Ethics in Advertising: An Endless Dilemma


Soumyamoy Maitra
D.B. Pawar College of Management
Marketing Dept.

In today's challenging market economy, advertising has become an important element of the society. Moreover, advertisements play a powerful constructive role in the economic growth of a country. On the contrary, they can often play a negative role in hurting the sentiments of an individual or the society. Hence, it is important that advertising professionals observe high ethical standards in regard to truthfulness, human dignity and social responsibilities.

Advertising is a small word but it is a whole world in itself. May be a marketer or a consumer, nobody can escape from the influence of advertising. Advertising has affected and is still affecting the life of all of us. In simple terms, advertising is defined as a paid, mediated presentation of information about services, products, or ideas with the specific goal of informing, persuading and reminding the target market about the company's offerings. In this materialistic world, we are surrounded with a number of products/brands. Each company is battling for consumer mind space and this has increased the scope of advertising. We can find advertising everywhere i.e., in our homes, in the shopping malls, on the street, in the subways, on public transport vehicles and even in office buildings. This proves that advertising is all pervasive and is becoming a powerful force, shaping attitudes and behaviors in today's world.

In the current fragmented market, the marketers are facing tough competition from their competitors. Each marketer has to prove himself to be better than his competitors. The cut-throat competitive market environment has made the advertising field very experimental and hence advertisers are adopting different measures to attract the attention of their target customers. They try to structure their advertisements in such a way that catches instant customer attention. For this, they try to use a blend of message appeals like rational, emotional, ethical, etc. to make a positive impact on the target audience. Aspirations, comfort, convenience, economy, efficiency, fear, love, nostalgia, pride, health, luxury, patriotism, sex and safety are some of the ideas that engage the minds and touch the hearts of the target audience, and ultimately motivate a response.

Being business entities, sometimes companies are carried away with their profit motives. They forget that as they are a part of the society, they have a responsibility towards the society, as well. Any activity of the company should not have an adverse effect on the society. The same stands true in respect of advertising also. With the growth in the reach and frequency of mass media, the advertising industry has also grown by leaps and bounds. It implies that the persons exposed to advertising are also growing with the growth of mass media and the advertising industry. On the one hand, it is a good sign for the marketers as they can now reach a larger audience by using mass media but on the other hand, it has increased their role towards the society. Now marketers have to be more socially responsible while making and presenting their advertisements as the presentation of advertisements can have a positive as well as a negative impact on the society.

In this ad-mad world, the viewers are exposed to thousands of ads. It is almost impossible for them to pay attention to all those ads. Only those ads are able to catch their attention, which are different in some way or another from the other bouquet of ads. To break this monotony and to make advertising catchy marketers are dishing out a wide variety of advertisements. They try to give a different touch to make it look appealing. Sometimes they succeed in their experiments, at other times their efforts raise the eyebrows of the viewers. It is often seen that in the name of experimentation and in the desire to win the market game, marketers every now and then are involved in making ads, which cannot be termed as `ethical'.

Ethical Issues in Advertising

Even today, some advertising is simply and deliberately untrue. The problem of truth in advertising is somewhat more subtle: it is not that advertising says what is explicitly false, but that it can distort the truth by implying things that are not so or withholding relevant facts. There are numerous such examples of advertisements related to cosmetics, bathing soaps, detergent soaps, health drinks, etc. claiming brand supremacy over their competitor's brands on debatable grounds. Most of the advertisements of `Fair & Lovely' beauty cream (a product of Hindustan Unilever Ltd.) focused on a "fairer girl gets the boy" (Graham and Cateora, 2007). In one of the advertisements, they have portrayed the young woman who, after using Fair & Lovely becomes attractive and therefore gets a good job. This implies that the main qualification for a woman to get a job is the way she looks. Many people in India thought that Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) had violated Indian advertisement ethics by openly insulting a majority of dark skinned Indian women.

Use of children in advertising is also arguable. Advertisers will have to use children to promote products meant especially for children but apart from this, there are many commercial ads where marketers are using children to promote the products, which are not meant for children. The advertisers are using children in their advertisements as they know that children nowadays are playing the role of influencers in the consumer decision-making process. Sometimes, it is also seen that children force their parents to buy those products, which they can't afford to buy.

