Exploring Perceptions of Advertising Ethics: An Informant-Derived Approach

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  • Published: 23 January 2018
  • Volume 159 , pages 727–744, ( 2019 )

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  • Haseeb Ahmed Shabbir 1 ,
  • Hala Maalouf 2 ,
  • Michele Griessmair 3 ,
  • Nazan Colmekcioglu 4 &
  • Pervaiz Akhtar 1  

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Whilst considerable research exists on determining consumer responses to pre-determined statements within numerous ad ethics contexts, our understanding of consumer thoughts regarding ad ethics in general remains lacking. The purpose of our study therefore is to provide a first illustration of an emic and informant-based derivation of perceived ad ethics. The authors use multi-dimensional scaling as an approach enabling the emic, or locally derived deconstruction of perceived ad ethics. Given recent calls to develop our understanding of ad ethics in different cultural contexts, and in particular within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, we use Lebanon—the most ethically charged advertising environment within MENA—as an illustrative context for our study. Results confirm the multi-faceted and pluralistic nature of ad ethics as comprising a number of dimensional themes already salient in the existing literature but in addition, we also find evidence for a bipolar relationship between individual themes. The specific pattern of inductively derived relationships is culturally bound. Implications of the findings are discussed, followed by limitations of the study and recommendations for further research.

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Although a unified understanding of what ethics in advertising should denote remains complicated by the multi-faceted and pluralistic nature of ethics (Drumwright 2008 ), there has been growing scholarly interest in “ad ethics”. The consensus appears to be that advertising is the most ethically charged aspect of marketing (Shabbir and Thwaites 2007 ; Richards 2008 ). Critics of advertising have raised concerns over its perpetuation of stereotypes and unbridled materialism or to its manipulative and persuasive nature (Pollay 1986 , 1987 ; Calfee 1997 ; Smith and Quelch 1993 ; Hyman et al. 1994 ), leading Beltramini ( 2003 ) to describe ad ethics as the “ultimate oxymoron”. However and despite the centrality of consumers in this discussion, we suggest that their views do not surface sufficiently in the derivation of what constitutes “ad ethics”, and yet as Ringold ( 1998 , p. 335) noted “individual consumers (not advertisers, not those who create and disseminate advertising, not the government) should be the final arbiters of what constitutes acceptable advertising practice”. Indeed, the most established view is that the viewing public should determine the (un)ethicality of ads (Laczniak 1998 ; Skipper and Hyman 1993 ). As Cook ( 2008 , p. 1) argues, ultimately “the soul of all meaningful advertisements lies in the respect shown to the person for whom that advertisement is designed” and yet a purely viewer- or informant-derived assessment of the underlying structure of ad ethics remains lacking. Although numerous studies have investigated consumer responses towards specific contexts in ad ethics and various public polls of attitudes towards advertising consistently find advertisers as one of the least ethical professions (Richards 2008 ), we know of no study, which derives the general perceptions of consumers towards ad ethics.

Without developing an understanding of consumer concerns towards advertising, it is difficult for an ad sector to anticipate the unintended consequences of unethical ads (Bush and Bush 1994 ; Treise et al. 1994 ; Polonsky and Hyman 2007 ). As Treise et al. ( 1994 , p. 68) elaborate, “Consumer opinion that a specific advertising practice is unethical or immoral can lead to a number of unwanted outcomes, ranging from consumer indifference toward the advertised product to more serious actions such as boycotts or demands for government regulation”. Therefore, determining consumer perceived ad ethics may shed important insights to guide ad agencies to act in ways commensurate with what consumers perceive as violations of ethical norms. Therefore, the aim of the current study is to address this deficiency by determining the general perceptions of ad ethics that the target audience holds. We do this by developing an inductively derived structure of ad ethics.

A Lebanese public perspective is used as an illustrative context for our study, thus addressing a second related gap, or the lack of understanding of ad ethics from different cultural perspectives. As Drumwright and Kamal ( 2016 , p. 173) argue this gap in our knowledge “has not received attention commiserate with its importance”. The notion that ethics vary across cultures has a rich and established tradition (Casmir 2013 ). Consumer perceived ethics are also dependent on cultural variations (Swaidan 2012 ) and by default, perceived ad ethics is also bound by a cultural dilemma since the target audience’s “culture filters our perceptions of what constitutes good or responsible consumption” (Belk et al. 2005 , p. 7). An audience-based derivation of ad ethics from the target cultural perspective could therefore reveal the unique combination of ethical characteristics associated with ads, effectively giving rise to a culture’s “fingerprint” of perceived ad ethics.

It is important to note from the onset that whilst previous studies have used the controversial nature of ads as a proxy for their unethical content (e.g. Treise et al. 1994 ), we avoid this assumption. Not all controversial ads are unethical, and vice versa. Controversial ads can also generate positive effects such as in social marketing awareness campaigns (Fam et al. 2009 ). Moreover, since ethics is based on moral philosophies which fluctuate with individual judgement, “there is no such thing as a right/wrong or ethical/unethical ad, there are only latitudes [or boundaries] of ethicality” (Bush and Bush 1994 , p. 33). The purpose of this article therefore is not to explore the philosophical discussions surrounding the rightness or wrongness of perceptions towards ads, but instead to determine the pattern of consumer thoughts in relation to ad ethics. As such, we provide advertisers with a means to determine the “boundaries or latitudes of ethicality” (Bush and Bush 1994 ) so that advertisers can become more aware of the parameters used by their target audiences to evaluate the (un) ethical content of their ads. In doing so, we demonstrate an approach, which enables locally or emic-based derived associations of ad ethics, which advertisers can subsequently assess to manage their own creative process in relation to aligning their content with consumer judgements of ad ethicality.

Two research questions form the basis of this study. First, what can a locally derived, or an emic-based approach uncover in relation to what constitutes perceived ad ethics? Second, how can this informant-based derivation of ad ethics inform our understanding of the multi-faceted and pluralistic nature of ad ethics? The remainder of this study is structured as follows. First, the lack of a general ad ethics perspective is derived from an overview of the extant literature. Second, a rationale is developed for an informant and emic-based approach. Next, we discuss the methodological approach selected, multi-dimensional scaling (MDS) as enabling unprompted or free elicitation of word associations linked to ad ethics, and therefore consistent with an informant and emic-based perspective. The case for using Lebanon as an illustrative context is elaborated. Thereafter, the findings of the MDS application to a sample of the Lebanese public are presented alongside a discussion of implications for theory development and elaboration. Finally, managerial implications, avenues for future research and limitations of the study are reviewed.

Literature Review

At its most fundamental level, ethics is often understood as a reference to “just or ‘right’ standards of behaviour between parties in a situation, based on individual moral philosophies” (Bush and Bush 1994 , p. 32). By extension, advertising ethics tends to focus on “what is right or wrong in the conduct of the advertising function, and concerns questions of what ought to be done, not just what legally must be done” (Cunningham 1999 , p. 500). Classifications of ad ethics differentiate between message (or content) and business ethics (Drumwright and Murphy 2009 ; Drumwright 2012 ). Message ethics relate to the ethical parameters surrounding the creation, dissemination and processing of ad messages or the “micro” perspective (Drumwright 2012 ) of ad ethics. Within this stream, important insights have emerged on specific advertising contexts. These range from gender stereotyping in ads (e.g. Boddewyn 1991 ; Gould 1994 ; Kilbourne 1999 ) and the vulnerability of children to advertising (e.g. Moore 2004 ; Preston 2004 ; Treise et al. 1994 ) to racial content in ads (e.g. Shabbir et al. 2014 ; Bristor et al. 1995 ) and the use of fear as an ad appeal (e.g. Hastings et al. 2004 ; Hyman and Tansey 1990 ; LaTour and Zahra 1989 ). In contrast, a business ethics approach adopts an organisational or “meso” perspective (Drumwright 2012 ) and deals with the ethics of the ad industry. The focus within this stream has been on uncovering practitioner attitudes towards ad ethics (Drumwright and Murphy 2004 ; Drumwright and Kamal 2016 ) or on how ad agencies should manage ethics (e.g. Hyman et al. 1990 ; Drumwright and Murphy 2009 ; Hyman 2009 ). Linking both these streams is yet a third more earlier perspective based on a largely philosophical or “macro” approach (Drumwright 2012 ) focusing on the aggregate effects of advertising. Here, the debate revolves around whether advertising serves as a “mirror”, merely reflecting the values of its target audiences (Holbrook 1987 ) or instead as a “distorted mirror”, and therefore as a manipulator of audience values (Pollay 1986 , 1987 ). Reviewing this debate, Alexander et al. ( 2011 ) conclude the evidence points to advertising as a “moulder” of its target audience’s values, both through its persuasive content (McCracken 1986 ; Sun 2015 ; Drumwright and Kamal 2016 ) and through its role as cultural intermediary (Cronin 2004 ; Cayla and Eckhardt 2008 ; Drumwright and Kamal 2016 ).

In what remains the only study to date to propose a multi-faceted typology on what constitutes ad ethics, Hyman et al. ( 1994 ) summarised, using extant literature at the time and interviews with advertising academics, the “primary topics” of consumer-based ad ethics inquiry. These primary topics were classified as (1) deception in ads, (2) advertising to children, (3), tobacco advertising, (4) alcohol ads, (5), negative political ads, (6) racial and (7) sexual stereotyping. The versatility of this typology is reflected in the fact that it “still provides researchers with the most rigorous and pragmatic agenda for exploring ethics in advertising” (Shabbir and Thwaites 2007 , p. 75). Despite the rich stream of studies exploring specific domains of consumer ad ethics, largely rooted in one of Hyman et al’s ( 1994 ) primary topic areas, our knowledge of what constitutes ad ethics purely from a consumer’s perspective remains much more limited. As a result, our understanding of the relationship between different audience derived ethical domains is also lacking.

Compounding the aforementioned gap in knowledge is the notable absence of exploring ad ethics from different cultural perspectives beyond Western markets (Drumwright and Kamal 2016 ; Moon and Franke 2000 ). Rising concerns of ad ethics in the popular and trade press of other global marketing contexts warrants extending the contextual domain of ad ethics (Drumwright and Kamal 2016 ). As LaFerle ( 2015 , p. 163) notes, if ad agencies are to succeed in an increasingly diverse marketplace, then “ethical behaviour and cultural knowledge are key”. One approach to investigating the ethics-culture nexus is the emic-etic dilemma. At its most basic level, this debate asks whether behaviour can be understood in terms of the culture in which it is derived from (emic) or whether cultural differences can be understood as variations of underlying common themes (etic) (Berry 1990 ; Casmir 2013 ).

When ad ethics have been explored in non-Western contexts, a cross-cultural lens has been adopted and therefore an etic, or “outside view” (Taylor et al. 1996 ) approach favoured, or where the assumption is that “Behavior [can be] described from a vantage external to the culture, in constructs that apply equally well to other cultures” (Morris et al. 1999 , p. 783). In contrast, emic or “inside” approaches to investigating cultural phenomenon rest on assuming that, “Behavior [can be] described as seen from the perspective of cultural insiders, in constructs drawn from their self-understandings” (ibid, p. 783). An emic-based conceptualisation of ethics is often derived through words or descriptors used by informants representing the local target audience (Taylor et al. 1996 ). As Reinecke et al. ( 2016 , p. 14) elaborate, it enables researchers to “experience-near understanding, that is, situated knowledge…of how individuals negotiate what is ethical or not in the social situation under study”.

In relation to ethics and culture, the universalist position reflects an etic approach in that it assumes that ethics supersede cultural limitations of any cultural system, does not necessarily equate or imply culture and instead a single set of values are applicable to all cultures (Hall 2013 ). In contrast, the relativist position argues for an emic perspective and suggests that “culture as a sense making system necessarily implies ethics” (ibid, p. 21). Relativists therefore advocate a more complex nexus between ethics and culture since ethics is assumed as intrinsic to cultural values and norms. Moreover, the relativist position suggests that since value systems are unique to each culture, its “insiders” can only judge ethics. Since morality is also culture bound, the plurality of ethics can be explained by the defining norms of the societal context in which it is being explored (Haidt and Joseph 2004 ). This position, therefore, accounts for the plurality of ethics as emerging from the relativism of underlying moral philosophies (Bush and Bush 1994 ; Crane and Matten 2004 ). A third position on the etic-emic dilemma argues for a dual role of universalism and relativism such that both are no longer considered as dichotomous perspectives (Hall 2013 ). This position assumes that underlying moral values, which underpin ethics, converge across cultures but the ethical evaluations of moral issues become refined by specific cultural norms and values (Morris et al. 1999 ).

