Ethics in advertising considers the range of questions related to right and wrong regarding the advertising of products or services, or the people who perform that business function.
The central ethical issue with regard to advertising is honesty, and the avoidance of deception. Deceptive advertising is problematic for several reasons. First, it may do harm if it results in people buying something that either harms them or doesn’t actually meet their needs. Second, deception is often wrong because it constitutes a form of manipulation, and hence fails to respect customers as persons. Finally, deceptive advertising undermines the efficiency of markets by making it harder to match products and resources with people and their goals.
Closely related to the question of honesty in advertising are questions related to advertisements that are not literally false, but potentially misleading. One such concern has to do with ads that portray products in a way that may tend to inflate consumer expectations in a way that leads to bad purchase decisions. For example, a car ad showing a mid-sized sedan being driven like a race car may wrongly suggest to potential customers that they too will be able to drive that way, especially if they don’t know that the car in the ad was being driven by a professional driver under carefully controlled conditions.
Another key ethical concern has to do with advertising aimed at vulnerable populations such as children or the elderly. Very young children often cannot reliably tell fantasy from reality. An adult viewing an ad that shows a bicycle flying through the air will typically know that this is merely an attempt by the advertiser to grab their attention. A child, on the other hand, may genuinely be misled about what that bicycle can do.
Some commercial advertisements focus not on promoting a product, but on promoting a brand or the company that owns the brand. In this regard, there is sometimes a concern regarding advertising that, while technically accurate, provides a very incomplete portrayal of a company’s overall performance. When this takes the form of highlighting environmentally-friendly products and other ‘green’ achievements in order to distract from a weak overall environmental track record, it is known as “greenwashing.”
Critics of capitalism sometimes argue that, under a capitalist system, the role of advertising is actually to create in people “needs” and desires they did not formerly have. In this way, it is said, advertisement promotes consumption in a way that is unhealthy for society, but necessary for capitalism as a system.
Finally, questions also arise as to whether there are some products and services that simply should not be advertised, even if they may be legally sold. The advertising of certain products and services is restricted by law in some jurisdictions. For example, the advertising of cigarettes and alcohol are both severely restricted in many jurisdictions.
- Theodore Levitt, “Advertising: The Poetry of Becoming,” Harvard Business Review, March/April 1993.
- Pontifical Council for Social Communications, “Ethics in Advertising,” February 22, 1997.
- The Canadian Code of Advertising Standards
By Chris MacDonald and Alexei Marcoux
© The Journal Review Foundation of the Americas