Ethics and advertising [PDF]

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The paper focuses on the relationship between ethics and advertising. ... in an ethical discussion about advertising: advocacy, accuracy and acquisitiveness.
ETHICS AND ADVERTISING Adrian Brunello Faculty of Economics and Business Administration Iaşi/ România [email protected] Abstract The paper focuses on the relationship between ethics and advertising. Advertising, as an element of the promotional mix, stirs many controversial opinions. Both specialists and consumers have different view points when it comes to considering advertising good or evil, ethical or unethical. The paper discusses these contradictory view points and analyzes the three central aspects that appear in an ethical discussion about advertising: advocacy, accuracy and acquisitiveness. The work also contains the “allegations” that are brought to advertising, which make it seem unethical. Every allegation is supported by examples of campaigns which were banned or forbidden from being broadcast on TV. In the end, it is spoken about the regulations regarding advertising at an international, European and local level.

Keywords Advertising, ethics, “allegations” faced by advertising, regulations

1. Introduction Promotion is the element of the marketing mix which offers consumers a first impression about the company or about the product. Promotion can be seen as an assembly of actions meant to inform, attract and keep the potential clients. It also stimulates the purchase decision threw creating the belief that the offer can satisfy the clients needs at the highest level [1]. We can say that promotion represents a continuous process of communication between the company and its target market [2]. In this process, the message is sent by the emitter who codifies it to a receiver who decodes it [3]. Usually, the source of the impersonal communication is the company who develops and delivers the right message. The receiver is the audience who the company tries to inform, influence and persuade. The emitter must formulate a message adapted to the purpose, using words, illustrations and symbols. In order to send the message, the emitter uses a channel paid or unpaid, personal or impersonal [4]. For example, the massage can be sent using TV commercials, magazines, outdoor posters, shopping visits and web sites. The purpose of the message is to generate attention and interest and finally to encourage buying. The way people interpret the message depends largely on the personal experience and on the characteristics of the receiver. These imply demographic characteristics, socio-cultural, personality, attitude, previous experiences, perceptions and last but not least the ethics of receiver. The emitter has his own ethical principles which influence the way in which the message is being coded. If the message is received in the desired manner by the emitter, we will have a proper feed-back from the receiver, which is the answer of the audience. For example, the receivers may or may not buy the promoted product, which means that the emitters can figure out how persuasive the massage was from the actions or the lack of

actions of the target market. Therefore, a massage which is perceived as unethical will trigger a negative feedback from the audience.

2. Opinions pro and against advertising Wells defines advertising as a “means of paid and impersonal communication of an identified sponsor who uses mass media to persuade and influence the audience”. Other authors describe advertising as an important social phenomenon which stimulates the consumption and the economic activity, influencing the life style and the values of the consumers who are exposed daily to considerable amounts of advertising in various media. The opinions about advertising vary from admiration and amusement to cynicism and blame. „Advertising is not an art; it is made only for selling. Those who believe that advertising is made without any interest should no longer be in this field. It is true that, at least where form is concerned, advertising uses artistic means. But, as it is not a form of art, advertising must respect the rules of the commercial and legal communication and, especially to avoid shocking the public with some scenes that destroy the image of the man or the image of the woman”. Jean-Pierre Teyssier, Chairman of the European Advertising Standards Alliance. Stephen Leacock: “Advertising may be described as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it.” Philip Kotler: “Companies should ask themselves before using advertising, if the commercial will create more satisfied customers than money that can be spent for manufacturing a better product or service” [5]. Consumers accuse the advertising people of:  Selling dreams; because of them we confuse dreams with reality.  They manipulate us to want things that we really don’t need. All these aspects can be synthesised threw the feeling that the advertising people use a world of illusions in a cynical way with the sole purpose of controlling the consumers. The majority of the consumers expressing this feeling say that in their case advertising does not manage to achieve its goals. This is also true because of the laws that regulate the field. Today, in most of the countries it is not legal to lye using advertising. It is more a problem of the ethics of the purposes and means used in advertising than of the regulations. Critics say that with the rise of the competition and of the volume of advertising, the number of controversial commercials will also increase. Treise and Weigold underline that advertising has been accused of many weak points at the ethical level, many of them coming from the lack of social responsibility [6]. According to Wells, there are three central aspects in an ethical discussion about advertising: the advocacy, the accuracy and the acquisitiveness [7]. The advocacy refers to the persuasive power of advertising. This disturbs the critics who say that advertising should be objective, informative and neutral. The accuracy deals with perceptions. A statement such as: “Will the purchase of this car make me more attractive for the opposite sex?” might be an implicit message in a commercial. Such allusions worry the critics, especially if they are addressed to more vulnerable groups such as: children, old men or people with disabilities. The acquisitiveness deals with advertising as a symbol of the preoccupation of our society to accumulate material belongings. The