Whilst several etic-based studies exist which examine ad ethics across cultures, no previous study has sought to derive general perceptions of ad ethics derived solely from the cultural audience under investigation. Moreover, those studies which have adopted an etic cross-cultural perspective have investigated particular domains of ad ethics such as attitudes towards sexual appeals (Garcia and Yang 2006 ; Sawang 2010 ), direct to consumer pharmaceutical advertising (Reast et al. 2008 ) or violent images (Waller et al. 2013 ). Similarly, where the focus has been on uncovering one particular culture’s attitude, the focus has again been on pre-selected ethical domains such as the ethics of food advertising in India (Soni and Singh 2012 ) or offensive advertising in Singapore (Phau and Prendergast 2001 ). Even when a more general approach has been adopted, combinations of pre-selected categories have remained the foci. Treise et al. ( 1994 ) and Mostafa ( 2011 ) for instance explore attitudes towards children, minority groups, sexual and fear appeals as correlates of advertising ethics. Emic-based derivations of consumer ad ethic contexts are fewer still but again specific domains have been the foci of the investigations such as Waller and Lanasier’s ( 2015 ) study on the attitude of Indonesian mothers towards the pervasiveness of children’s advertising.

Against this backdrop, we propose that an emic-based derivation of general ad ethics could contribute to our understanding of the multi-faceted and pluralistic nature of ad ethics. This approach is consistent with calls to conceptualise ad ethics in “a manner that satisfies the cultural expectations of consumers” (Rawwas 2001 , p. 203). Given the inductive nature of the emic-based logic, a priori assumptions of what constitutes ad ethics do not govern the structure of any emergent structure of perceived ad ethics. Instead, any theory development or elaboration on the nature of general perceptions towards ad ethics rests solely on emergent or inductively derived outcomes. Prioritising this informant-based logic is elaborated further.

Stakeholder Theory

Complementing an emic-based approach to investigating consumer perceived ad ethics further is stakeholder theory (Freeman 1984 ) or the view that managerial decision-making should “take account the interests of all stakeholders” (Jensen 2002 , p. 236). Among the myriad of potential stakeholders, consumers hold a particularly important position in advertising. O’Barr ( 1994 , p. 8) for instance contends, “the consumer is [the] ultimate author of the meaning of an ad, the intention of the [ad] makers becomes of secondary importance”, thus reiterating the overriding role of the consumer as “final arbiters” (Ringold 1998 ) or primary stakeholder in the consumption of advertising (Ringold 1998 ; Skipper and Hyman 1993 ; Alexander et al. 2011 ). However, and although the need to measure public attitudes towards ad ethicality is an established one (Hyman et al. 1994 ), “there are no currently recognised mechanisms for evaluating” (Polonsky and Hyman 2007 , p. 5) the unintended consequences of advertising on its primary stakeholders. Existing approaches to determining consumer derivations of ad ethics remain limited.

For instance, survey based approaches to measuring ad ethics have traditionally been problematic (Drumwright 2008 ; Skipper and Hyman 1993 ). Given the pluralistic nature of moral philosophies, “there appears to be no single standard of evaluation” for perceived ethics (Reidenbach and Robin 1988 , p. 879), an issue compounded within the “advertising community where messages are targeted to a mass audience” (Bush and Bush 1994 , p. 33). As a result, both single and multi-item scales for capturing ethical evaluations of adverts are open to misspecification and misinterpretation, and have been deemed “missing”, “vague” and “ambiguous” (Bush and Bush 1994 ; Skipper and Hyman 1993 ). Existing qualitative applications to uncover ad ethics also pose problems. A common practice for instance among ad agencies is to ask respondents for verbal self-reports to a pre-specified ad (Hyman and Tansey 1990 ). Whilst this constitutes a viable technique to gain direct insights from consumers, this approach still limits the array of potential associations due to the nature of the pre-coder specified stimuli. Despite its shortcomings, this method is widespread. A report by the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority), Public perceptions of offence and harm in UK advertising (ASA 2012 ), is largely based on consumer responses to a pre-selected number of ads to guide focus group discussions. The deciphering of meaning behind the symbology or story within the corpus of the ad, i.e. semiotic or narrative-based evaluations, has also been popular among ad agencies. However, these too are prone to coder subjectivity and influenced by coder socio-cultural norms, values and experiences (Coulter et al. 2001 ), and as a result would not be feasible if applied across an entire ad sector’s ethical positioning. We therefore propose an informant-based logic to overcome some of the aforementioned problems in ascertaining consumer perceived ad ethics.

Towards an Informant-Based MDS Approach

Informant-based research in advertising has evolved to assure that the informant, rather than the coder, should select the stimuli for research (Zaltman 1997 ) such that by “controlling the stimuli, informants are better able to represent their thoughts and feelings and identify issues that are both important to them and potentially unknown to the researcher” (Coulter et al. 2001 , p. 4). Given that individuals “may differ in the advertising activities they find (un)acceptable/(ir)responsible” (Polonsky and Hyman 2007 , p. 5), asking respondents to tap into their own associations with advertising ethics permits that individuals’ unique beliefs, values and experiences to form the basis of their personal judgments. We contend that an investigation of ad ethics based on pre-selected stimuli forces consumers to respond to a pre-determined list of attributes rather than allowing them to “describe the target stimulus in terms that are salient to [them]” (Reilly 1990 , p. 22). The free elicitation of associations from the target audience through an informative based approach therefore minimizes the “danger of forcing respondents to react to a standardised framework that may not be an accurate representation of their image” (Jenkins 1999 , p. 7). An informant-based approach to determine ad ethics is therefore also more consistent with an emic or “insider approach”, thus enabling a greater reflexive focus on “the unanticipated and unexpected—things that puzzle the researcher” (Alvesson and Kärreman 2007 , p. 1266). As Reinecke et al. ( 2016 , p. 14) argue such an approach ensures any theory development or elaboration is “…through the lens of the participant’s perceptions of his or her experiences rather than through the lens of abstract categories and concepts imposed by the researchers, including the normative assumptions that are always already inscribed into them”.

Given the methodological need to uncover audience perceptions without imposing pre-specified criteria to shape their judgements, we propose multi-dimensional scaling (MDS) as a viable technique to attain an informant-based derivation of perceived ad ethics. MDS comprises a number of procedures for analysing proximity data to identify “the underlying structure of complex psychological phenomena” (Pinkley et al. 2005 , p. 239) but critically does not require researchers to define categories for evaluation a priori. Instead, MDS allows dimensions to emerge solely on the basis of (dis)similarity ratings made by respondents. Within the context of this research, it means that we do not pre-specify the characteristics of ad ethics, but instead inductively derive the meaning of ad ethics through unprompted solicitation. This open, data-driven approach is in line with the notions of grounded theory (Strauss and Corbin 1997 ) and therefore ensures that the derived solution is truly informant-based and discovery-orientated in nature (Griessmair et al. 2011 ). Furthermore, this approach also ensures an emic-based derivation since the generation of the initial input and condensation to dimensions are performed by the target group, and thus the target group’s mental schemata is the underlying deriver of outputs. The latter point is especially important as people do not necessarily react to an “objective reality”, as interpreted by researchers and coders, but instead to their uniquely and individually experienced environment (cf. Ellis 1962 ; Lazarus 1989 ; Mahoney 1974 ). Finally, the rating procedure does not require respondents to directly provide ethical categories that underlie their judgments and perceptions—which might prove difficult considering the complexity of the phenomenon—but only to compare the stimuli and eventually provide descriptions. Thus, MDS enables the identification, categorisation, and labelling of perceptions even when the criteria used for the respective judgments are not fully explicit or not readily available in consumers’ minds (Pinkley 1990 ; Pinkley et al. 2005 ). Since raters are not “cognizant of existing theory and [therefore] blind to the purpose of the study” (Griessmair et al. 2011 , p. 1066), the findings are “less likely to be contaminated by the preconceptions or hypotheses of the researcher” (Pinkley et al. 2005 , p. 341). Systematic bias therefore is not eliminated by MDS but instead is minimised relative to alternative coding qualitative procedures (Griessmair et al. 2011 ). MDS also allows for calculating the goodness of fit of the identified dimensional solution (Borg and Groenen 2005 ; Hair et al. 2010 ). As such, it provides for additional reliability, relative to content analytical techniques for instance (Griessmair et al. 2011 ), Finally, since the aim of our study is in establishing boundaries or latitudes of ethicality from an informant perspective, MDS is particularly suitable as it encapsulates the relativity of informant-elicited responses (Griessmair et al. 2011 ). A general sample from the Lebanese public provides an appropriate context for our study for several reasons.

The Lebanese Context

First, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has been “historically ignored in advertising research” (Kalliny et al. 2009 , p. 92) and indeed in the wider domain of international marketing research (Lages et al. 2015 ). Despite being “portrayed by the sensationalistic media as politically unstable and potentially violent” (ibid, p. 5), the MENA region is characterised by rising levels of young consumers (Pew Research 2011 ), exponential growth in media proliferation (Dubai Press Club 2012 ) and therefore increasingly attractive for business opportunities (Lages et al. 2015 ; Drumwright and Kamal 2016 ). Second, and not unlike other emerging economies, MENA contexts have the potential to challenge conventional marketing thinking (Burgess and Steenkamp 2006 ) and facilitate the re-assessment of existing conceptualisations of marketing theory (Akbar and Samii 2005 ). In an era of globalisation, where “MENA [remains] largely ignored as academics focus on the evolving advertising industry in the West” (Smith, 2016 , p. 3), MENA contexts, therefore, provide fertile examples to extend research in ad ethics beyond Western markets (Drumwright and Kamal 2016 ; Moon and Franke 2000 ; Smith 2016 ). However, as Smith ( 2016 , p. 3) elaborates, given their “…lack of regulation, exponential economic growth, media revolutions and rapid move towards consumer-oriented thinking”, MENA contexts are particularly vulnerable to unethical marketing. Drumwright ( 2016 , p. 1) also argued that a particular problem in the MENA region is the notable lack of “…laws that prevent people from doing misleading advertising or if there are laws they aren’t enforced or are so specific that they don’t really deal with the important issues”. Consequently, the MENA ad landscape is particularly “…ripe for ethical infractions” (Drumwright and Kamal 2016 , p. 173) and therefore warrants attention.

Third, and specifically in relation to Lebanon, the Lebanese ad sector is considered to be the most controversial in the MENA region (Kraidy 2007 ; 2010 ; Farah and El Samad 2015a ). Whilst we recognise that not all ad controversies are necessarily unethical, nor all unethical content deemed controversial, public concerns and criticisms of Lebanon’s ad landscape are rooted in established ethical infractions. These concerns for instance range over its widespread advertising of guns and armaments (Farah and El Samad 2014 ), political and sectarian messages (Dakroub 2008 )—often in conjunction with racial innuendoes (Farah and El Samad 2014 )—and its overt sexualisation of women (Anderson 2013 ). Although sexism in advertising is a worldwide phenomenon, it has been described as salient issue in Lebanon (Anderson 2013 ; Farah and El Samad 2015b ). Until recently Lebanon also had no restrictions on tobacco advertising (Farah and Samad 2015a ).

