What Are the Different Types of Ethical Issues in Advertising?

by Jennifer F. Bender; Updated September 26, 2017
View of a passage in a subway

The goal of advertising is to entice individuals to buy a product or service. Good advertisements stick with an individual because they are clever or show the product in such a positive light that an individual cannot help but want to buy it. Many in the advertising industry profess a responsibility to the general public to make ethical decisions surrounding advertising to children, telling the truth and promoting health. With ethical considerations in advertising, there is not always an obvious right or wrong way to proceed.

Social Responsibility

Advertising encompasses a social responsibility to the general public, yet the specifics of that responsibility are not always clear-cut. For example, if it’s stipulated that advertisements should generally show individuals in a positive light, this raises the question of how to define a positive light. What some individuals find offensive, others might enjoy. An example of this involves advertisements depicting women. Athletic companies show strong, capable, athletic women performing in sporting events. Some other advertisers depict women as simply being beautiful to look at, which offends those who see it as objectifying women. The ethical question becomes what social responsibility these companies have regarding the way they portray women. There is no right or wrong answer.

Children

Another ethical issue involves advertisements geared toward children. Advertisers need to be aware that children might follow the role model of what they see in a commercial. Children may believe that the behavior depicted is acceptable when in fact it is questionable. For example, a commercial for a beauty product showing children swimming in a pool without adult supervision is questionable considering the safety implications for the children. Children could get the idea that it is OK to swim alone, and this could lead to a dangerous situation.

Truth

As an ethical issue, advertisements should strive to tell the truth. Most well-known companies always tell the truth in their advertisements because they have general counsel, shareholders and regulatory commissions that monitor their activities. There can be legal consequences for false advertising. Sometimes advertisements come close to the line, however. Consider, for example, an advertisement showing someone in a wheelchair who, the ad implies, might be able to walk in the future with the help of a new and upcoming medical technology—even though the technology is frequently not effective. This raises the ethical question of whether this kind of advertising is misleading, intending to confuse the viewer, or is simply a message filled with hope.

Health

Advertisements that promote products with questionable effects on an individual's health raise ethical considerations. Examples include alcohol, energy drinks and cigarettes. Tobacco advertisements have been limited by the government for some time, due to the known consequences of smoking. While the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption are not in dispute, scientific studies disagree on the positive or negative effects of alcohol in moderation. There also are mixed studies about the effects of energy drinks. The ethical question, then, is how (or if) companies should advertise products with questionable effects on the health of users.

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