continuous exposure to a variety of new or improved products makes the critics claim that the public is becoming aware of the need for those products. Many scholars think of advertising as a inherently moral healthy activity: threw its informative function, it assures a great freedom of choice for the buyer and it imposes on the bidder an active behaviour in order to deal with the competition. Advertising allows consumers to choose from different products, offering alternatives and stimulants. It is also a source of information about the values, beliefs and life styles of a culture. The decision is finally up to the consumers. Moreover, advertising isn’t always aimed at increasing the demand. It can be used to inform the public about some social or health problems. However, many critics bring into discussion many moral aspects that are opposed to the above said Therefore, the most serious “allegations” brought to advertising – not as a whole, but in numerous cases- are: 

fraud – advertising should not be insincere; it should offer useful information to the customers; however, in many instances, only parts of the facts are presented, the qualities of the products are exaggerated and ambiguous statements that do not relate to reality are being made. Many countries have imposed some regulations in this field. According to APC Romania (Association for consumer protection), and due to the Law 148/2000 regarding advertising, this should provide accurate information, not misleading and not necessarily complete. The law defines advertising as being misleading when, threw the presentation manner deceives or misleads the one watching the commercial The promotion of a product or service may be considered misleading when it contains a series of inadequate information regarding the availability of the goods or services, the nature, composition, quantity or their destination, the price of the products or the way of establishing the price. Examples: 1. Shell advertised one of its products, the Super Shell gas which contains a certain substance which would reduce the consumption in comparison to a gas which does not contain that substance. This is true, but what Shell didn’t say was that almost all types of gas contain that substance. In their defence they claimed that they had never said that that substance was present only in their gas. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) decided that this was a misleading practice [8]. 2. «Credit only with your ID», a trap which deceived many consumers [9]. We all know the commercials with the following theme: strange ID-s with pictures showing happy people [10]. The reason: Credit from Altex only using the ID. APC Romania says that the slogan "Credit only with your ID" is far from the reality from the Altex stores. A compulsory condition in order to get the credit is to be employed at a company for at least 6 month and to have a minimum monthly salary of 250lei. The income must be confirmed, at the work place, by completing a salary certificate. But, surprise! The amount of 2000 lei for a consumption credit is, in fact, 1250lei for a 5 year credit and 1800lei for a 6 year one. The only way one can purchase a product that costs 2000lei is for the repayment period to be 30 days. None of these conditions is, however, specified in the Altex ads. 3.

SC Real Hypermarket Romania Bucureşti used to sell the product Almette Yogurt at “a special price of 4, 09 lei”, although the previous price of the product was 3, 99 lei, less expensive than the special price [11].


Vodafone promises using a vocal message a supplementary bonus of 120 minutes in the network for a 6 euro monthly recharge [12]; while the message shown on screen expresses the fact that the 120 minutes will be offered in monthly portions during 1 year. It was considered that the message is unclear, because it may leave you with the impression that you can receive the 120 minutes at a monthly recharge and from the printed message one can understand that there are only 10 minutes every month.

manipulation – some recent debates about advertising present the fact that everything that represents an advertising content may affect the autonomy of the individual; many critics consider the commercials to be manipulative because they suggestively link the product to unknown desires. On the other side, it is claimed that the commercials offer right information which satisfy the needs of the individuals and that they can choose rationally;

In many spots, classical rules of manipulation are used, such as: - the rule of reciprocity, the social prove, the use of authority, the use of the testimonial advertising, the limited offer, the lack of resources for all the clients. Manipulation also deals with more controversial matters, such as the subliminal advertising. The subliminal hysteria started in 1957 when a guy called Vicary had just launched an advertising agency entitled „Subliminal Projection Company”, which wanted to explore the subliminal stimuli. He said that, during a film which was presented at a cinema in New Jersey, he had projected flashes at 1/3.000 seconds, containing the advices „drink Coke” and „eat popcorn”. Following this experiment, the sales of those products have risen tremendously. It was then when some American senators decided that this kind of practice should be forbidden. Although, some years later, in an interview given to Advertising Age magazine, Vicary acknowledged that the experiment wasn’t real and that he had made those statements to save his company from bankruptcy, the subliminal advertising still remained in the regulations an illegal practice just like the misleading advertising. The most interesting debates about the subliminal advertising took place during the American Elections in 2000. It is about an advertising spot of the republicans who mocked Al Gore’s proposal to legislate drug dealings on account of medical prescription. In the spot there was a line on which it was written „Bureaucrats Decidesa” [13]. The Fox News journalists noticed that, before one could see the entire slogan, on the screen there were only the middle letters, „rats”. Following this event, CNN and other vehicles have presented the spot frame by frame and they noticed that the word “rats” indeed was on the screen for a fraction of second. 