Fourth, as a “betwixt and between nation, [or] a hybrid culture” (Kamalipour and Rampal 2001 , p. 329), Lebanon, is “possibly one of the most complex in the region in terms of culture and society” (Farah and El Samad 2014 , p. 345). Its relative non-compliance with the values governing other MENA ad sectors characterised by more traditional Arab cultural and ethical norms (Kalliny et al. 2009 ; Farah and El Samad 2015a ), is reflected in its own ad sector. According to Nasr ( 2010 ), Lebanon is unique in the MENA region given its post-conflict struggle in defining a unified self-identity (Nasr 2010 ; Farah and Newman 2010 ) or in what has become a “nation-state with no sense of nationality to unite its people” (Nasr 2010 , p. 1). Traditionally caught between two poles, a pre-colonial pan-Arab or a post-colonial Francophone identity, the national agenda in Lebanon has been on reconstructing a new unified “Lebanese identity” (Nasr 2010 ). Recently, Lebanese advertisers have been at the forefront of this national agenda to mould a “new” post-modernist cosmopolitan identity, which “transcends ideological and religious differences” (ibid, p. 1). Common to cosmopolitan identity construction, the identities shown in Lebanese ads increasingly want to express a “space where cultures mirror one another” (Hannerz 1996 , p. 104) and therefore reinforce a fusion of multiple local and, simultaneously, global identity ideals. Lebanon therefore serves as an ideal illustrative context to demonstrate whether perceived ad ethics reflects underlying social and cultural ideals and as result, therefore also demands for a non-invasive approach. It is for this reason we focus on a general sample of the Lebanese public.

Generating Input for MDS

The initial phase of MDS focuses on the free elicitation of mental stimuli to generate the initial input data (Mitchell and Olson 1981 ; Olson and Muderrisoglu 1979 ). This process requires respondents to verbalise anything that “first comes to their mind” in relation to the subject, and thereby ensures that a variety of associations in relation to the phenomenon are generated (Steenkamp and Van Trijp 1997 ). An online link was posted (containing the open question “ What words or phrases first come to your mind when you think of ‘Ethics in Advertising’”?) on various English-based Lebanese social media sites. Pre-screening questions ensured all respondents were citizens of Lebanon and had current residency in Lebanon. Associations were collected from a sample of 131 Lebanese consumers and were balanced according to gender (46.5% of the sample are males, 53.5% females) and age (average age of 30.4 years), thus reflecting the age and gender profile of the Lebanese public (CIA 2016 ). Respondents generated on average four associations, resulting in a total of 524 associations. The next phase of MDS focuses on the (dis)similarity between these elicited aspects. As the distance-matrix is generated using similarity ratings, it is sufficient that identical or very similar associations are considered only once in the rating procedure. Thus, and consistent with other MDS studies within advertising contexts (e.g. Griessmair et al. 2011 ) the original set was condensed by removing duplicate responses, synonyms as well as words that are content-wise similar. Only six associations were removed for content-wise similarity but numerous synonyms and duplicate words were removed. The remaining 386 associations served as input for the MDS procedure.

Although a number of methods are available to create distance matrices (Borg and Groenen 2005 ; Young and Hamer 1987 ), the subjective clustering method is the only one capable of handling the large amount of input statements involved in the present study (Griessmair et al. 2011 ) and is subsequently described. A convenience sample of Lebanese raters, recruited through snowballing, and representing the gender, age and residency profile of the original sample were used to sort the 386 associations into decks based on the perceived similarity of the associations. Associations within a deck are maximally similar to each other and maximally dissimilar to the other decks, thus fulfilling the conditions of a subjective clustering approach. Raters were advised to sort the associations one-by-one and regularly check the decks for consistency and re-sort the cards if necessary. In a final step, the raters had to name each deck and shortly describe why they considered the associations in the pack to be similar to each other and dissimilar from those sorted into the other packs. This assessment provides valuable information for the eventual interpretation and classification of the dimensions. The sorting procedure took on average 80 mins and was assisted by a moderator (i.e. one of the authors) to ensure that instructions were read, understood, and fully implemented throughout the session. Even though Dong ( 1983 ) showed that raters’ boredom and fatigue do not significantly influence MDS solutions, we included options for several breaks to avoid rater depletion, although no rater opted to take one, thus confirming Dong’s ( 1983 ) insight. A constant comparison technique was employed in reaching a theoretical sample size of 15 raters, with consistency checks made concurrently based on dimensional outputs, stress levels and goodness of fit indices.

Data Analysis

The frequency with which the associations have been sorted into the same deck by the different raters represents the degree of similarity of associations. The resulting proximity data were subsequently analysed using Proxscal (Borg and Groenen 2005 ). Before initiating interpretation, the different dimensional solutions were rotated (Varimax) and normalised. The overall goal of the analysis is to identify the solution with the fewest dimensions and the richest interpretation (Borg and Groenen 2005 ; Young and Hamer 1987 ). In contrast to other exploratory methods, MDS does not provide a final criterion for determining the “right” number of dimensions and their interpretation (Hair et al. 2010 ). For the present study, and consistent with MDS consistency checks (Borg and Groenen 2005 ; Kruskal and Wish 1977 ; Spence and Graef 1974 ; Young and Hamer 1987 ), we employ criteria based on goodness of fit. Table  1 shows the values indicating goodness of fit for the one- to five-dimensional solutions. Following the elbow-criterion (Kruskal and Wish 1977 ), the five-dimensional is deemed most optimal for this study. Moreover, the reported stress values indicate statistical support of the derived solution based on the sample of raters (see Table  1 ).

It has to be noted that stress values increase with the number of word associations (MacCallum and Cornelius 1977 ). Thus, for the present study with 386 word associations, we expect higher stress values than in classical marketing applications usually involving only about 7–18 stimuli (Bijmolt and Wedel 1999 ; Henry and Stumpf 1975 ). Although the goodness of fit provides important information about the quality of the chosen solution, several scholars advise against using it as primary criterion (Jaworska and Chupetlovska-Anastasova 2009 ; Steyvers 2002 ). As pointed out by Chen ( 2003 , p. 79), “the goal of MDS mapping is not merely to minimize the stress value; rather, we want to produce a meaningful and informative map that can reveal hidden structures in the original data”. Thus, the goodness-of-fit measures were considered as preliminary criteria and the main focus was placed on deriving meaning behind the emergent dimensions.

For this level of interpretation, we applied a purely inductive approach in line with basic principles of Grounded Theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967 ). The interpretation process starts with contrasting the extreme values of each dimension. Associations exhibiting high loadings on a particular dimension and low loadings on the other dimensions are especially indicative for the respective dimension (Pinkley et al. 2005 ). By contrasting the endpoints, the preliminary meaning of the dimensions are established.

Consistency Check

In a next step, a multi-dimensional perspective is taken and additional consistency checks of associations located between the poles of dimensions are performed. These associations should “represent a blending of the identified dimensions and ideally form clusters” (Griessmair et al. 2011 , p. 1072). The facets should meaningfully reflect a blend of two or more dimensions, depending on the dimension they relate to more strongly. In order to facilitate understanding, we visualise the dimensionalisation via two-dimensional perceptual maps. These maps present each association or facet as having two coordinates in a two-dimensional space, and visually portray the extent to which these facets load on the relative dimensions (Griessmair et al. 2011 ). The map plots each association, whereas the proximity of two associations with each other indicates how similar they are perceived to be. The items should ideally form clusters located between the axes. The clusters are made of items that are very close in space, thus perceived similar by the various coders. Extreme associations and clusters between the axes of two dimensions should simultaneously define both dimensions. It is important to note, however, that this interpretation is two dimensional and some associations may load high on other dimensions as well. Therefore, consistency checks are made for all dimensional outputs. Consistency checks resulted in a set of dimensions with stable meanings along their respective endpoints. In order to facilitate methodological understanding, we exemplify consistency checks for two of our dimensions (namely dimensions 3, which has subsequently been denoted Moral myopia–Sexuality) and 4 (subsequently conceptualised as Politics-CSR) in “ Appendix ”.

In this iterative process of contrasting extreme values, performing consistency checks, and recurrently integrating the raters’ characterisation, the meaning of the dimensions is revised and altered until a consistent interpretation emerges. This classification of the dimensions was conducted by three independent judges and aided by the characterisations that the raters had earlier provided. Using Perreault and Leigh’s ( 1989 ) inter-coder reliability measure, reliabilities exceeded the critical cut-off value of 0.80. The interpretation process detailed above was conducted for all dimensional solutions that met the goodness-of-fit criteria. The five-dimensional solution deemed most appropriate is shown in Table  2 .

In the subsequent section, we summarise the main inductively derived bipolar themes within each dimension. Subsequently, and to demonstrate the theoretical contribution of the findings, we discuss the results in light of existing theory.

Dimension 1 (“True Functions of Advertising—Lack of Concern for Advertising Standards”) describes ideal functions of advertising on the one end, and the concern of a lack of regulation for advertising on the other end. Free word associations from respondents representing this dimension range on the one end (for “True Functions of Advertising”) from “ Know your product, love your product ” (0.9616), “ Good offers and prices ” (0.9450) to “ Respect for competitive products ” (0.8923); and on the other end (for “Lack of Concern for Advertising Standards”) from “ No regulations ” (− 0.9918) to “ No control in advertising ” (− 0.9416) and “ No limits ” (− 0.9063).

Dimension 2 (“Deception and Manipulation—Diversity”) describes at the end of one pole the salient features of the diverse Lebanese culture, such as “ No racial discrimination in Lebanon ” (− 0.8995), “ Respect everyone’s point of view ” (− 0.8906) and “ Reflects the society we’re living in ” (− 0.8211). At the other end, we find associations reflecting deception and manipulation such as “ Fake facts in ad messages ” (0.9291) and “ We trick the customer into believing that by owning this product, he’ll be making the deal of his life ” (1.00).

Dimension 3 (“Moral myopia–Sexuality”) suggests that sexuality strongly relates to ethics in ads on the one hand (for example “ Sexual connotations ” (− 0.9642), “Women’s sexuality to advertise unrelated products/services” (− 0.9501) and “ Sex appeal is being used as the easiest approach to people’s desires ” (− 0.9464). On the other hand, several associations relate to the justification of advertisers’ behaviours such as “ Advertising is only a tool ” (0.735), “ Advertising messages are most of the time honest ” (0.7220), “ There’s room to be more courageous ” (0.7571) and “ Ethics are governed by savvy consumers ” (0.6904). Drumright and Murphy ( 2004 , p. 11) in an investigation of advertising agencies, defined such sentiments as Moral myopia, or when “individuals [have] difficulty seeing ethical issues or seeing them clearly”.

Dimension 4 (“Political Advertising—CSR”) refers to associations about humanitarian and local causes, in particular to children’s welfare, on the one hand, and associations about a concern for political marketing in Lebanon on the other hand. The CSR associations include “ Children’s Cancer Center of Lebanon (CCCL) ” (0.9208), “ Nothing with potential to be harmful to children ” (0.7663) and “ Contribution/donation ” (0.9305). Associations for unethical political marketing practices include references to “ Political brainwashing ” (0.8882), “ Black market at times of elections” (0.9993) and “ Politicians abusing the ad system ” (1.00).

Dimension 5 (“Harmful Effects—Cultural Self-Identity”) refers to associations related to promoting the national and cultural identity through traditional icons and values on the one hand, and harm and dishonesty on the other hand. National values are expressed through associations such as “ Strong national brand identity ” (− 0.9164), and “ Nice local twist (using “Lebanese” phrases)” (0.7774). Associations reflecting harm and dishonesty include “ Corruption ” (0.8604), “ Lying ” (0.7742) and “ Unfair ” (0.7518).

The specific combinational pattern derived from our findings adds to our understanding of the multi-faceted and pluralistic nature of perceived ad ethics, since we know of no existing study, which positions specific violations in consumer perceived ad ethics (e.g. harm or deception) against specific cultural ideals (e.g. diversity or cultural identity). Unlike previous studies on ad ethics, our study sought general views on “ad ethics”, thus opening up associations linked to ethical ideals as well as violations. We therefore extend existing typologies such as Hyman et al. ( 1994 ) and Drumwright and Murphy ( 2009 ) by proposing a dual approach, namely that for consumers, “ad ethics” is a confluence of ideals and violations which together shape the overall “latitudes or boundaries” of consumer perceived ad ethics. The imperative for this duality is consistent with Hyman ( 2009 , p. 199) who proposed that, “without an ideal for responsible ads, organisations are less likely to avoid irresponsible ads”.

