According to the American Marketing Association, advertising is any paid form of a non-personal presentation of ideas, goods or services by an identified sponsor. Ethics, on the other hand, is the generally accepted moral principles and standards, against which thre behavior is judged in a society or country (Bootwala et al., 2007). It is often a judgment based on fairness, equality, honesty and integrity. However, the judgment on whether something is ethical or not may vary from one society or country to another due to the shifts in moral values. Advertising is a method used in product promotion by most companies. This is often in bid to increase sales, to widen the market or create more customers. The benefits of advertisements also spill over to the society in terms of creating the employment opportunities and provision of information to consumers (Bootwala, Lawrence & Mali, 2007). However, as many as advertisements have such benefits to the companies and to the society, at large, the criteria employed in advertisement makes the whole act rather unethical. This paper argues that advertisement is more unethical than it is ethical and shows the extent to which advertisement is unethical.
The Unethical Nature of Advertising. Persuasive advertisements are often intended to inform consumers of the objective qualities of product, its specifications, functions or the price, and most importantly they create a need for the product (Garrett, 1961). This may lead to the conformity based on ideas of advertisers rather than an autonomous drive to purchase products. In the persuasion, some of the companies may not uphold honesty being a key element to ethics. In this case, the companies promote materialism at the expense of the larger society (Bootwala et al., 2007). In most cases, the persuasive acts of companies entail the use of lies to achieve their goals of marketing. The advertisers should at all costs aim at persuading their customers if and only if they stand to benefit from the products and not for their own materialistic gains.
Most advertisements are full of misrepresentations and deceptions. This makes the consumers embrace the certain products with less knowledge. Most of the companies take an advantage of the consumers’ ignorance with the use of puffery knowing that there cannot be legal sanctions against such claims. Moreover, some advertisers misrepresent the facts of manufacture place so as to attract customers who may for one reason or the other one feel prestigious to own the products associated with the alleged places. They may at times use such terms like “made in the U.K” deceptively (Trehan & Trehan, 2010). Furthermore, advertisers make advertising unethical by failing to take the fair stands in dealing with their customers.
Advertisers may make the use of pictures, images or even videos that contradict with moral values in the given society. The images and pictures of half-dressed ladies contradict the values upheld in various traditional societies. This, however, is a practice that has been employed by many manufacturing companies, especially those that deal with the body make-ups and lotions. Even though their intension is to show the effect of application of such cosmetics, they derail the moral standards of million people from their audience. Bootwala et al. (2007) reflects that advertisers should know the attitude, beliefs and values of their target audiences. However, they rarely do this, and, as a result, advertisements lead to the distortion of societal, cultural and moral values (Bootwala et al., 2007). The contribution of such negative outcomes to the society, at large, is unethical.
Advertisements have some adverse economic impacts on people’s lives (Garrett, 1961). They cause an impulse and unreflective buying to consumers through the often exaggerated information about products. Advertisers may, for instance, promote a purchase of the particular product in the installment basis by making it very attractive; and the consumers may end up being greatly indebted in a bid to acquire the product. Some consumers may end up replacing their existing assets before the end of their useful life, which is economically irrational (Garrett, 1961). The proponents of ethics argue that the advertisements should not be too much to extreme.
Advertisements may cause a conflict between parents and their children that can hardly figure out the advantages and disadvantages of the given product (Trehan & Trehan, 2010). Advertisers taking the advantage on the lack of experience in children create a sophisticated persuasion in children to demand virtually everything offered by advertisers. This kind of environment eliminates the rapport that might have existed between a child and a parent. Such adverse effects of advertisements should be mitigated. However, this is never the situation in most cases. The advertisers tend to check on their own interest of profits’ maximization and assume the negative impact of broken relationships in families.
Some of advertised products are hazardous to health, but advertisers make such products more attractive to masses. Though it can be assumed that products such as alcohol and tobacco are intended for adults, the advertisements have the effects on younger groups as well, especially on those at the adolescent stage (Trehan & Trehan, 2010). This promotes immorality in the society. Such groups may be influenced in taking such addictive products. This is quite unethical especially when evaluated on the basis of implicit consequences.
Most companies engage in a competitive advertising, in which they stimulate a selective demand for a specific brand. Under such conditions, advertisers often resort to the unethical comparison of various brands to bring out their products as the best ones (Garrett, 1961). The competitive type of advertisements merely serves the interests of advertisers in getting a competitive edge against their rivals. Advertisers maliciously bring out other products as inferior to the advertised products and influence on people to purchase their products without any benefits to be accrued to the society or consumer (Garrett, 1961). Under such situation, the businesses do not uphold a principle of fairness (Turow, 2011).
Most of advertisements involve sugar-coating the truth of the given product. The advertisers hide the necessary information pertaining to the possible side effects of using or buying these products. Such products may have some serous injurious reactions or impacts on the less informed consumers. Trehan & Trehan (2010) cite that advertisements may encourage children and the youth to take junk food instead of nutritious meals like vegetables and milk. Such meals have serious health consequences on users. It is, therefore, unethical for advertisers to hide the information pertaining to the side effects of certain such products in a bid to market their products.