irritation – many people consider that the increasingly number of brutal attempts to sell them something is a real misfortune; they don’t like direct response commercials on TV, because they are to noisy, to long and to insistent.

Violating the intimacy of the person– it seems that almost every time when consumers order products threw mail or telephone, when they participate at a raffle, when they want a book or a magazine subscription, the name, address and the purchase behaviour are immediately registered in the already reach data base, so that the ones who use the direct advertising can use these data to concentrate their sales efforts;

Example: American Express, which was seen for a long time as a leader when it comes to protecting the data, announced an agreement to make the data of 175 million Americans available to those salespeople who accept its credit cards [14]. 

Comparisons with the competing product brands – they are not strictly regulated in all the countries, which allows the use of unethical practices; the most controversial debates are concerning: a) the comparison of two or more than two brands; b) the comparison deals with one or more than one product or service attribute; c) the information offered is based on false statements;

The creation of an “artificial need” – advertisers can not deny that they try to make the consumers feel unsatisfied towards the products or services that they are using at this moment and that they try to sell to their customers products which they don’t really need but which they might want;

Philip Kotler: The purpose of advertising is not to present the characteristics of a product but to sell a solution or a dream. The Ferrari cars “sell” three dreams: social recognition, freedom and heroism. Let’s not forget the advertisement of the founder of Revlon: “In our factory, we make lipstick. In our advertising, we sell hope” 

The creation of an uncertainty feeling among the individuals towards problems such as the smell of the body, dental caries, lack of self-confidence and others; for example the insurance agents have to use the feeling of anxiety in order to sell life insurances or insurances against accidents;

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson was running for the presidency against Barry Goldwater, when his staff launched “the daisy ad” [15]. He looked like a little girl who was plucking the petals of a flower while the count was wrong. Then a man’s voice counted backwards until the detonation of a nuclear bomb. The spot, which ran once only, was so efficient that it helped Johnson win the elections. Drew Westen, who wrote the book "The Political Brain", says spots based on fear are effective because the target population is addressed unconscious. During the 2008 elections, he, along with his business partners, has developed a software that measured the effect on voters in the campaign. One of the most efficient was spot [16]. Fear is also used in advertising prints, eloquent being the posters which circulated during the 2001 elections in Great Britain. Fear becomes all the more controversial as it is not addressed only to adults but also to children. One example is a spot against smoking which has been withdrawn a few days after the launch because of the protests [17]. It was taken into account the fact that presenting a child who fears that his mother would die because of smoking may frighten and hurt deeply another child, especially if it means that the death risk is imminent. These were the reasons presented by the regulatory authority. 

some adverse effects on children-children are very vulnerable to advertising; they imitate very easily the behaviours induced by advertising and can be easily influenced. Experts have monitored 60 children aged between 9 and 11 years who were shown a series of food and toy advertisements, followed by cartoons. The

overweight or obese doubled their menu after watching the event. The greatest impact was on obese children, who have increased their menu with about 134%. The overweight ate with 101 percent more after seeing the advertisement, while babies with a normal weight, with 84 percent more. The study released by the Organization, has been made on a sample of 352 children and their parents. Experts have analyzed the content of several ads for food products (217 spots appearing in 15 days) broadcast at times when children watch TV a lot. The findings were really amazing: 89 percent of advertising spots promote products which are too fat or which contain too much sugar (milk products, cereals and sweets). By comparing these data with the nutritional advice, experts in food have concluded that the advertising spots analysed promote a diet opposed to the recommended diet. Basic food products (complete cereal, fruit, vegetables, vegetable oils, nuts) miss almost entirely from the advertisements (between 1 percent and 3 percent). The proportion of the advertisements which promote the consumption of sweets, refined cereals (55 percent) and dairy products (38 percent) is becoming alarming. Individual meetings with the children have generated a clear conclusion. They retain the majority of advertising messages. These influence the behaviour of the children and the food decisions taken by the parents at the request of their children. Another example is for the drink Orangina. A commercial for Orangina, in which several animals, wearing tiny bikini, dance on the bar, drew numerous complaints from viewers [18]. The 60 seconds advertisement presents a love story between a bear and a deer, ending with the blast of numerous bottles of Orangina located between the legs of some zebras and the content reached the chest other animals. The advertisement, carried out by an advertising agency in France, drew the criticism of many children right’s organizations. Claude knights, director of Kidscape -an organisation against child sex abuse, said: “Orangina is a beverage addressed in particular to young people and children, but this new advertisement places the product in a challenging context, full of sexuality.” “Putting those animals almost sinister in an erotic context gives rise to very mixed and ambiguous messages,” says Knights. He says he fears that this is another example of advertisement where sexual images are used to sell products for children. Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) received 147 complaints in a few days after the advertisement was broadcast, for the first time, on 1 August 2008. 

