Every business owner makes an ethical choice as to the products he sells. Some products demanded by consumers may have potential to do harm if used improperly, or if they are purchased by customers expressly prohibited from doing so. As a small business selling such items, your advertising needs to send the right message. Let potential customers know you have those items to sell -- but don’t hide the potential negatives and make sure you’re reaching the appropriate audience.

Full Disclosure

If you know the products you sell can have harmful effects, you’re obligated to let people know. For some products, such as cigarettes and alcoholic beverages, warning labels are required on any advertisement. Even if that’s not the case with what you sell, however, honesty and transparency are your friend. Advertisements for addictive products should include information on how to get help. For example, an advertisement for lottery game should include a way to contact Gamblers Anonymous.


Advertising a harmful product, particularly one that has restrictions on its use, requires clear directions as to what the purchasing requirements are. If your sporting goods store sells firearms, advertising should let consumers know what types of identification and documentation are required to purchase the product. If you sell chemicals effective at destroying pests in one context, but very dangerous in another, that distinction and emphasis on proper use must be made clear.

Advertising Restrictions

Restrictions on advertising some products can come via regulation on the federal, state and local level. Federal law, for example, prohibits tobacco from being advertised near schoolyards, handed out as free samples, or depicted in color advertisements in publications with a significant teen readership, among other guidelines. Targeting alcohol advertisements towards minors almost always runs afoul of the law, though the standards of proof are more rigid in some states than others. Running commercials for age-restricted products on children’s shows may seem like an obvious pitfall to avoid, but businesses must be very careful when running advertisements that a significant amount of younger viewers likely will see. Think twice before running ads for products like alcohol and tobacco that use actors who look like they may be too young to consume the products they are pitching.

Mention Positives

Just because the products you advertise may have harmful effects does not mean those effects should define your business. There’s an argument that fast food is harmful because of its contribution to the U.S. obesity rates, for example, but that doesn’t mean advertising your hamburger joint should focus on how many calories are in the large fries. Instead, quick-service restaurants may acknowledge the unhealthier fare via a visible calorie count in the store, but have advertising that emphasizes the healthier options available. Don't hide harmful effects that your products have, but there's no need to shout the negatives from the rooftops either. Just give customers what is required to make an informed choice.