Ethics in Advertising

Ethics in Advertising

In the modern business world, the role of advertisements is extremely important and the ethics in advertising is the subject of controversial and never-ending debate. Authors discuss the issues and argue on advertising intensity. The advertising industry is continuously attacked with criticism and disapproval from the general public. Many people think that advertising is encouraging materialism, obesity, taking advantage of children, using sex to sell products and manipulating our buyer behaviour.

Advertisement is a means of informing the consumers and potential consumers about the various goods and services available to them. It is an essential instrument of communication between the consumers and the sellers.

‘Advertising both informs and transforms the product by creating an image that goes beyond straightforward facts.’ (Wells et al, 2003:14). Advertisements have the ability to attract more customers to a particular item, lower the price of certain commodities because of increased demand etc. There has occurred an evident change in the kind of advertisements and the importance of advertisements. ‘The most dramatic change affecting advertising has undoubtedly been the growth in importance in promotions, both consumer and trade. Advertisements leave a long lasting impact in the minds of the consumers.’ (Jones, 1998:16).

‘Advertising may be defined as a paid non personal communication from an identified sponsor using mass media to persuade an audience. Today, advertisers can provide customisation through interactive media such as the Internet. Traditionally a one- to- one approach or personal selling was adopted. This kind of interactive advertising helps to reach a larger audience.’ (Wells et al, 2003).

‘Ethics can be simply defined as a set of prescriptive rules, principles, values and virtues of character that inform and guide interpersonal and intrapersonal conduct: that is, the conduct of people towards each other and the conduct of people towards themselves.’ (Spence and Heekeren, 2004:2). What seems to be ethical to one may not always be ethical to another. Ethical decisions are influenced by the cultural background, values, and religion, legal aspects etc. of a person. Therefore the ethical standards differ from person to person. ‘There is nothing morally wrong with the practice of advertising in itself. But how managers advertise may generate moral problems. These problems usually centre around the use of persuasion and the creation of consumer demands. Moral questions may arise, sometimes; because of the way advertisers go about trying to convince people that they should buy their product. Advertising ethics affects the practice of our lives and also the practice of business in subtle and prominent ways.’(

Advertisements have several economic, political, cultural and moral benefits and disadvantages. ( Advertising can be a useful tool for sustaining honest and ethically responsible competition that contributes to economic growth in the service of authentic human development. Advertising is economically beneficial as it informs people about the availability of rationally desirable new products and services and improvements in existing ones, helping them to make informed, prudent consumer decisions, contributing to efficiency and the lowering of prices, and stimulating economic progress through the expansion of business and trade. This helps in the creation of new jobs, higher incomes and a more decent and humane way of life for all. Advertising helps developing countries to improve their standard of living. ’Twenty to forty percent of the price consumers pay for the products they buy, goes into the production costs and for commercials. The manufacturers first convince the consumers to buy their products, which might not ordinarily be required. Then they charge the consumers for the cost of advertising.’ (Consumers Association of Penang, 1990:98).

Serious harm can be done if advertising and commercial pressure become so irresponsible that communities seeking to rise from poverty to a reasonable standard of living are persuaded to seek this progress by satisfying wants that have been artificially created. The result of this is that they waste their resources and neglect their real needs, and genuine development falls behind.

Moral advertising helps to convey messages of faith, of patriotism, of tolerance, compassion and neighbourly service, of charity toward the needy, messages concerning health and education, constructive and helpful messages that educate and motivate people in a variety of beneficial ways. But sometimes advertisements can be vulgar and morally degrading. Today, some advertisers consciously seek to shock and titillate by exploiting content of a morbid, perverse, pornographic nature.

It has been observed that advertisements of tobacco and alcohol result in a rise in its consumption. Sometimes these advertisements have a negative impact on children especially youngsters. ‘Each year one million young people take up smoking and the figures continues to grow.’ (Wells et al, 2003:40). But it can be argued that there is no evidence that people have started smoking or consumption of alcohol because of advertisements. Advertisements may cause consumers to switch brands. It may also make them aware of the variety of products available in the market. Most people are found to have started smoking or consuming alcohol as a result of peer pressure.

