imperative that ethics is a part of advertising, since we have a duty to live a good and fulfilling moral life. This duty is equally applicable to our business lives as well as our private lives. Marketing professionals also know that strong ethics do bring in good business.



The Federal Trade Commission’s main focus regarding advertising is to identify and eliminate advertisements that are deceptive or those that mislead the consumer. The key areas of concern in this regard are:


The current policy on deception contains three basic elements:

  • Where there is omission, practice or representation, there must be a high probability that it will mislead the consumer
  • A “reasonable customer’s” perspective is used to judge deception
  • The deception must lead to material injury

As is evident from these basic elements, deception, in most cases becomes difficult to prove. Thus, even though an advertisement might be indulging in deceptive practices that do not strictly fall under the purview of the above mentioned elements, it cannot be prohibited.

Reasonable basis for making a claim

The reasonability of a claim is decided on a case-by-case basis. The following factors are taken into consideration in this regard:

  • Type & specificity of the claim made
  • Type of product
  • Possible consequence of the false claim
  • The degree of reliance by consumers on the claim made
  • The type and accessibility of the evidence available for making the claim

Comparative Advertising

Comparative advertising refers to an advertisement in which a particular product/service mentions the name of the competitor for the purpose of showing why the competitor is inferior to the product which is naming it. Comparative advertising by companies are on some occasions used to put down products of rival firms, without any basis or facts. This leads to unhealthy competition in the marketplace. Comparative advertising is considered deceptive unless:

  • Comparisons made are based on facts
  • The differences that are being advertised are statistically significant
  • The comparisons made involve meaningful issues
  • The comparisons are made to meaningful competitors

In the 1980s – during the period that has been now referred to as thecola wars,the soft drinkmanufacturerPepsiran a series of advertisements in which t showed people caught on hidden camera, and administered a blind taste test, chose Pepsi over arch rivalCoca-Cola.


An endorser or a testimonial refers to any advertising message that consumers believe reflects the opinions, beliefs or experiences of an individual, a group, or an institution.

Endorsers must:

  • Be qualified by experience or training to make judgements
  • They must actually use the product


As per Phillip Kotler, “An organization’s Task is to determine the needs, wants and interests of the target markets and to deliver the desired satisfactions more effectively and efficiently than its competitors in a way that preserves or enhances the consumer’s and the society’s Well-Being.”

Thus we see that organizations do have a responsibility towards society, apart from achieving their individual profit targets.

An organization can exhibit two levels of social responsibility:

  • Level One à Being socially responsible is a business philosophy
  • Level Two à The advertiser is engaged in Pro-social Messaging
  • An organization also exhibits different approaches to social responsibility:
  • Obstructionist Stance à Organization does as little as possible i.e. exhibits a low degree of social responsibility
  • Defensive Stance à Organization does only what is legally required
  • Accommodative Stance à Organization meets legal & ethical requirements and sometimes also goes beyond what is required
  • Proactive Stance à Organization seeks opportunities to be socially responsible i.e. exhibits a high degree of social responsibility

There are also different levels of Self Regulation that are often seen in organizations:

  1. Self-Discipline à An organization develops, uses and enforces the norms by itself
  2. Pure Self Regulation à The industry is the one which develops, uses and enforces norms
  3. Co-Opted Self Regulation à Industry voluntarily involves non-industry people in the development, application and enforcement of norms




Thus, we have seen the various types of advertisements that fall under the purview of unethical advertising, and have also seen the far reaching effects of the circumvention of ethics and morals on the society at large. Wherever freedom of speech and communication exists, it is then largely up to the advertisers themselves in order to ensure that ethically responsible practices are being conducted in their profession. Besides avoiding abuses and falling out of line with the ethical dimension of advertising, the responsible advertiser should also make it a point to undertake the repair and the harm sometimes caused by advertising. Since unethical practices have become commonplace, conscientious advertisers must take it upon themselves to make significant personal sacrifices in order to correct them. However, people who want to do things that are morally right must be prepared to suffer loss and also at times personal injury, rather than doing what is wrong. This does not mean that advertising, as we know of it today, be eliminated from the contemporary world. Advertising is an integral element in modern day society, especially with regards to the functioning of a market economy, which is becoming more and more widespread.

Moreover, as described in the report earlier, advertising can, and often does play a fairly constructive role in the exchange of information, economic growth, and the ideas, and also in the fostering of solidarity among groups as well as individuals. Despite this, we must keep in mind, that it can als


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