The line between ethical and unethical advertising is often unclear. What seems unethical to some consumers might not faze others. If you’re unsure whether a particular marketing claim or tactic is unethical, err on the side of caution. Unethical advertising can backfire, causing consumers to turn on your company and defeating the purpose of your marketing campaign.

Unethical Advertising

Generally, unethical advertisements make false claims about a product or service; however, gray areas exist. For example, businesses often exaggerate the effectiveness and value of their offerings, which is why most people take any advertiser’s claims with a grain of salt. On the other hand, outright lying in an effort to deceive customers results in public outrage. Consumers don’t mind being cajoled, but they resent flat-out deception.

Governmental Oversight

In extreme cases of willful deception, an advertiser could be subject to prosecution by state or federal consumer-protection departments. For example, many states allow consumers to file complaints about businesses that employ unethical advertising practices. At the federal level, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission investigates consumer complaints and assigns stiff penalties to advertisers found guilty of unethical behavior.

Ethical Advertising

The FTC defines truth-in-advertising as follows: First, advertisements must be truthful and non-deceptive. Second, advertisers must back their claims with evidence. Third, advertisements may not be unfair. The FTC adopts the perspective of “a reasonable consumer” to determine whether particular advertisements meet these criteria.


Rather than toe the ethical line, risking public outrage and government penalties, strive to be truthful. Play up the strengths of your product or service but don’t lie. Don’t make any claims you can’t support with indisputable evidence. Don’t disparage competitors or make unfair claims about their products or services. Finally, don’t leave out vital information that a consumer needs to make an informed decision.

Expert Insight

If you are not sure whether your advertisement is ethical, hire a professional consultant, such as an attorney experienced with marketing. The up-front cost might be significant, but if your investment helps you avoid public-relations damage or false-advertising charges, the money is well-spent. Alternatively, hire a reputable marketing firm to handle the creation of your marketing materials.