Advertisements can betray its role as a source of information by misrepresentation and by withholding relevant facts. Deliberate misrepresentation of facts or even concealing of facts is unethical. This might help to increase sales in the short run. But once the commodities do not achieve the perceived expectations, the consumers turn to other options. This will drastically affect the company in the long run. Concealing information by advertisements is also unethical. Advertisements are required to provide full and honest information to the consumers. Concealing information is as good as giving away false information. ‘Advertisements can distort the truth by implying things that are not so or withholding relevant facts.’ ( Sometimes we may also find exaggeration of advertisements. This may give wrong expectations to the consumers. When results are not achieved as expected it causes frustration. This is very true with regards to cosmetic products. For example, pimple cure creams, slimming tablets, shampoos for hair loss etc. Many of these products promise quick results. When these expectations are not met, the company will lose their customers. Therefore exaggeration of advertisements may also be treated as being unethical. One another unethical practice is oversize packing of small products to make it look like the customer are getting a lot for his/ her money. Advertisements sometimes, deliberately manipulate by playing on the anxieties or feelings of inadequacy of some people. This may not be considered unethical as long as the advertisement simply presents the attractiveness of the products.

There are some organisations, which are formed to deal with such unethical advertisements. ‘The Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) provides a free public service in complaint resolution. It provides determinations on complaints about most forms of advertising in relation to issues including the use of language, the discriminatory portrayal of people, concern for children, portrayals of violence, sex, sexuality and nudity, and health and safety. The Advertising Standards Board is made up of members of the public invited to reflect current community attitudes in serving as Board members. The Board considers written complaints about advertisements in the mainstream media, using the Advertiser Code of Ethics as the basis of its determinations. It considers advertisements which people find offensive on the basis of:
• Discrimination (race, nationality, sex, age, sexual preference, religion, disability)
• Violence
• Language
• Portrayal of sex, sexuality or nudity
• Health and safety
• Alarm or distress to children

The Advertising Standards Board is one way in which the advertising industry is seeking to maintain high standards in all forms of advertising.’ (

‘Advertising industry must adopt a harm- minimisation policy by which bad and harmful consequences from various advertising practices and strategies shall be, if not eliminated, at least minimised. Only this will help to develop ethical advertising. For this purpose, proper ethical policies that include adequate ethical training for practitioners, codes of ethics and adequate self- regulative ethical controls by way of rewards and penalties should be adopted by the advertising industries as a whole. Ethical advertising helps to create a cultural environment, which is not only responsive to ethical advertising but also has individual who are pro- active in enhancing the ethical possibilities of advertising that meet the challenges of its hybrid and paradoxical nature.’ (Spence and Heekeren, 2004:119).

‘Advertising is morally neutral in itself and as long as advertiser’s respect people’s freedom to make choices without pressure about goods and services advertisers are perfectly justified in telling people, even persuasively, what they have to sell.’ (Williams, 1992). Advertisers must be vigilant about what they are advertising, how they advertise etc. in today’s society, advertising has a profound impact on how people understand life, the world and to a great extend themselves, especially in regard to their values and their ways of behaving. ‘Advertising can be conceived and conducted not merely in an ethically neutral manner, a category in which a lot of advertisements fall, but in appositively ethical manner.’ (Spence and Heekeren, 2004:122).

Roger Crisp (1987) argues that ‘all forms of a certain common type of advertising are morally wrong’, on the ground that they override the autonomy of consumers and manipulates them without their knowledge and for no good reason. He claims that such advertising causes desires in such a way that a necessary condition of autonomy — the possibility of decision — is removed. The author discusses ‘four notions central to autonomous action - autonomous desire, rational desire and choice, free choice, and control or manipulation’. He also claims ‘that the argument developed by Philip Nelson, which concludes that even if persuasive advertising does override autonomy, it is still in the interests of consumers to be subjected to it, is seriously mistaken’.

