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Posted on April 2nd, 2012, by

Ethics of advertising can be defined as ethical activity, corresponding not only to law but also to moral principles.

Although the normal ethics considers implementation of laws as a basic or minimal level, ethical side of advertising actually goes far beyond the simple implementation of laws. The basis of ethical decisions is formed on a series of concepts: obligations to the society, accountability to both internal (company or client) and external (publicity) parties, and latent intentions of advertising. While advertising is pervasive being an element of the environment, ethical advertisers are responsible for taking into account the expected and possible unintended consequences of their activities.

One of the fundamental principles of the free market society is that consumers make free and informed choice. It is consumers who vote with their money and determine the behavior of companies. Advertising is the function of business, which transfers this principle into practice. By definition, consumers cannot make an informed choice without information obtained from advertising. It is no wonder that truth in advertising is regarded as one of the central ethical principles of doing business (Brenkert 480). In other words, everything said in the advertisement should correspond to the reality. Further, the paper proves that advertising corresponding to high moral standards is more effective in contemporary business world.

Challenging this rationale, advertisers sometimes deal with ethical problems with the way advertising is created and executed. Often, the question concerns the borders of permitted activity in using such prevalent in advertising approaches, as “inflation” (exaggeration of the merits of the advertised goods or services), metaphor and hyperbole (Narveson 58-63). For example, an advertisement, running that restaurant X situated in East Side is the best Italian restaurant in the world, is strictly speaking, hardly true. But the advertisers are hoping that they are dealing with an audience, well versed in advertising (i.e. the audience, disillusioned about the main purpose of advertising – to sell the advertised product – and the means to achieve this goal). Such an informed, sober-minded audience can make allowances for the usual exaggeration in advertising. This means that advertising may, without violating ethical standards, contain symbols, illustrations, similes and metaphors enhancing its assertions.

However, the situation is totally different with advertising which deliberately deceives or misleads the consumers.

Deceptive advertisement latently provides only partial information on products or contains statements about the price which mislead the consumers (Shaw and Barry 249-253). The same concerns advertisement containing accurate information, but presented in an incomprehensible for the consumer form, or in an integrated form inside a newspaper or magazine article, or as part of a television or radio program.

Many consumers also fear that some types of advertising are influencing the subconsciousness. Since these messages get to the consumer bypassing the consciousness and sensory perception, they are often not only unethical, but also illegal, because they can manipulate the freedom of consumer choice (Beauchamp 476-484). On the other hand, different studies have already shown the ineffectiveness of subliminal techniques (e.g., the notorious 25th frame effect), so the only persuasive technique used by advertiser lies in the imagination and consciousness of the audience. In fact, only an individual finally decides whether he/she can believe the advertisement.

However, ethical issues still arise in some cases of applying additional methods of persuasion, for instance, participation of celebrities in advertising. Famous sports and movie stars can significantly affect the decision making process of the consumers. Concerns about advertising with celebrities are so great that in some countries such as Canada, it is prohibited for certain product categories, such as alcoholic beverages and certain children’s products (Preston 61-67). Therefore, officially there’ve been developed specific recommendations for the creation of such advertising in order to make it more ethical. The character of advertising should be a user of an advertised product, and his statements must fairly reflect his personal opinion. All statements made by the character must have actual proof.

Criticism is also justified in cases of some advertising methods, in particular, playing on fear of consumers. For example, advertising of a certain kind of cereal containing oat and bran was built on fears of cancer. However, these products do not factually contain more fiber than many other natural foods, and they increase the chance to prevent only one kind of cancer, whereas the advertising considered the prevention of cancer in general. Such advertisement can be considered misleading, manipulating the audience and exploiting the feelings of consumers (Beauchamp 476-484).

At the same time, the visual part of the advertisement deserves no less than the text. Since consumers typically pay more attention to images than to the text accompanying them. In particular, the claims involve the fact that the advertisement shows the product bigger than it really is (Shaw and Barry 249-253). Another example of unethical imaging is the way advertising depicts women. Using models for the advertisement, advertisers also apply special methods of processing images, allowing characters to look perfect, with absolutely no pigment spots and wrinkles.

This actually presents a process of forming an ideal image, unattainable in real life. Attempts of female consumers to become similar to those ideal models finally ends in disappointment, feeling unhappy, loss of self-esteem, inferiority complex, and even guilt. Models are tall and extremely slim; in an effort to be like them, some young women and girls being unable to do anything with their height, direct all their eagerness to their extra pounds, sometimes bringing themselves to anorexia.

Heated discussion also surrounds the image of women in advertising of household goods, where they invariably appear as the main executors of domestic work, showing them on the sidelines of family decision making process.

Women are also often unethically shown as sexual objects. This argument is especially popular among feminist organization. However, the situation won’t get better if we say that sexual positioning in advertising now concerns not only women.

Nowadays this aspect is complexified by the modern tendency to depict men in the same way, together with the ambiguity of child images in advertising. Sometimes kids are shown in sexual poses with the provocative make-up, and half-dressed (Preston 61-67), while new styles of advertisement try displaying certain parts of human body as the main objects of the image, which is only emphasizing sexuality. Older people represent another group of people, harmed by stereotypes which generate from advertising. Feeble, trembling, wrinkled old people, unable to solve simplest tasks, are being targeted with advertising humor. However, this advertising image of elderly people is often very far from reality, in which the elderly lead active and interesting life.

Many advertisers state that advertising does not create reality, but only holds a mirror which reflects the society. But if that was true, we would see the images of various social groups in the advertisement. However, the characters (with both genders) of most of the advertisements in North America and Europe are young, slim, smart and extremely athletic. While some advertisers are beginning to realize the importance of different cultural groups, the number of ads with black skin people is growing; but the characters of Asian, and Hispanic origin are still met relatively rarely. Advertising also never positions disabled people, and the elderly are participating only in advertising of dentures and nutritional supplements for elderly people.

In addition, certain segments of the population could perceive everything shown in the advertisement as the reality, or misunderstand the special conditions or precautions on the proper use of advertised goods (people with eye diseases, immigrants, some elderly consumers, children, people lacking education, etc.), which shouldn’t be just used for the benefit of a company. A well-known example is the case of advertising offering children to call Santa Claus on a pay telephone numbers beginning with “900”. Many children (including those staying at home after school without their parents) called on those numbers without realizing the size of bills that could come for such a conversation (Preston 61-67).

Moral standards of advertising are based on the principles of freedom of choice and freedom of action. These principles come from the belief in the benefits of the free market economy. Informed consumers have freedom of action; they regulate the business activities of companies with their individual purchase decisions. Consumers’ right to freedom of choice is consistent with two other principles: freedom from coercion and freedom from harm (Narveson 58-63). Advertising should not use unfaithful techniques in order to persuade consumers or manipulate them, pushing to a bad choice. Faithful advertising, which imparts accurate information, is an indispensable condition for consumers; informed decisions about products and services. Nowadays, advertising detached from unethical standards may be unique and sets the standard for the industry. It has value to both clients and consumers.

Thus, the terms ethics of advertising and moral standards in advertising are not just a combination of mutually exclusive concepts, but without a doubt, present normal business practices.

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