Simply stated, “ethics” refers to standards of conduct derived from moral values. Those standards vary greatly from discipline to discipline and person to person, and even philosophers approach ethics from multiple directions (Spence & Van Heekeren 2005, 8). But in its most basic form these are concepts of right and wrong behavior, not limited to what is required by law. Law deals with only a limited range of “wrong” behavior, especially in the context of advertising. In the US, for instance, the First Amendment, along with practical enforcement limitations, prevent it from addressing most issues. For the remainder, only the ethical standards of those involved in the advertising process stand as protection for consumers.
Public perception of advertising often is that “ethics” is a concept foreign to its practitioners. An annual “honesty and ethics” poll by Gallup consistently finds the public ranks advertising among the least ethical professions (e.g., Saad 2006). Indeed, study after study consistently finds that about 70 percent of consumers think that advertising often is untruthful. This perceived ethical poverty, not surprisingly, leads to widely varying concerns and criticisms.
Whether or not advertising is conducted in an ethical manner ultimately is judged by the harm, or perceived harm, it does to consumers and to society as a whole. Advertising is criticized as causing people to buy products for which they have no need, manipulating the consumer, contributing to stereotyping, demeaning women, and preying on children, along with a long list of other negative social impacts. Although some effects are intended by its creators, many or even most are potentially unintended consequences (Pollay 1986).
Concerns about the intended effects tend to revolve around the manipulative potential of advertising. The distinction between advertising as information, as persuasion, and as manipulation is fundamental to assessing this impact on the audience. In fact, research has shown that most advertisements contain few informational cues like price, quality, contents, etc. Informing consumers puts the decision-making power in their hands, while persuasion or manipulation tend to move that power progressively toward the advertiser. Besides the obvious fact that such a shift can negate consumers’ free will, a free market economy is erected on the principle of consumer sovereignty, whereby consumers hold decision-making power in the marketplace, so this arguably would undermine the entire economic system.
There is significant debate about whether advertising is sufficiently influential as to cause such negative effects, just as there are questions regarding media effects generally. It often is suggested that advertising creates wants or desires in consumers, but others counter that it merely helps to satisfy pre-existing wants. Consistent with third-person effects theory, research indicates that people do tend to overestimate the effects of advertising (Gunther & Thorson 1992).
Because the power of advertising is subject to debate, criticisms related to these intended effects often dwell on the advertiser’s purpose or method. The ethics of forgoing facts and information in favor of reliance on images and emotional associations, for example, has received considerable attention. The most extreme example is the use of subliminal appeals, to bypass conscious thought processes. But evidence indicates that subliminal stimuli have no impact on purchase behavior.
One other aspect of intended effects looks at the product or service the advertiser intends to sell. Consequently, whether or not advertising should be used to sell ostensibly harmful products like tobacco, alcohol, etc., has been subject to exhaustive exploration among scholars (e.g., Pollay 1993). However, most research and scholarly attention are centered on various effects that likely were not intended by the advertiser.
It is the “side-effects” of advertising that most concern many observers, and most interest many researchers. Because advertising is so pervasive a part of modern cultural experience, with some clear influence on that culture, discussion of those effects comes from numerous disciplines. Some health researchers, for example, study what direct-to-consumer advertising is doing to the pressure placed by patients on their physicians, while some scholars in women’s studies explore the impact of advertising on women’s self-images. Indeed, new issues arise regularly, as new promotional techniques, new products, and new media are introduced to society that might present some new risk to the audience.
Some people are more at risk than others, thereby placing a greater ethical burden on advertisers who target those people. While the power of advertising to affect consumers individually and collectively is uncertain, it is generally recognized that some categories of consumer are more susceptible to those effects. The elderly, the immobile, the transient, the poor, and the poorly educated are such groups. Probably the most studied “susceptible” group, though, is children.
Children have become a serious target for advertisers in recent years, and because of their minimal cognitive and social development there is evidence that they may be more easily swayed than adults and that the youngest of them do not understand the selling purpose of advertising (Roedder John 1999). Schools, in fact, have become a major vehicle for reaching youth, as manufacturers are discovering more and more means by which to promote their products within the halls and on the grounds of those childcentered venues.
Beyond attention to vulnerable populations there is a variety of issues entailing advertising’s effects on other segments of society, or on society as a whole. Because advertising’s purpose generally is to sell products, the collective effect of this effort is seen as promoting consumption and a consumer lifestyle. This, in turn, may lead to depletion of our natural resources and an inversion of the free market structure by increasing demand and, again, shifting power from the consumer to the supplier.
