To some media consumers, the words "ethical advertising" may seem like an oxymoron, but the advertising industry actually does care about ethics. That's partly because they'd rather be self-regulating than have someone else, like a government, do the regulating for them. To convince state governments that the European advertising industry does not need regulation, it follows the International Chamber of Commerce Consolidated Code of Ethics. Adherence to the code is policed by a series of self-regulating organizations across the continent.
According to the International Chamber of Commerce Commission on Marketing and Advertising, ethical advertising should be "honest, legal, decent, and truthful," and should provide "quick and easy redress when transgressions occur." The ICC also enjoins advertisers to be socially responsible by refraining from inciting discrimination against any group or exploiting suffering, respecting human dignity and not producing advertisements that appear to encourage violence or illegal activity. More detailed sections of the ICC Code address the use of substantiable claims, truthful testimonials and substantiable comparisons in promoting a product.
Advertisers are encouraged to follow the ICC Consolidated Code by a series of self-regulating organizations. Each organization is funded by the advertising community and has jurisdiction over a geographic area or a particular advertising sector. The SROs offer advice to advertisers before they publish ads, give pre-clearance for ads in European countries where that's legally required and address consumer complaints. Compliance with the decisions of the SROs is mostly voluntary, but the European Advertising Standards Alliance encourages industry stakeholders to remember that the public will only see advertisers as credibly self-regulating if the SROs remain impartial and the industry follows their advice.
The ICC Consolidated Code expresses particular concern about a few issues. One concern is about the role of children as consumers of advertising. The code stipulates that products meant for adults shouldn't be marketed to children, and that advertising aimed at children shouldn't condone violence or harmful behavior. Because children are more credulous than adults, the code also warns advertisers to differentiate between fantasy scenarios and reality when advertising what their products can do.
Another area of concern for the ICC is consumer privacy. Especially now that marketers can advertise their products through social media, detailed information about consumers' online activities is used to determine which consumers get which ads. The ICC doesn't forbid this, although it does encourage advertisers to collect data only for "specific and legitimate purposes," to use the data only for those purposes and to get rid of it when those purposes have been fulfilled. It does not provide further guidelines as to what a legitimate reason for collecting consumer data would be, but it does specify that consumers should be able to opt out if they don't want their data collected.