Critically however, we find that although both ad ethics-based violations and ideals are distinct they are also inter-related, in a bipolar manner. Take for instance, the pervasive political advertising landscape of Lebanon positioned against the lack of evidence of CSR practices, or harm against cultural identity. Effectively, our study has provided a mechanism to identify the doppelgänger, or “twin opposite” image (Thompson et al. 2006 ) of individual sub-dimensions comprising “perceived ad ethics”. In doing so, we extend the debate on advertising as a reflection of societal values, but within the context of ad ethics. Therefore, from a theoretical perspective, we provide an initial foray into a distorting “mirroring effect” (cf. Pollay 1986 , 1987 ) but between ethical violations and ideals related to ad ethics. We demonstrate that certain violations in ad ethics are related negatively to specific ideals, the expression of which may be culturally bound. Based on this, it can be argued that the pluralistic and multi-faceted nature of ad ethics is more complex than previously thought. We therefore propose that perceived ad ethics, not unlike ethics in general (Casmir 2013 ; Hall 2013 ) is also a confluence of both universalism and relativism. Whilst the violations derived in the MDS output, or deception, harm, sexual imagery and political advertising, are largely universalist themes in ad ethics and therefore common to most global codes of conduct for advertising (e.g. CAMPC 2011 ), the derived ideals are largely culturally bound and therefore more reflective of relativist themes. To support this proposition, we delve deeper into theorising at the individual dimensional level to demonstrate how the specific pattern arising from our study can indeed be traced to nuances within the socio-cultural fabric of the target audience. In doing so, we also elaborate on existing theories related to individual dimensional levels.

As a polar opposite of the “True functions of advertising”, the “Lack of concern for advertising standards” emerged in consumers’ minds. This should come as no surprise since critics of advertising often propose to strengthen existing industry and legal standards or to introduce regulations as a means to overcome problems inherent in advertising ethics (e.g. Cohen-Eliya and Hammer 2004 ). The fact that both polar dimensions also include positive and negative associations reflects the complexity of this debate. This intra- and inter-dimensional tension suggests an unresolved debate among the Lebanese audience and reflective of the wider debate commonly found in academic research, where advocates of increased regulations face proponents who believe in the inherent functionality of advertising (e.g. Cohen-Eliya and Hammer 2004 ; Phillips 1997 ). It also points to consumers’ ability to articulate the largely macro and philosophical business ethics perspective (Drumwright and Murphy 2009 ) case to ad ethics. However, it is within message based ad ethics dimensions where we see greater culturally influenced derivation.

Although diversity-related aspects, as well as deception, have attracted strong attention within the advertising literature (see for e.g. Hyman et al. 1994 ; Phillips 1997 ; Shabbir and Thwaites 2007 ; Cohen-Eliya and Hammer 2004 ; Taylor and Stern 1997 ; Williams et al. 2004 ), this is the first study to show their categorisation as dimensional opposites. This bipolar nature of diversity and deception can be understood as a contribution to Aditya’s ( 2001 ) call for extending our understanding of deception in marketing to include psycho-sociological effects on individuals and therefore to include ads that have “…the potential to…cause an erosion of ethical values deemed desirable in society”. According to Darke and Ritchie ( 2007 ), deceptive ad content can generate a dual processing effect such that consumers will actively motivate themselves to protect against subsequent deception. Therefore, in a culture where deceptive ad content is associated with recurrent stereotypical portrayals of sectarian differences, as in the case of Lebanon, it is possibly that a dual processing effect generates the ethical ideal of diversity to counter this deceptive theme. In other cultural contexts, other ideals of ethical values may become the primary disassociate counterpart of deceptive ads, depending on public perceptions of which cultural ideals have been violated by the ad sector’s deceptive content.

Sexual imagery has also attracted considerable attention in the extant literature on ad ethics (e.g. Boddewyn 1991 ; Cohan 2001 ; Gould 1994 ; Latour and Henthorne 1994 ) and given its widespread use, the sexualisation of women has traditionally been viewed as one of the most pervasive violations of ad ethics (Boddewyn 1991 ). Our findings indicate that sexual imagery forms a bipolar opposite with moral myopia or when “individuals [have] difficulty seeing ethical issues or seeing them clearly” (Drumwright and Murphy 2004 , p. 11). Moral myopia in our findings was reflected in shifting the blame on the educated consumer or society, arguing that what is legal is moral and emphasising the rights of the advertiser as rationalisations for accepting unethical ad content. Our findings contribute to Belk et al. ( 2005 ) who also found this rationalisation but towards unethical corporate practices as a justification for ambivalence towards unethical consumption. In addition however, the bipolar nature of moral myopia and sexuality suggests that it is possible when sexual expression in ads become normalised in a culture, the public may become desensitised to such an extent that rationalisation becomes the only alternative counterpart. This is consistent with the normalisation of cultural stereotypes since when stereotypes become embedded and normalised within cultures, those cultures may resist breaking such stereotypes by building cognitive defences to justify them (Cohen-Eliya and Hammer 2004 ).

Given its “special status” and “above the law” nature, political advertising has attracted growing public concern (Kaid 2004 ; Lau et al. 2007 ) as well as traditionally being one of the primary ethical concerns in advertising (Hyman et al. 1994 ). The relationship between political communications and CSR has, however, only been discussed from an organisational perspective, whether generally (Aguilera et al. 2007 ; Scherer and Palazzo 2011 ; Jamali and Neville 2011 ; Fooks et al. 2013 ) or within the context of ad agencies (Drumwright and Murphy 2009 ). Negative political communications can, however, also impact civic attitudes and system-based beliefs, or those linked to public attitudes to government and its functionality (Lau et al. 2007 ). The Lebanese political culture provides an ideal context for CSR to emerge as a bipolar dimensional opposite of political advertising. At one extreme, Lebanon is unique in that political advertising has become as pervasive as corporate advertising (Maasri 2009 ) and political mistrust saturated. A report by the World Economic Forum ( 2014 ) for instance scored Lebanon having the highest public mistrust of any country in the world, ranking it 148th out of 148 in the “public trust in politicians” category. Lebanon has historically suffered from a “relative absence of state-sponsored social safety” (Cammett 2014 , p. 38) leaving the space for non-state sectarian actors to instead provide a sense of “compassionate communalism” (Cammett 2014 ). One consequence of this has been a growing consensus that enabling CSR is detached from state support. According to Sakr ( 2013 ), state imposed “bureaucratic and regulatory obstacles” (Sakr 2013 , p. 1) have caused Lebanon to lag behind other MENA countries in harnessing CSR initiatives. Work by Jamali and colleagues (Jamali and Mirshak 2007 ; Jamali et al. 2009 ; Jamali and Neville 2011 ) on CSR in Lebanon finds that executives struggle to prioritise CSR due to political volatility and turbulence. In a healthy political climate, one would expect the political apparatus to be associated with local benefits but our findings indicate that the opposite can also ensue in a climate where mistrust of political communication reaches saturation levels. It would, however, be interesting to assess if other civic attitudes are linked to political advertising in alternative cultural settings.

Harmful effects of advertising emerged as a separate negative dimension of ad ethics, which is in line with the most prevalent criticism of irresponsible ads—their potential for harm (e.g. Phillips 1997 ; Nebenzahl and Jaffe 1998 ; Hyman 2009 ). Positioned against harm, however, is cultural self-identity confirming the salience of this ethical ideal for the Lebanese public. As previously noted, Lebanese advertisers are increasingly keen to place viewers in a “culturally sterile” sphere (Nasr 2010 ). This need has arisen from an historical imperative for post-conflict identity re-construction. As Nagel ( 2000 , p. 226) suggests, the national agenda in Lebanon has been on fostering “an allegiance to Lebanon that supersedes narrow sectarian affiliations”, the latter which has often been perpetuated by Lebanon’s ad landscape. The need for regaining a sense of cultural unity and shedding sectarian differences, which may have been responsible for causing national trauma, is a social imperative in post-conflict societies (LaCapra 1999 ). It is easy therefore to see therefore how associations of harm, the most direct and obvious violation arising from unethical ad content, would be positioned against cultural self-identity, which for any post-conflict society is of paramount importance (Nagel 2000 ; LaCapra 1999 ).

Finally, our study makes a methodological contribution since no study to date has employed an emic, or indeed etic, based approach to derive general thoughts about ad ethics. The MDS approach employed demonstrates that informant-based techniques can provide a viable diagnostic tool for an ad sector to determine what is most salient to their audiences in relation to ad ethics. The bipolar opposites of each dimension represented the “outer limits” of the MDS solution generated and therefore represent the boundaries or latitudes of perceived ad ethics, or the most salient issues. It may be that additional intra-dimensional themes also exist, formed from combinations of dimensions but any such additional themes, would by default, be shaped by one or more of the bipolar themes already identified. Additional intra-dimensional sub-clusters of themes would almost certainly add to the emic derivation of the target audience’s unique fingerprint of ad ethics. The value of the MDS technique has therefore been in fulfilling the original aim of the study of determining the latitudes or boundaries of perceived ad ethics, and therefore the most salient dimensions of ad ethics.

Managerial Implications

Our research provides several managerially relevant insights. The audience-based understanding of ad ethics can and should be integrated in the development of country specific ethical codes that, in contrast to codes formed from generalisations, or global codes of conduct, provide additional guidance for companies’ day-to-day behaviour in the local ad sectors they serve. Ad agencies can benefit from knowing that what may appear salient to their audience can help in the designing of ad content that is socially and morally responsible. Informant-based approaches to determining ad ethics provide the ad sector with a “finger on the pulse” assessment as part of an on-going evaluation of consumer public opinion in relation to ad ethics. Our approach therefore advocates a shift away from ad and research agency pre-determined parameters for evaluating ad ethics to an informant based and therefore emic orientation in defining and understanding the priorities, which should shape the ethicality of ads.

Identifying the bipolar nature of ethical domains also has important implications for regulating the ad sector and for ad agencies eager to align their content with their target audience norms and values, since if ad content fails to promote particular cultural ideals, this may become linked to a particular violation in ad ethics. Knowing which cultural ideals are linked to perceived violations can help the sector to better understand how its own content relates to its target audience’s understanding of ethics. Promoting one end of a dimension, diversity for instance, may help in leveraging against public perceptions against its bipolar opposite, or deception. Similarly, reducing deceptive content may become linked to a heightened sense of advertiser responsibility towards diversity. Further research would be needed to validate this strategic option for improving ethical standards in ad content, but our study provides an initial foray into identifying patterns between salient themes of ad ethics.


Despite the obvious utility of MDS, it is not without limitations. A key limitation is the degeneracy of solutions, which occurs when perceptual maps “are not accurate representations of the similarity responses” (Hair et al. 2010 , p. 558). This problem could arise if all respondents provide similar word associations, if a local minimum is reached despite low stress levels, if there are other inconsistencies in the data or if the MDS program cannot reach a stable solution. Recommendations to deal with degeneracy proposed by Hair et al. ( 2010 ) were followed and we did not detect any common signs of degeneracy (no perceptual output was characterised by either a circular pattern (that is when objects are found to be equally similar) or a clustered pattern (where objects are grouped at bipolar ends of a single dimension).

We also recognise the cross-sectional nature of the sample does not take into account potential changes in the audience’s perceptions over time. Just as ethical relativism is based on societal definitions of morality, cultures and underlying social norms do evolve and change over time (Crane and Matten 2004 ). This is particularly the case with public perceptions influenced by controversies. The authors are for instance currently engaged in assessing the effect of the Jimmy Saville sexual child abuse controversy in the UK, on pre- and post-perceptions of child abuse in the British public to demonstrate such shifting perceptions.