A corollary of this is that advertising contributes to what many feel is a serious weakness of modern society: materialism. As clear as this negative consequence of advertising may appear to the casual observer, it is not without arguments to the contrary. Schudson (1984), for example, presents evidence that society is not as materialistic as commonly believed, including the fact that the majority of retail sales occur during the weeks just before Christmas as products are purchased for gift-giving.
Other prospective effects not typically intended by advertisers include the stereotyped portrayals of gender and racial roles, ethnic cultures, professions, and so forth. This is a complicated topic because stereotyping is efficient communication, it aids in targeting groups of consumers, and it can be used to humorous effect, but it also can create or perpetuate negative beliefs about the depicted type.
Advertising also is claimed to affect value systems, including the dilution of cultural values, especially where advertising from first world countries is exported to the third world. But related to that is the concern that traditional values (e.g., modesty) even within the first world are diminished by the prevalence of modern values like the sexual sell. And the fact that advertising often uses poor grammar, misspellings, and other linguistic convolutions leads to concerns about its potential for polluting language, as well.
Although the list of suspected effects is effectively endless, with new topics added almost daily, one other issue is particularly worthy of mention. Because advertising funds many media, along with the news and entertainment content they carry, much attention has been given to the potential for abusive influence by advertisers (Baker 1994). A concern is that because the media rely on advertisers, of course, they may be told to exclude certain content under threat of losing future financial support. But perhaps an even greater concern is that the media may self-censor to avoid offending advertisers, even without overt influence. The audience, as a result, may be receiving highly filtered or even biased news and entertainment. This criticism, too, has been subject to counterargument.
Developing and Placing Advertisements
As advertising has developed more sophistication, advertisers and their agencies have become more advanced in their collection and use of consumer data. Once the province of those engaged in direct mail advertising, data mining is now a key to many print, broadcast, and online advertising campaigns. The methods by which advertisers collect that information, and the uses to which it is put, have grabbed public attention and even aroused fear. As children became serious users of the Internet parents became especially concerned about advertisers “talking” to the youngest members of their households, since children can be more willing to disclose private facts about themselves and their families. And when advertisers began sharing data with their “marketing partners,” to build enormous databases with hundreds of pieces of information about individual consumers, concerns that advertisers might lack ethical self-restraint resulted in law-makers and regulators taking a closer look at these practices.
Related to these growing worries over privacy is the growing annoyance over advertisers’ methods that intrude into consumers’ private lives. Telemarketing, unsolicited “junk” mail, and their Internet counterparts, spam and pop-up advertisements, all have provoked articles alleging advertisers have crossed some ethical line. A number of laws have resulted to deal with these offenses, as the result of arguments and, in some cases, research showing that consumers are offended by these techniques.
Even the billing practices of advertising agencies have garnered major attention in the context of ethics. Not long ago the head of a major advertising agency was found guilty of over-billing the government, which resulted in her receiving jail time and being ordered to write a code of ethics. General business ethics, then, also plays a role in the ethics of advertising.
The Broader View
Most research dealing with advertising ethics focuses on a specific effect or criticism of advertising, like those above, rather than studying the broad ethical principles or codes. There is a stream of research that looks at whether or not advertising professionals are concerned about ethics (Drumwright & Murphy 2004), but relatively little has been done in that area and the results are mixed. The Catholic church even conducted research into whether or not advertising is ethical, and likewise drew conclusions that were both positive and negative (Pontifical Council for Social Communication 1997).
Because much of this deals with policy and societal values – what should be, rather than what is – a large portion of the research in this area is critical, qualitative, even legal, rather than quantitative in nature. This is a difficult area of research, because the issues often evoke strong emotions even in the researchers. Some of those studies clearly are conducted with a priori agendas. Therefore, it is no surprise that conclusions are unclear. But because advertising touches every aspect of society, and appears to have great cultural influence, people from a broad range of disciplines obviously believe it is important that advertising be handled responsibly.
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- Roedder John, D. (1999). Consumer socialization of children: A retrospective look at twenty-five years of research. Journal of Consumer Research, 26(3), 183 –213.
- Saad, L. (2006). Nurses top list of most honest and ethical professions. Gallup News Service. At https://news.gallup.com/poll/25888/nurses-top-list-most-honest-ethical-professions.aspx.
- Schudson, M. (1984). Advertising, the uneasy persuasion: Its dubious impact on American society. New York: Basic Books.
- Spence, E., & Van Heekeren, B. (2005). Advertising ethics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.