I have found several very interesting books which are written to defend advertising. Kirkpatrick’s aim (2007) was to undermine a critique of advertising as a offensive monopolistic force which must be heavily regulated by the government. Similarly, ‘Ethics and Manipulation in Advertising’ examines the claim that advertising should be subject to more political control and regulation because its manipulates consumers. Surprisingly, author does not deny the existence of manipulative advertising. Instead, he discusses the question of whether that advertising is a good or bad thing, using widely accepted ethical theories as criteria for making his claims. Philips classifies advertising practice and clearly distinguishes between informational ads – those whose essence is rational persuasion that ‘induces changes by convincing a person through the merits of the reason put forward’ (1997:16) - and manipulative ads – all persuasive ads, especially associative advertising and subliminal ads that ‘foil the rational evaluation of a product by creating the illusion that it will satisfy conscious or unconscious desires that it may not, in fact satisfy.’ (1997:18).

Semiotics of Advertising

Advertising takes products and turns them from something normal and ordinary into something desirable, something that people associate with being trendy, popular and fashionable. This results in ordinary products turning into ‘name brands’ as people feel that they cannot be successful or happy unless they own these products. To get these brands to change from being ordinary to being called ‘name brand’ is hard work on the side of the advertisers, but with the use of semiotics we are able to see the coded messages that the advertisers are sending, making us want to have that brand.

Semiotics began as a method for analysing language but now it is used for analysing how all sign systems work. Semiotics is concerned with meaning and with the ways in which meanings are produced. Semiology is defined ‘as the science of signs, it suggests that all communication is based on sign systems , which work through certain rules and structures’. (O’Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2002:80).

The semiotic analysis of advertising assumes that their creators design the meanings of advertisements. As well as just asking us to buy something, Williamson (1994) argues that advertisements ask us to participate in ideological ways of seeing the world and ourselves. Advertisements make use of signs, codes, and social myths that are already in circulation, and ask us to recognise and often to enjoy them. While reading and decoding the signs in advertisements, we participate in the structures of meaning that advertisements use to represent advertised product, society, and us. Bignell (2002) states that “To possess the product is to ‘buy into’ the myth, and to possess some of its social value for ourselves”. Buy using semiotic analysis we are able to identify the attempts to link to these myths. It helps us understand how products are linked to these cultural myths, and how they normalise some myths which may be obscene to some, or just untrue. Bignell states that often “Advertising has been critiqued as one of the social institutions which perform this function of naturalising dominant ideologies in our culture”.

Semiotics is a very useful tool to decode advertising, for both academics and those who aspire to work in the advertising industry. It is also highly useful for the consumers of advertisements and their products. It gives viewers another tool in avoiding consumerism by seeing that in advertising “the ‘hard sell’ has been replaced by a more defuse range of functions.’ (Sinclair 2006).

Psychoactive Ads and Audience

There is a widely-used tool of advertising, the full consequences of which are still unknown: the emotion-arousing ad (Hyman and Tansey, 1990). It may be used in the variety of situations but whatever it promotes, it does so by reaching out, grabbing its viewers and demanding attention. One type of these ads seems to be especially morally controversial – a psychoactive ad: ‘A psychoactive ad is any emotion-arousing ad that causes a meaningful, well-defined group of viewers to feel extremely anxious, to feel hostile toward other, or to feel a loss of self-esteem.’ (Hyman and Tansey, 1990:106).

Given that these ads can actually hurt viewers, therefore Hyman and Tansey (1990) believe that it is unethical to carelessly produce and use such ads. They argue that because some ill-conceived psychoactive ads can cause harm, ethical issues must arise during their production. If not for sake of caring about society, people responsible for advertising practices should be aware of the possible audience reactions to the use of such ads. When customers feel that specific advertising practices are unethical, they may exhibit an unwanted behaviour, ranging from indifference to the products, to boycotts or demands for government regulations (Snipes, LaTour and Bliss, 1996). Such actions can be very costly for a company and may tarnish its image permanently.