Avenues for Further Research

This study is by no means an exhaustive one and as such provides an interesting platform for further research avenues. For instance, the specific dimensions we derived in our study are specific to the Lebanese public’s perspective. Do alternative cultural contexts generate the same key dimensions but in alternative combinations? How specific or generalizable is ethics in advertising cross-culturally? Is the Lebanese “fingerprint” truly a “fingerprint” or does it shift over time, that is how stable is this solution? Given the simplicity of conducting an MDS study and the increasing need to legitimise advertisement content in conjunction with the audience’s perspective, MDS is ideal as a “finger on the pulse” diagnostic tool for the sector to determine the fluctuating and/or stable underlying structure of perceived ad ethics.

We strongly suggest future researchers to incorporate other socio-demographic and attitudinal constructs (e.g. religion, willingness to boycott unethically advertised products) and perhaps behaviours (e.g. media consumption and literacy) to advance our understanding of a segmentional approach to understanding ad ethics. Carrigan et al. ( 2005 p. 488) explain that measurements in an international setting “should be developed in those settings not modified to reflect their contextual specifics”. An MDS-based approach clearly responds to this recommendation by drawing a picture of a specific population’s unique understanding of ad ethics. Future research might use the findings presented within this study, as well as MDS applied to other stakeholder groups, to assess potential differences between academic, practitioner and consumer understanding of ethics in advertising. A cross-cultural study to assess the impact of cultural dimensions on perception of ethics also constitutes an interesting avenue for further research. It is likely that some of the dimensions derived in this study are particularly salient to the Lebanese context, such as political marketing or cultural identity congruence. Further research would be needed to validate how locally determined perceived ad ethics truly is.

Beyond establishing MDS as viable methodological approach, we provide a first illustration of how ad ethics is perceived from an audience perspective. This perspective has been largely missing from the academic debate, but the knowledge can be leveraged to pre-empt unwarranted consumer-based outcomes. The multi-faceted and pluralistic nature of ad ethics indicates a complex inter-play between consumer concerns, the precise nature influenced by local and cultural priorities but also underpinned by more universal concerns related to ad ethics. Taken collectively, we believe that a viewer-based conceptualisation of ad ethics was long necessary and hope that the findings provided within this paper will stimulate more informant-based research to further understand the multi-faceted and pluralistic nature of ad ethics.

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Haseeb Ahmed Shabbir & Pervaiz Akhtar

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Hala Maalouf

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Michele Griessmair

Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

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Appendix: Example of Consistency Check for dimensions 3 (Moral Myopia–Sexuality) and 4 (CSR—Political advertising)

Appendix shows an exemplar two-dimensional solution for dimensions 3 and 4. At the negative end of dimension 3, associations such as “ use and display of women ”, “ jewellery ads with sex appeal ” and “ large billboard ads for underwear ” suggest the label “Sexuality”. The opposing end of dimension 3 presents associations which reflect a degree of justification for the ad sector, such as “ Advertising messages are most of the time honest ”, and “ advertising is only a tool ” and combined with other associations emphasizes the rights of the advertiser as rationalisations for accepting unethical ad content; therefore, this pole is coined “moral myopia” (Drumwright and Murphy, 2004 ). The first emergent dimension is hence termed “Sexuality–Moral Myopia”. At the endpoints of dimension 4, we find associations such as “ contributions/donations ”, “ Children’s Cancer Center of Lebanon ”, “ SESOBEL social service for children ”, “ Corporate Social Responsibility ” and “ Humanitarian Ads for free ”, which are opposed to elicitations such as “ Black market at times of elections ” and “ politicians abusing the ad system ”. Consequently, the underlying continuum of this dimension is named “Corporate Social Responsibility-Politics”.

A distinct cluster is visible at the negative endpoint of dimension 3 suggesting a very strong “Sexuality” variable. The associations load high on this dimension and very low on others. Inspection of the quadrant formed by the 2 dimension shows that the associations are consistent with the 2 dimensions. Associations located at the lower left quadrant such as “ No drugs ” (− 0.469939, − 0.720517), “ No vulgar, trashy, inappropriate images for kids ” − 0.38411, − 0.614664) and “ killing innocence of the youth ” (− 0.324771, − 0.341811) reflect both a sexual orientation and a humanitarian cause. Similarly, associations on the upper left quadrant such as “ in some conservative regions, no freedom in advertising ” (− 0.51779, 0.450798) and “ filling the road with distasteful ads ” (− 0.505971, 0.299807) reflect a blend of the following two axes: “Politics” and “Sexuality”. Another cluster is located centrally at the left quadrant, suggesting the existing interference of “Sexuality” with both “Politics” and “CSR”. This interference remains minor as few items seem to be loading very high on Sexuality and very high on Politics simultaneously. This seems reasonable, as although common grounds between those axes exist (as explained before), Sexuality and Politics are bipolar according to our audience’s perception.

Associations located at the other two right quadrants are more strongly spread, and thus more associations are representative of the axes. This suggests the reconciliation of Politics and CSR as being overlapping into Moral Myopia. The lower right quadrant comprises associations such as “ sometimes fair ” (0.533028, − 0.595314) and “ we rarely see a lie or a false promotion ” (0.58871, − 0.524907) that reflect the public silence concerning ad ethics whilst suggesting company ethics or CSR. Associations at the top right quadrant such as “ exceptions, always ” (0.418527, 0.802085), “ a tricky business ” (0.567855, 0.514279), “ critical decisions ” (0.590696, 0.560251) and “ complication ” 0.496771, 0.575926) are compatible with the poles “Politics” and “Moral Myopia”. Many items seem to load on both of those dimensional poles, mirroring the complexity of the political arena in Lebanon. This type of analysis represents the depth of constant comparative analysis conducted for different patterns of dimensional inter-relations, in order to validate the conceptualisation of bipolar opposites.

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Shabbir, H.A., Maalouf, H., Griessmair, M. et al. Exploring Perceptions of Advertising Ethics: An Informant-Derived Approach. J Bus Ethics 159 , 727–744 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-018-3784-7

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Received : 03 November 2016

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Issue Date : October 2019

DOI : https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-018-3784-7

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What are Advertising Ethics? Definition, Principles & Tips

November 8, 2023 | By Hitesh Bhasin | Filed Under: Marketing

Table of Contents

What Are Advertising Ethics?

Advertising ethics is the way in which a company or a brand conducts itself and communicates with customers or buyers by following set principles in a governed manner. There are different ethical concerns that advertisers have to take care of because they are the ones responsible for communication and messaging, from the company to the world.

Different ethical issues that the advertising industry always faces are-

  • Puffery & Hype: Making different exaggerated claims
  • Good Taste: Promoting different types of stereotyping related to gender, ethnicity, race, age, handicaps, lifestyle, religion
  • Stealth Advertising: Using messages embedded in a storyline which is not explicitly shown as advertising
  • Advertising to Children: Promoting different controversial products such as alcohol, gambling or tobacco
  • Gratuitous Sexual Content: Use of sexual imagery, nudity, and sex appeal in an explicit and implicit manner
  • Negative Content: Making different fear appeals, threats or guilt appeals

Advertising is a kind of business discourse that is used for promoting and publicizing a product, service, or brand. While doing this, brands or agencies must be aware of the items or services they are promoting, so the things they are advertising are not misguiding or misinforming. They must know advertising ethics to avoid any future issues and inconveniences.

Advertisers and brands have been blamed for channelizing materialism, stereotyping, manipulation, racism such as colour complexes, sexual exploitation, body shaming, using humans as commodities, and so forth.  And to resolve all such issues, the concept of ethical advertising came into existence.

Ethical advertising is one such technique that helps in resolving all such issues.

Brands and advertisers use moral codes in their strategies to advertise things that can be shown as reality.

In such practices, they give some facts, yet they shroud certain things just as they have to feature the organization in the best light. But at the same time, they likewise abstain from lying as they can be gotten out by the legal advisors or network approval committees who supervise their work.

Advertising ethics are suggested for maintaining human dignity, honesty, social duty, and responsibility.

It is said that advertising isn’t unethical at all; however, it can change, falsify, or deceive the reality by recommending something that isn’t so.

That is why; ethical advertising principles recommend that the advertising community should work better at analyzing and monitoring themselves, plus they should always be ready to be ethically responsible and accountable.

Let us now have a look at the nine most essential principles upon which advertising ethics are based upon

Principles of Advertising Ethics

Advertising ethics is a broad discipline that merits a deep understanding to ensure credibility and public trust. Based on the research presented by the competitors, here are the nine principles of advertising ethics drafted in an original manner:

  • Pursuit of Truth: It’s crucial for every professional involved in the crafting and release of an advertisement to hold truthfulness as a shared objective. Honesty in advertising builds a brand’s reputation and appeals to consumers, thereby establishing an ethical foundation.
  • Upholding Personal Integrity: In the course of disseminating commercial information, advertising professionals uphold the obligation to exercise exceptional personal ethics. This commitment reinforces the effort to deliver honest, ethical advertisements whilst embodying a high standard of professionalism.
  • Disclosure of All Conditions: Promotional incentives offered to consumers should be transparent about the conditions associated with the perk. Similarly, any endorsing party’s identity must be revealed to sustain ethical standards. This transparency also extends to promotions involving influencers, ensuring consumers discern the real motivation behind the endorsement.
  • Differentiating Content: Ethical advertising also mandates a clear demarcation between promotional content and news/editorial content. This helps prevent instances where advertisements are misleadingly presented as informative content, aiding in an authentic consumer experience.
  • Responsible Data Usage: Advertisers are urged to maintain transparency regarding their collection and usage of consumers’ personal data. As digital marketing methods advance, consumers’ concerns for their privacy increase, which is why businesses should disclose their data handling practices. This underpins consumer trust in the brand.
  • Equitable Treatment: Practising fair treatment towards all consumers is another vital principle, with even stricter integrity required for audiences that are deemed susceptible, such as children or the elderly. High-risk product advertising like pharmaceuticals or alcohol must adhere to unique, stringent regulations.
  • Open Discussion of Ethical Matters: Advertising professionals should feel empowered to surface any pertinent ethical issues during campaign development. Placing the consumers’ best interests at heart allows professionals to uphold the highest ethical standards.
  • Adherence to Legal Regulations: All involved in advertising should strictly conform to the prevailing industry regulations, from local to federal levels. Self-regulatory bodies like the National Advertising Review Council exist to guide advertisers and resolve issues, thereby fortifying the ethical standing of the industry.
  • Commitment to Continuous Learning: Ongoing education is key to evolving with ethical standards in advertising. Professionals should stay engaged in learning, with institutions like the IAE offering educational resources to maintain the industry’s standard of ethics.

This strategic approach to advertising ethics will empower businesses and advertisers alike, embedding an ethical foundation in reaching audiences worldwide.

Here is a video by Marketing91 on Advertising Ethics.

10 Tips for Advertising Ethically

Ethics in ethical advertising recognizes the right and wrong practices in an advertising campaign that can influence society positively or negatively.

Moral obligation is only a sort of commitment laid out by the ideas of ethical advertising.

These obligations must be done as such as to advance a constructive way of living not just for oneself but for the general public as well.

Some of the key tips related to advertising ethics that advertisers should pay heed to while planning and channelizing an ad campaign in front of the masses are-

  • Try not to guarantee that your item or service can do what you realize it can’t do. It is morally not correct to publicize something that doesn’t exist, and you should never do this as it is ethically wrong.
  • Try not to mislead the people with your ads, as many individuals may get astonished by the specific advert since they do not comprehend the message that your ad is passing; instead, they enjoy the image or the visuals you use. Accordingly, it is unethical if you use wrong, harmful, or misleading visuals or languages in your advertisement.
  • Try not to advertise specific items or services to those places where those items or services are considered illegal, illegitimate, or unacceptable.
  • Attempt to provide the optimum possible disclosure of what you are offering to your audiences, as it is significant in maintaining the advertising ethics in your campaign.
  • Try not to put bogus, false, or misleading ads, as it is deceptive conduct and not considered right as per the advertising ethics.
  • Try not to cheat, misguide, or double-cross the audiences with your promotions. Do not run those ads that are deceiving because they go amiss from the actual facts about your product or service.
  • Moral norms in your campaigns should think about the community standard. It would be best if you understood that one thing that is right in one community could be wrong in another community.
  • Never have hidden charges, as this is the most exploitative conduct. Having concealed extra charges and deceiving your audiences to make more money is unethical, and never suggested as per the standards set by advertising ethics.
  • Always advertise to the right audience group, so if you are making a product or running a service for adults, then your campaign should be strictly directed towards them and not to the kids.
  • Carefully hold fast to Industry and Government Regulations on advertising.