Advertisers are also charged of making false claims in their advertisements just to prove that their product is superior over that of their competitor's and to deceive the customers.

In one of the commercials of Videocon Washing Machine, the company claimed that their washing machines are eco-friendly and they are designed to not just care for your clothes, but also to conserve water, save energy. The claim was made without giving proper technical details which proves that the machine helps in conserving water as well as it is energy saving. The company later on withdrew this ad.

Advertisers are also resorting to comparative advertising to catch the eye of the market. HUL introduced its new toothpaste `New Pepsodent', claiming to be 102% better than the leading toothpaste. Advertisement showed New Pepsodent superior in killing germs than any other toothpaste. Lip movement in the ad indicated Colgate as the other toothpaste referred, although voice muted. Also, same jingle as used in the Colgate ad was played. The court held that direct reference about inferiority need not be shown and such reference amounted to disparagement. This kind of advertisement is likely to leave doubt in minds of the viewers and cannot be termed as ethical.

In the latest Rin ad, the company claims thatTide se kahin behatar safedi de Rin (Rin gives better whiteness than Tide), without getting into specific, feature-to-feature comparison. It is also very difficult to measure whiteness, so companies like HUL should try to act in a more ethical manner. Comparative advertising are not unethical but the intention of the companies going for comparative advertising should be crystal clear. Whatever they are claiming in the advertisement should be supported with proper facts and figures. Abstract claims should be avoided.

Advertisers are also using the element of nudity in the advertisements to promote their products. One of the Levis commercial ads shows a bare chested young man with his jeans unbuttoned revealing partly his innerwear, and says "My girlfriend's sister turns me on." The ad states that, "Bare what's inside, live unbuttoned". The statement itself cannot be termed as decent and culture-sensitive. This types of advertisements can cause severe offence.

Advertising Ethics: An Empirical Study

We can find numerous examples where the advertisements are not according to the prevailing ethical standards. A study was conducted by the authors in the city of Goa to collect opinion of different people about various advertisements. The study shows that companies are presenting their products without considering viewers' sentiments.

Various groups of people like students, housewives, businessmen and employees were questioned regarding their views on the level of ethics in television advertisements and social responsibility of the advertisers, about the factual information in these advertisements, and what kind of issues they find unethical in a given set of advertisements.

Researchers said that about 51% of the viewers are of the opinion that the level of ethics in television advertising is average and about 19% feel that it is low.

The major purpose of advertising is to enlighten the customers about the products or services. Since there are too many products in the market and competition is tough for marketers to attract customers, they give a false picture of their products which is far away from reality. The study shows a balanced opinion with more or equal number of people agreeing and disagreeing on this issue.

There is a strong agreement on the issue regarding ad-makers social responsibility. Majority of the respondents agree that ad-makers should act with utmost responsibility while promoting the products through mass media.

When asked about advertising of which product out of a given set of products would they consider more unethical, the opinion poll pointed towards tobacco and cigarettes followed by ads on contraceptive products or family planning. Obviously, it is an endorsement by the consumers on the ban of tobacco advertisements on television.


India is a free country and all the citizens have a freedom of expression. In this scenario, it is up to advertisers to ensure ethically responsible practices while making commercial ads. In this extensive market economy, advertising has become an important element of the society. Advertisements have the power to play a constructive role in the economic growth of a country. Yet it also can do, and often does, severe harm to individuals and to the common good.

Being ethical and unethical is purely a subjective aspect and it largely depends on the nature of the viewers. Since television is a form of mass media, which is treated as a family entertainer, people of all age group and sex fall under the gamut of this media. Hence, any kind of advertisement, which is acceptable to male viewers, may not be acceptable to female audience. In the same way, that which is acceptable to both may not be recommended for children.

Therefore, it can be said that advertising professionals should always try to eliminate its socially harmful aspects and observe high ethical standards in regard to truthfulness, human dignity and social responsibility. In this way, they will make an exceptional and important contribution to human progress and to the common good.

Soumyamoy Maitra
D.B. Pawar College of Management
Marketing Dept.

Source: E-mail August 25, 2010


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