the high costs of product or service due to costs for advertising. For example, 10 aspirins from a manufacturer who uses an extensive advertising cost as much as 100 aspirins of a less promoted brand. Product differentiation through packaging and promotions, results in the raise of the price of some products by more than 40%. These differences are only psychological, adding no functional value characteristic to the product. Of course, marketers have their own reactions to these “allegations” consumers want more than just some simple functional characteristics of a product, they want to feel healthy, beautiful or special. They could buy cheaper versions of the products, but they also want the psychological benefits. 

sexual allusions - are considered offensive to many categories of population, as well as increased violence in advertising spots; Sex in advertising comprises of four distinct categories [19]:

- Sexism, referring to messages that diminish the importance of one gender over the other, especially through the use of stereotypes about the different roles played by both sexes - Discriminatory references regarding sex, race, social status or disability. - Sexual images as the main factor in order to attract attention to the spot, sometimes involving a form of violence against women - Sexual objectivity, which particularly concerns with the use of women as decorations or to attract attention, without a direct connection with the product or service to which the advertising refers. Example: The advertising spot of the famous animal protection organization PETA has caused controversy among the American public opinion. The advertisement “Veggie Love” promotes fruit and vegetable consumption and is in favour of a healthy diet choice: “Studies have shown that vegetarians have better sex than those who eat meat frequently” [20]. This incendiary spot was strongly criticized, but also prohibited by U.S. television, including the well-known NBC. The PETA advertisement is seen as having a much too explicit sexual content to be broadcast on television. The managers of several U.S. television stations have announced that they will reconsider their position and accept to present the spot only if PETA will leave out some scenes. The video was also banned during the advertising brakes of the American “Super Bowl” final. Moreover, PETA also shocked with the prints that were published together with different campaigns they supported. The above example is part of campaign against the use of fur in the manufacturing of cloths.

3. Advertising regulations At the International Level. The International Chamber of Commerce in Paris has developed in 1937 the “fair practice code” regarding advertising, which requires a set of rules for commercial advertising, namely:  decency: not to disturb the moral values;  loyalty: not to speculate the trust, ignorance or the superstitions of the customers;  originality: to be the creation of the one who does the commercial, no imitation being allowed;  accuracy: to respect the name of the product, company or brand;  identity: to be able to be recognised as advertising. At the European Level European Advertising Standards Alliance (EASA) says that “on behalf of advertising industry, it is the only authoritative voice on advertising self-regulation”. EASA was created in 1992 to demonstrate how issues affecting the European single market advertising can be successfully resolved through cooperation rather than through comprehensive legislation. EASA supports legal, decent and honest advertising. This kind of advertising informs consumers about the different existing products and ensures customer confidence, crucial in all long-term marketing strategies. At the Local Level Romanian Advertising Council (RAC) is a regulatory body in advertising, created to develop the advertising business in Romania, to ensure fair competition, consumer and general public interest against the potential negative publicity in the spirit of Article 21 of

Law No. 148/2000 regarding advertising. RAC is a professional, non-governmental, nonprofit and independent organization. The Romanian Advertising Council's work is based on the Code of Advertising Practice, established by its members. The Advertising Code of Practice developed by the RAC, was conceived as a set of ethical rules to be observed by all those involved in advertising and in any form of commercial communication in order to ensure a correct, honest and decent report, in respect of the legislation concerning the principles and practices in advertising and commercial communications made by the International Chamber of Commerce, internationally recognized both in form and content. The purpose of the document is to support the development of a decent and honest business environment in Romania by offering a guide of form and content for a correct, honest and decent informing of the consumer and of the industry.

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