Paying heed upon all the principles mentioned above and tips of advertising ethics will help you in running campaigns that are ethical and do not cause any social harm.

What kind of ethical issues do you consider worrisome in contemporary advertisements? If you have any, feel free to share it with us in the comment section below.

Differences between Ethical and Unethical Advertising

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Role of Ethics in Advertising Essay

Truthfulness in advertising, dignity of human beings, social responsibility, maintaining a proper conscience.

Advertising plays a significant role in modern society and it is steadily increasing in the business world having a massive influence everywhere. Just as social communication media has a great influence almost all over so does advertising since it uses the media as a very persuasive vehicle having a powerful force in shaping the behaviors and the attitudes of the consumers. Advertising can have both negative and positive contributions that could affect the moral and ethical perspectives of the people. Advertising has a great impact on the consumers as it influences their perceptions about life themselves and the world at large. (David, 1987).

It also influences their values and their choices as well as their behaviors. Ethics on the other hand plays a very significant role in advertising since it focuses on the cultures of the advertising agencies in addition to the personal and the professional identities of those individuals working within them. Ethics plays a very important role in advertising by maintaining human dignity, creating truthfulness in advertising, and also creates a social responsibility. (Fred, 1990).

Some of the advertisements done are deliberately or simply untrue. The problem of truth in advertising is more subtle and it is not that what is said in advertising is blatantly false but the fact that the truth can be distorted by making an implication of things that do not hold relevant facts. Ethics in advertising ensures that any advertisements done are communicated with honesty and truthfulness especially where some symbolic and rhetorical exaggeration is used.

Ethics also ensure that the people are not deceived through implication or reality since they have the right to proper information which demands that the content of that which is communicated be true and within the set, limits laid down. Also when ethics is applied in advertising it helps in avoiding situations that manipulate the truth for any reason in any way. (Ronald, 1991).

There is a requirement that advertising should hold a lot of respect for human beings. Ethics in advertising ensures that people are given their rightful duty in making responsible choices and their interior freedom is not violated and their capacity in reflecting and deciding is not compromised at all. The advertising violation of the dignity of human beings is not a mere hypothetical possibility but is a reality that is having a frequent recurrence. (Ronald, 1991).

On the other hand, ethics also ensures that the dignity of human beings is not violated through the advertising content according to how it is advertised and what is contained in the advertisement, and the impact it seeks to make on its audience. Such advertisements with content appealing to vanity, greed, lust, and envy are controlled when ethics is applied since such techniques seek to exploit and manipulate human weaknesses. (Rick, 1991).

When ethics is considered in advertising it controls advertisements so that they do not become vehicles of an outlook of life that is deformed affecting the family on morality and religious grounds which does not respect the dignity and the destiny of the human beings. When advertising is not ethically checked it acutely affects individuals from particularly vulnerable groups, such as the young people and the children, the poor, the elderly, and those that are disadvantaged culturally. Similarly, when ethical values are adopted during advertising there would be no intrusion upon the child-parent relationship seeking to manipulate it because of advertisements that offend the rights and dignity of both the parents and the children. Ethical values applied in advertising protect those that are disadvantaged culturally and the elderly from advertisements that are specifically designed and directed to them causing them fear and persuading them to allocate their limited resources to services and goods of dubious value.

When proper ethics are applied in advertising, there is a certainty that public morality and the progress socially will not be gravely endangered in any way through the misuse of the media services. In social circles ethics is equally important in advertising since it assists in controlling advertisements that reduce human progress to acquire material goods cultivating lavish lifestyles and thereby destroying the vision of the human being. Advertisers must practice respect for moral spiritual and cultural requirements that are based on the dignity of human beings and the proper identity of the community at large.

Advertisers that apply the proper ethics play an important duty in fostering and expressing a reliable vision of human development in its spiritual, cultural, and material dimensions. Any form of communication from the advertisers that meets the above standards is a true expression of solidarity which is a consequence of right and genuine communication and also the open circulation of ideas which promotes knowledge and respect for other people. (Patrick, 1991).

The advertising industry should always apply ethically correct behavior that will help them form responsible consciences in their advertising professions. Their consciences guided by the proper ethics should make them sensitive to their duty and not merely just to serve the interests of all those that commission and finance any of their works. They should also uphold and respect the rights and the interests of their audiences and serve the common good. Ethics is also important in advertising since it ensures that those who are professionally engaged in advertising do have very sensitive consciences and they also maintain a strong sense of responsibility that is equally high.

Even in situations where they receive pressure from the external forces i.e. clients who commission their work as well as their competitors; they can still maintain ethical behavior. This on the other hand underlies the need for the external systems and structures to fully support and encourage practices that are responsible for advertising at the same time discouraging any irresponsible practices in the same field.

In conclusion, the authorities concerned in regulating the advertising content should extend beyond the banning of false advertisements and further address the issues of the quantity of advertising in the media as well as the content directed to different groups especially those vulnerable to exploitation. However, where the freedom of speech and communication exists, it is largely upon the advertisers to ensure that there is ethical responsibility in their professional practices. (Pascal, 1992).

Ethics also helps the advertisers to undertake and repair the harm that might sometimes have been done by advertising. They could do this by publishing corrective notices or even through compensating the parties that are injured. Ethically upright advertisers might always be ready for personal injury and loss rather than do what is wrong and unacceptable in society.

Pascal, Z (1992): Many Journalists See a Growing Reluctance To Criticize Advertisers, The Wall Street Journal. Pg 33-67.

Patrick, M. (1991): Advocacy Group Boycotting of Network Television Advertisers and Its Effects on Programming Content, University of Pennsylvania Law Review. Pgs 647-709.

Rick, D (1991): When Does TV Cross the Line?; Censorship vs. Good Taste – The debate continues as the networks get pressed tighter in the Iron Triangle of viewers, advertisers and the folks who create those prime-time shows, Los Angeles Times, pgs 30 -37.

Ronald, P (1991): Advocacy Groups and Television Advertisers. Journal of Advertising, pgs 18-29.

Fred, D (1990). This wall must stay; Editors shouldn’t be censors of ads, Advertising Age, pg 22.

David, S (1987): Credibility vs. Sensitivity, High Thick Wall Divides Editors and Advertisers. Los Angeles Times, pgs 34-54.

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Ethics in Advertising: The Importance and Benefits


The importance of advertising has been on a steady rise in the past few decades with a strong social impact in modern world. Advertising through social media forums is a pervasive, strong force that defines the attitudes and behaviors of a majority of the population that who impacted by it (Berger, 2007: 178). In the 21 st century, advertising has a profound impact in the way people view life, the entire world and even how they perceive themselves. Usually, advertising is twofold because it impacts people in both positive and negative ways. This creates ethical dilemmas which will be later discussed in this study.

This study will analyze business ethics in advertising as the study of organization’s situations, decisions and advertising activities in matters relating to what is right or wrong. The definition of what is right or wrong primarily relates to what is morally right or wrong as opposed to what the organization may deem commercially, strategically or financially right or wrong. In addition, this study will not only be exclusive to commercial enterprises but also governmental agencies, pressure groups, non governmental organizations, non profit organizations, charities and other institutions.

The study will be useful because dilemmas relating to the treatment of employees or what constitutes deceptive content in advertising campaigns will be useful to various types of organizations from Green Peace, German Christian institutions to organizations such as Shell or Toyota (Crane & Matten, 2007). Inevitably, there exists different frameworks which constitute ethical practices in advertising but it is possible to come up with a less controversial way of sampling ethics in advertising (Berkman, 2003: 269). Given the high profile nature of ethical dilemmas in commercial practice, this study will focus on ethics relating to advertising.

Benefits of Advertising

Advertising can be potentially useful in any society that abides by moral principles and caters to the authenticity of humanity (Fernando, 2009: 335). Modern market economies are practically difficult to operate without advertising; which in developed economies is more developed as compared to developing economies (Fernando, 2009). Currently advertising is perceived as the most cost efficient way of utilizing an organization’s resources while at the same time responding to the socio-economic needs of the society, provided they conform to moral standard set upon the goodwill of human development and moral good (Hackley, 2010b). In this context, advertising is an effective tool in fostering moral, healthy competition within organizations and at the same time, help in contributing to human development (Hackley, 2010b).

Hackley (2010a) looks at this aspect in the context of the fulfillment and growth of the consumer’s ability to be effectively productive and at the same time, on the increasingly large relationship network existing between people or different social groups. In this regard, he is in support of advertisement as a wholesome and efficacious tool in the reciprocal element of helping consumers and the general public.

Advertising is able to accomplish this goal through information by making consumers and the general public aware of existing goods and services and any new product improvements (Hackley, 2010a: 244). This then aids consumers in making informed and prudent decisions that will eventually add up to the realization of efficiency and reduced costs. In the same regard, economic progress is likely stimulated in this manner through the increase of business and general trade (Hackley, 2010b: 225). Advertisements therefore have the potential of covering the costs of publication, programming and production of any type of organization; including provision of entertainment, availability of information and the inspiration of people around the globe (Jeurissen, 2007: 150).

Advertisements have a strong impact on social media because of its strong ability to generate revenue (Jeurissen, 2007). In the same regard, advertising has the potential to instill media discipline in social media and create a positive impact on crucial decisions regarding the content of media (Malachowski, 2001). Advertising is able to achieve this through the support of materials that have a high intellectual, aesthetic and moral content which is focused on the consideration of public interests. This is especially true when adverts are tailored towards possible media presentation and with consideration to the need of the minorities which may otherwise go unnoticed (Malachowski, 2001).

Advertising can also aid in the general betterment of the society by inspiring and uplifting both consumers and the general population through the inducement of behaviors that benefit advertising companies and other stakeholders (Malachowski, 2001). Simply, by witty advertisement campaigns, advertising has the potential to be tasteful and entertaining at the same time. Advertisement campaigns also contain some elements or creative artistry through the uniqueness of their vivacity (Marlin, 2002: 175).

Social institutions like churches and other benevolent organizations incorporate advertising in passing messages to their members (Marlin, 2002). Advertising can be used to communicate messages of tolerance, compassion or encouragement of neighborly elements of humanity. Most nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations have been clear examples of positive moral advertising because they have undertaken advertisement campaigns which are tailored towards sensitizing charity for the needy; with a focus on health and education needs. Most of the adverts have the ability to educate the general public through constructive and helpful contents that motivate people in a number of ways, beneficial towards the common cause of humanity (Marlin, 2002: 175).

Though much still needs to be done, many such initiatives of this nature are already in progress. In direct reference to advertising, the Catholic Church established that institutions and organizations should follow with careful understanding the development of modern techniques in order to take advantage of existing opportunities to spread messages of goodwill in ways that seek to answer questions that plague the needs of the contemporary person (Wilkins, 2005: 115).

Abuse of Advertising

Intrinsically, there is no beneficial or damaging element to advertising (Wilkins, 2005). Advertising is nothing more than a tool or simply an instrument which can either be used beneficially or destructively (Phillips, 1997). If goods or services of a harmful nature are touted to the general public; this is a clear abuse of advertising (Phillips, 1997). In the same way, if goods or services are not clearly asserted in the advertisement campaigns; it is a clear violation of advertising. Advertising companies responsible for such misdemeanors usually forfeit their credibility or their good brand names in light of these developments (Phillips, 1997).

Moreover, unremitting pressures from advertising companies can drive up the need to purchase goods or services which one doesn’t necessarily need. This can be openly illustrated in the rampant purchase of luxury goods or services by most households at the expense of basic goods and services for the families. Some advertisement campaigns have been noted to explore sexual instincts from commercial reasons or to tap into the subconscious mind of an individual, thereby compromising his/her independence in making a conscious decision (Reichert, 2003: 105).