To a larger extent, the advertisements give a wrong picture of personalities. In most of advertisements, women, for example, have been painted negatively either as sex symbols or related to domestic chores. This undermines the position of women in the society. It contributes to the inequality in the society and encourages the attitude of looking down upon women or the belief that women cannot be entrusted to superior positions and duties. Such kind of unethical perception towards women and other personalities should not be encouraged. There should be a just stand even in a bid to enlarge their market base and secure the customers’ loyalty.
Some of advertisements promote the violence in the society. The advertisements of war or fights through the television programs, for example, encourage the social ills in the society. The children and youth may ape such activities and indulge into the same (Trehan & Trehan, 2010). The children become the victims to use vulgar languages in such cases where advertisers use the languages being not ethically monitored. The question is that who would be pleased to see their children growing up in such environment? It is clear that advertisements that promote violence and other offensive acts through media are unethical.
Some forms of advertisements may be very much a nuisance at times. Advertisers tend to force the ideas into consumers regardless of the means to be used. For example, they use of loud-speakers in public places in the name of advertising products. This is not only irritating but also deprives the listeners to their peace of mind that would, otherwise, have been enjoyed (Trehan & Trehan, 2010). Then, the excess noise also has an effect on the environment. There are some advertisements that create tensions, fears and worries in the society. According to Trehan & Trehan (2010), advertisements on accidents or life insurance incidents create a feeling of insecurity especially to those that cannot afford such policies. Many of advertisers fail to moderate the effects of their advertisements to the society. Such tensions created by advertisements should be balanced in between the extremes. Some advertisers have used this medium as a bait leading consumers to their outlets. The consumers are often lured by offers of lower prices for products, which they later find to be of the low and inferior quality (Trehan & Trehan, 2010). No one would have been happy to be deceived to obtain the product at a fairer price only to realize that this product is of the inferior quality opposite to their expectations.
Theoretical Approaches in Ethics. There are various theories that have been advanced to address ethics and advertising ethics, in particular. This is the view on what is wrong or right in the society. According to Turow (2011), these theories include the Golden Mean, the Golden Rule, the Categorical Imperative, the Utility Principle and the Veil of Ignorance. Closer evaluations of views of these philosophers in their theories reveal how the advertisement may be unethical. Here there are some explanations of these theories and their application in ethics.
The Golden Mean Theory. This approach has been advanced by the Greek philosopher known as Aristotle. He believed that the individual’s acts are right if they are the means of two extremes (Turow, 2011). This, therefore, calls for the moderation of all things that seem to be on extremes. The philosopher argued that the individual would be happy if he or she took the path in between the two extremes that could lead him or her to the best course (Turow, 2011). This can be used to evaluate the ethics in advertisements. Advertisers are always on the extremes in their persuasion. This contradicts ethics according to Aristotle’s Golden Mean. This brings out the advertisement as unethical since in advertisements there is an over-manipulation of the one’s intellectual and moral values as spelled out by the Golden Mean theory (Turow, 2011).
The Golden Rule Theory. This approach has been developed by Judeo-Christian Ethic. It is the rule of admonition to “do unto others what you would have them do you” (Turow, 2011). If this is going to be used in evaluation of ethics in advertisements then, to a larger degree, advertisements are not ethical. The advertisers, which mislead their customers by lowering their prices as baits to lure clients to their outlets or who promote advertisements of harmful products such as cigarettes and the dishonest advertisers, go against the theory of Golden Rule (Turow, 2011).
The Categorical Imperative Theory. Emmanuel Kant has developed the theory accepting that people should always act in such ways that they expect everyone else to act (Turow, 2011). The businesses should, therefore, be dishonest if they expect everyone around to be dishonest. This then brings out the use of loud-speakers in advertisements as unethical owing to the question that, what if everyone was to make noise in the street in a bid to lure customers to buy their products.
The Utility Principle and Theory. This theory has been advanced by John Stuart Mill. It advocates that all actions should be based on usefulness or utility. The question whether the action is ethical or not should be evaluated on the basis of its consequences (Turow, 2011). The utilitarian principle encourages actions that bring a great pleasure and minimize pain. However, the proponents of advertisements always consider the motive of advertisements only and neglect the consequences of their actions as suggested by the advertisements on wars or drug abuse.
The Veil of Ignorance Theory. According to John Rawls’ theory of the Veil of Ignorance, in any situation, justice emerges only when all parties are treated without the social differentiation (Turow, 2011). This advocates for fairness, selflessness and justice in the society. In this regard, advertisers should set aside all their values and bias and embrace fairness as the fundamental idea in the concept of justice (Turow, 2011).
From the above discussion, advertisement seems to be a necessary evil in that it has some advantages to both consumers and advertisers; and at the same time it has disadvantages taking the form of unethical practices that it propagates. The perception of whether the advertisement is unethical or not depends on the one’s society, and what they would consider, for example, as the ethical extreme for the case of Aristotle’s Mean. All the same, businesses have a corporate responsibility to ensure that the ethics is adhered to both by their employees and the society, at large. In so doing, they should be selfless in their operations, aim at some positive consequences of their activities and uphold the Golden Rule at all costs.