Though all psychoactive ads cause viewers to respond emotionally, all ads that cause viewers to respond emotionally are not psychoactive ads. Neither upbeat ads nor warm ads are psychoactive (Hyman and Tansey, 1990). Upbeat ads are ads that cause viewers to feel alive, cheerful, happy, light-hearted, care-free and so forth (Edell and Burke,1987). Warm ads are ads that cause viewers to feel a ‘positive, mild, volatile emotion involving physiological arousal and precipitated by experiencing directly or vicariously a love, family or friendship relationship’ (Aaker et al., 1986:366).

Hyman and Tansey (1990) provide description of psychoactive ads, defined and organised by type. On this view, ads that can cause extreme anxiety rely on appeals using pathos, tragedy, heroism or fear.

Emotion-arousing ads are widely used and are commonly perceived to be very effective. There is an empirical evidence indicating, that subjects better remember and more regularly recall ads awakening fear, than they do warm or with no emotional content ones (Thorson and Friestad, as reported in Psychology Today 1985) and I am about to examine it in my dissertation.

Polay (1985, cited in Henthorne et al., 1993) claims that fear appeals have been used extensively in marketing communications. Rosenberg (1956) suggested that use of fear appeals is grounded in the belief that some form of arousal is necessary for individual behaviour change to occur. Moreover, the presentation of information alone is insufficient to change, or greatly influence, individual behaviour (Leventhal and Niles, 1964). Therefore, in order to make advertising appeals more distinctive, hence and persuasive, advertisers frequently use dramatic emotional ads-messages designed to ‘shock the emotions and make the brain itch’ (Moore 1989 ).

However, it is worth to mention, that individuals may differ significantly in the level of emotional intensity with which they respond to an advertising stimulus, and the intensity level may have a parallel influence on attitude formation (Moore, Harris and Chen, 1995). Larsen and Diener (1987) confirmed that when people are exposed to equal levels of affect-producing stimuli, some individuals consistently respond with high levels of emotional intensity while others respond with only moderate levels. In other words, advertising does not affect all viewers in the same way. Hopefully, I will be able to prove it while working on the dissertation.

The adult audience (the subject of my concern) tends to be selective in its exposure to media. The meanings they take from the media are influenced by its attitudes, experience, peer groups, membership of sub-cultures and so on (Curran, 1990). Precisely that is why, some individuals may experience intense emotional discomfort when exposed to negative emotional appeals and others may be only mildly affected (Moore and Harris, 1996). Studies in U.S. show that only 17% consumers see advertising as a source of information to help them decide what to buy – surprisingly, Americans are highly sceptical, which prove that advertising’s powers have been greatly exaggerated (Brierley, 1995). Americans attitudes toward television and other mass media are mixed. Some of their fear and distrust arises from a belief that the mass media are monolithic, controlled by ever-fewer people and speak with a single voice (Jamieson and Campbell, 1997). For the advertising analysts, the audience scepticism and knowingness undermine simplistic critiques of advertising effects, in which people do what ads tell them, accept the role offered in ads as representations of the world, and take up the positions offered by advertising texts (Myers, 1999).

There are clearly tensions between seeing the audience as sceptical and rational on the one hand, and as vulnerable on the other. There is also a tendency to generalise, to create a homogeneous ‘public’ that underlines the regulatory demands for honesty and decency


The use of ‘shock’ ads is the subject of much debate in the advertising community. Critics have warned that these ads may produce excessive levels of anxiety that may pose a genuine threat to the psychological well being of the message recipient. The images and messages contained in such adverts are very powerful and a study of this area should prove interesting as advertising impacts on all areas of our lives.


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