Economic Effects

Some companies can abuse the important role of advertising in the provision of information by withholding crucial information which could be material in the decision making of a consumer (Reichert, 2003). As a deviation from the informative function of advertising, advertisers have now adopted the tendency to persuade or motivate customers to adopt certain spending habits (Marlin, 2002). This is the major platform to which advertising is deemed unethical. The use of brand advertising is also not easy because it may create many legal problems for companies. To curb this problem, governmental authorities should be vigilant in persecuting offenders who disregard copyrights or other intellectual properties attributed to specific companies.

It is an eminent fact that many brands are closely interlinked and often look similar. Advertising can therefore motivate people to make irrational decisions in the purchase of goods and services based on these misconceptions as opposed to brand or price differentiations (which are the rational ways of going about it). Consumers should beware of such malpractices in advertising through sensitization by government and the media. In this manner, if such acts are noted, such companies and advertising agencies engaged such activities are likely to face public rejection.

Advertising is often used as a perpetrator of phenomenal consumerism. Phillips (1997) delineates that it is not a wrong thing to want to live well but the problem arises when a person is motivated to “have” rather than “be”. Such people are often observed to want more, not necessarily because they want to develop themselves but as a way to enjoy life as a means to an end. This is what advertising primarily aims to do because advertisers gain commercially through increased purchase while fueling the selfish need to want more (Reichert, 2003). Consumer awareness would aid in making unsuspecting consumers control their expenditures in this regard

Corruption of culture or general cultural effects can be partially attributed to advertising. More specifically, such damages are observed in developing countries because developed countries have been on a war path against traditional or indigenous cultural practices (Reichert, 2003: 105). This is some sort of domination over the target population and a manipulation of the cultural heritage of various population groups.

This happens because of the high capability of adverts to impact on the revenues of social media companies. Communicators then find themselves in these ethical dilemmas because there is a rush to attract large audiences and deliver them to advertising agencies.

In this regard, communicators are also observed to ignore the social and educational needs of the specific segments of the general public such as different age groups who don’t conform to the demographic patterns of the advertisers. The establishment of a written code of ethics would go a long way in ensuring communicators are not faced with such dilemmas. However, Reichert (2003) is of the opinion that these codes should be formulated by every stakeholder because their effectiveness depends on the ability of every stakeholder to abide by them.

Advertisers have also contributed to the development of certain social stereotypes which pit others as more superior or inferior to others. The blatant abuse of women in or by advertising campaigns is a clear deplorable abuse on gender affiliation (Reichert, 2003). Advertising campaigns have been known to portray women as objects for satisfaction of the desire for pleasure or power (Reichert, 2003). As opposed to the traditional role of women as housewives or mothers, women professionals are depicted as masculine caricatures of the traditional woman. This is in open denial of the empowerment of the female gender with the gift of feminine insight, compassion, and female understanding which contributes to the perpetration of a new definition of “civilized feminists”.

Not much can be done by either government or other stakeholders in controlling such perceptions in the society, though governments can moderately regulate such advertisements; but advertisers should be majorly sensitized from perpetrating such social segregations in the society. In addition, consumer sensitization through social forums like churches would also help the general population understand that such ideologies depicted in adverts are not necessarily the ideal situation.

Though advertising can conform to moral principles and is sometimes inspiring, it can be vulgar and immoral (Crane & Matten, 2007). Often, the appeal to such motives stems from attributes such as envy, lust or status symbol (Berger, 2007). Apparently, some moribund advertisers still use pornographic materials and other inappropriate materials to date (Reichert, 2003). The media has also helped in facilitating this cause by making such advertising campaigns accessible to the general population, including children. Such activities were majorly observed to be common in developed countries but the same trend has been observed to pick in developing countries. The best approach to cover such kind of unethical practices would be the regulation of media content by the state.

Guarantors of ethical, moral behavior are the conscious advertising professionals who are not only focused on their duty to please those who commission or bankroll their work but also uphold the rights and interests of the general population in fulfillment of a common human good. Many people who have been engaged in advertising normally have a high ethical conscious but the nature of the competitive work and companies who bankroll them often exert irresistible pressure on them, compromising on their ethical standards. Advertising companies have also been noted to pursue commercial objectives at the expense of ethical practices without any regard to societal values or the impact of their advertising campaigns on the general population. This therefore necessitates a number of measures that need to be religiously followed and implemented to ensure such unethical practices are prevented. Some of the measures to cover this menace rest in the advertising agencies while some rests on the government, media and the entire society in general.

A lot needs to be done to ensure ethical practices are observed in advertising. One such structure to ensure this is achieved is through the establishment of ethical codes. The effectiveness of this approach however depends on the willingness to abide by such codes. Public authorities also have a major role to play in regulating social media, such that they don’t air materials that are unethical or morally incorrect. Their involvement should however be moderate. The public should also be sensitized against the negative effects of advertising to reduce the negative impact of advertising on the population. Nonetheless, observance of ethical advertising needs to be observed by advertising agencies themselves.

  • Berger, A 2007, Media And Society: A Critical Perspective , Rowman & Littlefield, London.
  • Berkman, R 2003, Digital Dilemmas: Ethical Issues For Online Media Professionals,  Wiley-Blackwell, London.
  • Crane, A., & Matten, D 2007, Business Ethics: Managing Corporate Citizenship And  Sustainability In The Age Of Globalization , Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Fernando, A 2009, Business Ethics: An Indian Perspective , Pearson Education India, New Delhi.
  • Hackley, C 2010a, Advertising and Promotion: An Integrated Marketing  Communications Approach, SAGE Publications Ltd, London.
  • Hackley, C 2010b, The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Understanding Ethics , Alpha Books, Sydney.
  • Jeurissen, R 2007, Ethics & Business , Uitgeverij Van Gorcum, New Delhi.
  • Malachowski, A 2001, Business Ethics: Methodological Issues , Taylor & Francis, London.
  • Marlin, R 2002, Propaganda And The Ethics Of Persuasion, Broadview Press,  California.
  • Phillips, M 1997, Ethics And Manipulation In Advertising: Answering A Flawed  Indictment , Greenwood Publishing Group, New York.
  • Reichert, T 2003, Sex In Advertising: Perspectives On The Erotic Appeal , Routledge, New York.
  • Wilkins, L 2005, The Moral Media: How Journalists Reason About Ethics , Routledge, New York.

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  • Advertising
  • Ethics in Advertising

Ethics means a set of moral principles which govern a person’s behavior or how the activity is conducted. And advertising means a mode of communication between a seller and a buyer.

Thus ethics in advertising means a set of well defined principles which govern the ways of communication taking place between the seller and the buyer . Ethics is the most important feature of the advertising industry. Though there are many benefits of advertising but then there are some points which don’t match the ethical norms of advertising.

An ethical ad is the one which doesn’t lie, doesn’t make fake or false claims and is in the limit of decency .

Nowadays, ads are more exaggerated and a lot of puffing is used. It seems like the advertisers lack knowledge of ethical norms and principles. They just don’t understand and are unable to decide what is correct and what is wrong.

The main area of interest for advertisers is to increase their sales, gain more and more customers , and increase the demand for the product by presenting a well decorated, puffed and colorful ad. They claim that their product is the best, having unique qualities than the competitors, more cost effective, and more beneficial. But most of these ads are found to be false, misleading customers and unethical.

The best example of these types of ads is the one which shows evening snacks for the kids, they use coloring and gluing to make the product look glossy and attractive to the consumers who are watching the ads on television and convince them to buy the product without giving a second thought.

Ethics in Advertising is directly related to the purpose of advertising and the nature of advertising . Sometimes exaggerating the ad becomes necessary to prove the benefit of the product.

Ethics in Advertising

Ethics also depends on what we believe . If the advertisers make the ads on the belief that the customers will understand, persuade them to think, and then act on their ads, then this will lead to positive results and the ad may not be called unethical. But at the same time, if advertisers believe that they can fool their customers by showing any impractical things like just clicking fingers will make your home or office fully furnished or just buying a lottery ticket will make you a millionaire, then this is not going to work out for them and will be called as unethical.

Recently, the Vetican issued an article which says ads should follow three moral principles - Truthfulness, Social Responsibility and Upholding Human Dignity.

Generally, big companies never lie as they have to prove their points to various ad regulating bodies. Truth is always said but not completely. Sometimes its better not to reveal the whole truth in the ad but at times truth has to be shown for betterment.

Looking at all these above mentioned points, advertisers should start taking responsibility of self regulating their ads by:

  • Design self regulatory codes in their companies including ethical norms, truth, decency, and legal points
  • Keep tracking the activities and remove ads which don’t fulfill the codes.
  • Inform the consumers about the self regulatory codes of the company
  • Pay attention on the complaints coming from consumers about the product ads.
  • Maintain transparency throughout the company and system.

When all the above points are implemented, they will result in:

  • Making the company answerable for all its activities
  • Will reduce the chances of getting pointed out by the critics or any regulatory body.
  • Will help gain confidence of the customers, make them trust the company and their products.

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The article is Written By “Prachi Juneja” and Reviewed By Management Study Guide Content Team . MSG Content Team comprises experienced Faculty Member, Professionals and Subject Matter Experts. We are a ISO 2001:2015 Certified Education Provider . To Know more, click on About Us . The use of this material is free for learning and education purpose. Please reference authorship of content used, including link(s) to ManagementStudyGuide.com and the content page url.
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Home — Essay Samples — Philosophy — Ethical Dilemma — Ethical Issues in Today’s Marketing


Ethical Issues in Today’s Marketing

  • Categories: Business Ethics Ethical Dilemma

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Words: 2551 |

13 min read

Published: Feb 13, 2024

Words: 2551 | Pages: 6 | 13 min read

Table of contents

What is ethical marketing, 5 common unethical marketing practices, how is an ethical marketing plan developed and implemented, skeptical customers, the advantages of ethical behavior in business, build customer loyalty, retain good employees, positive work environment, avoid legal problems, principles of ethical marketing.

  • All marketing communications share the common standard of truth.
  • Marketing professionals abide by the highest standard of personal ethics.
  • Advertising is clearly distinguished from news and entertainment content.
  • Marketers should be transparent about who they pay to endorse their products.
  • Consumers should be treated fairly based on the nature of the product and the nature of the consumer (e.g. marketing to children).
  • The privacy of the consumer should never be compromised.
  • Marketers must comply with regulations and standards established by governmental and professional organizations.
  • Ethics should be discussed openly and honestly during all marketing decisions.

Who employs ethical marketing?

1. misleading advertising., 2. black-hat link building., 3. contacting people without consent., 4. insensitive controversy., 5. emotional exploitation.

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ethics in advertising essay

How Lawyers Can Navigate the Ethical Minefield of Legal Advertising

While state bars are increasingly allowing attorney advertising, there are important limits on what can be said in marketing materials.

Ethics Issues in Attorney Advertising

Close up of a video camera filming mid adult businessman in the office.

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All states prohibit attorneys from using false and misleading content in advertising; this includes omissions of facts and debatable opinions.

Attorney advertising is vital to law firm success and profitability, but marketing continues to pose legal ethics issues that must be addressed at every turn.

In the decades since the Supreme Court issued its 1977 opinion of Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, which legalized attorney advertising, states have become more lenient about lawyer marketing, while the courts often strike down onerous limitations.

When it comes to the formal limitations on advertising, “All the restrictions are eroding,” says Thomas Spahn, counsel at McGuireWoods, who has authored several books on attorney ethics.

In the meantime, there is probably more variance between states on ethics rules for attorney advertising than there is on any other issue, according to Spahn.

And this is hurting consumers on a national scale, some experts say.

But until this is resolved, attorneys contemplating new advertising should consult their state bar association rules and protocols, Spahn says.

Philosophical Stumbling Blocks to Attorney Advertising Remain

Even as the rules fall, there remains a philosophical tension relating to attorney advertising.

Many lawyers still hold the view that advertising is unseemly. On one hand, there is a concern that legal advertising may target those most in need of counsel but least able to evaluate an attorney’s claims.

On the other hand, legal advertising can give people information they wouldn’t otherwise learn, says Elizabeth Tippett, an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law who studies how legal advertising influences consumer behavior.

Attorney Advertising Cannot Be False or Misleading, Even When It’s the Truth

All states prohibit attorneys from using false and misleading content in advertising. Further, this goes beyond outright falsehoods. It also includes omissions of facts and debatable opinions.

States frequently prohibit attorneys from describing themselves as “the best” or using other superlatives to describe their work, unless the term is related to an independent peer assessment such as U.S. News’ list of Best Lawyers . In some jurisdictions, attorneys can say they “specialize” in a practice but cannot say they are “specialists” unless they have a certification in the field.

Even true statements can be prohibited if they mislead someone. For example, if a law firm accurately states it had a $1 million victory in court, but implies future clients will receive similar results, that would be a violation, Spahn explains.

What Does 'Advertising' Mean?

Generally speaking, attorney advertising is any way lawyers might communicate to the public about the services they provide.

Advertising includes commercials, brochures, business cards and stationery. Depending on the state, it might include a firm’s website, newsletters and more.

Some states, such as Florida, Nevada and Texas, require attorneys to submit almost all advertising to the bar for review. However, even these states have exceptions to the rule. 

Advertising Is (Mostly) Okay While Solicitation Is (Mostly) Forbidden

While attorney advertising is generally allowed, solicitation is usually forbidden.

Solicitation is a communication directed to an individual with whom the attorney doesn’t already have a personal or professional relationship.

But the line between advertising and solicitation is often blurry. The difference is based on how intrusive the communication is, Spahn says.

For example, attorneys could probably send everyone in a zip code informational letters about their rights if they are arrested. But for periods of time, states can prevent attorneys from sending letters to accident victims about their rights to sue because the victims are presumptively too traumatized to make an informed decision about attorney representation.

Things get even fuzzier when technology is involved. When an attorney pitches work via text or in an online chat, that is considered advertising since someone can easily ignore the attorney’s comment. However, the difference between solicitation and advertising may, at some point, hinge on whether or not an attorney’s camera was off during a Zoom.

Paying for Advertising Is (Probably) OK, Referral Fees and Fee Splitting Are Not

Marketing strategies typical in other fields – such as paying percentages tied to referrals – pose ethical dilemmas for attorneys.

While attorneys can pay flat fees for advertising, paying a marketer based on the advertising’s success could be an unlawful fee split, particularly if the marketers are nonlawyers.

Attorneys can pay online directories if it’s the internet equivalent of a phonebook listing, but attorneys shouldn’t pay directories to match clients with them or to recommend the firm. That could be a prohibited referral fee.

Attorney Contact Information: A New Challenge in an Era of Remote Work

States often require that any attorney advertising includes the address of the firm’s bona fide office, where the attorneys work on a regular basis. And it can be considered false advertising if the firm’s contact information on a website or stationary is a P.O. Box, a communal workspace or an answering service.

Solo practitioners and small firms need to be aware that, even as they satisfy other ethics rules regarding work in a remote environment (e.g. preserving client records), their virtual law firm could still run them afoul of this advertising rule.

Mass Tort Claim Advertising: How New Regulation Could Change the Field 

While the trend has been to reduce legal marketing restrictions, there is a call to increase regulation of ads relating to drug and medical technology mass tort litigation. Attorney advertising relating to drug injury claims is a $114 million-a-year business. Between 2015 and 2022, there were more than 370,000 television commercials for just one drug injury mass tort – linking the use of talcum powder and cancer.

Tippett, her colleague, Jesse King, and others have concluded these ads impact consumers – sometimes to catastrophic effect. After seeing commercials about the drug lawsuits, a few patients have died because they discontinued use of prescriptions.

In light of these findings, a handful of states are regulating drug injury advertisements.

However, Tippett and King discovered that the majority of advertisements were run by sophisticated marketers, not lawyers, so rules regulating attorneys didn’t apply. When law firms did run ads, they acted as intake specialists who forwarded clients to other firms and rarely represented anyone in court.

According to Tippett, the mass tort ads illuminate shortcomings of ethics-based regulation of attorney advertising. The myriad of different state regulations make it difficult to police national marketing efforts, and state bars don’t have the expertise or capacity to handle the issue. And not all of the bad actors are lawyers.

For her part, Tippett doesn’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with law firms specializing in legal marketing. But transparency, oversight and regulation are key, and they should be led on a national level by an agency such as the Federal Trade Commission, with a mission of protecting consumers, she says.

“You can’t only regulate by counting on the legal ethics rules,” Tippett says.

What Is Pro Bono Law?

Ashley Merryman Oct. 11, 2023

Court of Justice and Law Trial: Female Public Defender Presenting Case, Making Passionate Speech to Judge, Jury. Multiethnic Attorney Lawyer Protecting Client's Innocents with Supporting Argument.

Tags: law , lawsuits , advertising , marketing

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Role Of Ethics In Advertising (Essay Sample) 2023

Role of ethics in advertising.

The presence of advanced technology and widespread use of media has led to the steady increase in the use of advertisement. Advertisement, especially on media, has become a powerful force in today’s market. It is the major channel that firms deploy to make known their presence and drive sales. Therefore, ensuring that products being marketed are authentic, regulations and standards are set to guide the advertising firms. In advertising, ethics greatly focus on the purpose and nature of the advertisement. Ethics in advertising represent values that are held to be morally right or wrong. Hence, it outlays the code of conduct and rules guiding decisions while advertising.

Ethics serve to uphold the credibility of products and services prior to consumption. Consumers will have trust in products or companies that subscribe to ethical standards. It makes it easy for a buyer to make a decision about a product being advertised with due compliance to ethical advertising. In ensuring credibility, honesty and truthfulness of representations by advertisements get realized.

It is a tool to safeguard the general public against misleading advertisements. For example, the brand, company name, and advertising agency name should be clearly stated on advertisements giving full information as contained in the packages. Moreover, advertising should protect and not endanger children’s safety or create unhealthy interest in certain practices. Children are the major target for ad selling. They pose the convincing power in regard to product purchase. Regulations exist to protect the minor from possible abuse by the advertisers and the products that may be harmful to them.

Ethics aims at guaranteeing that advertisements meet the overall acceptable standards of decency in society. Advertisement acts as a mirror that shapes the reality that it perceives to reflect. Occasionally, it exhibits a slanted image of reality. Additionally, it prevents prejudice of advertising towards a particular group whether religious, political or class.

It helps in maintaining and respecting social responsibility. The ethical code outlines specifications and penalties against violating certain social responsibility. For instance, advertising should not be in favor of lavish lifestyles that harm the ecology and the environment.

Competition is an inevitable aspect of markets. Firms do advertising to challenge the competitors and gain a competitive advantage in the market. To regulate and protect the consumers who are at the receiving end, ethics ensure that firms observe fairness while advertising. Hence, while advertising the buyers should be informed of the product choice in the market with due adherence to competitive business behavior.

Without ethical regulations, sale and purchase of potentially harmful products to people would be rampant. Ethics, help in preventing social damage through restricting advertisement of detrimental products. Moreover, it serves as a watch tool that tracks activities and products being advertised. It is the device against which all advertising weighs to fit and comply with thus, the benchmark for advertising.

Ethics serve as part of the human needs in the modern world. Amidst counterfeit products and a variety of advertising mechanisms, there is need to protect individuals from fake data and misguidance by institutions whose core goal is advertising and acquiring profits. Similar to any other field like medicine or teaching with the code of conducts, advertising is never an excuse. Without rules, the humans are prone to greed and mischief at the cost of other lives. Taming such behaviors in advertising is crucial for the good of the general public. Therefore, ethics plays a major role in ensuring advertisers comply with the standards and rules of advertising by taking into consideration all players.

ethics in advertising essay

ethics in advertising essay

Ethics in advertising

  • Category: Business
  • Published: 01.17.20

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Business Ethics, Ethics, Merchandising

Ethics means a set of meaningful principles which will govern someone’s behaviour or perhaps how the activity is carried out. And advertising means a mode of communication among a seller and a buyer as a result ethics in advertising means a set of defined principles which in turn govern the ways of interaction taking place between seller as well as the buyer.

Ethics is quite important feature of the advertising industry. Through there are many advantages of advertising but there are some items which don’t match don’t make the honest form of advertising and marketing.

An ethical advertising and marketing is something doesn’t lie doesn’t produce fake or perhaps false declare and is in the limits of decency. These days ads are usually more exaggerated and a lot of puffing is used. It seems like a advertisers insufficient knowledge of ethical forms and principles. They just miss and are not able to decide precisely what is correct or perhaps what is wrong.

The primary area of interest for advertising is to increase their sales, gain more and more buyers and increase their sales demand for the product simply by presenting a decorative puffed and colourful ad they claim that presently there product is the best having one of a kind qualities.

Related to the purpose of the several Activities

Ethics in advertising is definitely directly relevant to the purpose of advertising and marketing and the mother nature of promoting. For eg. A hygienic napkin ad shows that if the napkin was dropped in a river by some women the napkin soaked entire the matter in the river.

Thus the objective of advertising was only to advise women regarding the product quality. Obviously every women know that they cannot practically happen nevertheless the ad was accepted. This doesn’t show which the ad was unethical.

Ethics also depends on what we believe in the event the advertiser make the ads on the belief the fact that customer will certainly understand them to think then act on this kind of then they can lead to results and the ads may not be referred to as unethical. Although at the same time in case the advertiser believe that They can deceive their customers simply by showing virtually any in practical thing just like just pressing fingers could make your home or perhaps office totally furnished or simply buying a lotto ticket can make you Uniform.

Pharmacy Marketing

They will help creating awareness nevertheless one different point in the advertiser displays what the treatments that can curve but under no circumstances talk about the medial side effects of that some things or perhaps the risk involve in the consumption of it.

Children are the major seller of the advertisements and the products. They have the energy to convince the purchasers. But when the advertiser employing children in their ad they must remember to never show them exclusively doing their particular work on their particular like losing teeth playing with toys alternative activities.

Till today there has not come any kind of liquor and which displays anyone consuming the original liquor. They use mineral water and social in their advertisement with their manufacturer those form of ads these are known as surrogate advertisings. These types of advertisings are entirely unethical exactly where liquor advertisings are absolutely banned.

Cigarettes and tobacco

Presently there products ought to be never marketed as ingestion of they can be directly and badly accountable for cancer and other server health concerns. These as are already banned in countries like India, Norway, Asia and Singapore.

Measuring Advertising Effectiveness

When a child writes the examination conventional paper he needs to see the outcomes come what it may be so that he reached know where he is wrong and in which he should even more attendance. This will help him to work better down the road.

This really is in the case of the advertisement the work is usually not full if the performance of advertising and marketing is not really measured. This is actually the only method to know how the advertising can be not assessed.

According to Philip Kenley and Armstrong the gurus of marketing there are too most well-known areas which in turn need to be tested.

Communication Impact

Sales Result

Interaction effect analysis consists of three types of researchers.

Immediate Rating Approach

Below is customers are directly asked to the level of ad and then presently there ratings happen to be calculated.

Portfolio Tests

Here’s the customers see with the ads and listen carefully to the advertisements and all the contents of the ads.

Here’s the operation of measures the heart costs, blood pressure, sweat etc . are used on the clients after the wristwatches the advertisements to know the physiological regards of the body.

Revenue effect analysis totally depends on the sales of the company. The sales continue to keep varying every once in awhile there are some elements affecting product sales like product availability.

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Ethics in Advertising

  • Advertising

In the modern business world, the role of advertisements is extremely important and the ethics in advertising is the subject of controversial and never-ending debate. Authors discuss the issues and argue on advertising intensity. The advertising industry is continuously attacked with criticism and disapproval from the general public. Many people think that advertising is encouraging materialism, obesity, taking advantage of children, using sex to sell products and manipulating our buyer behaviour. Advertisement is a means of informing the consumers and potential consumers about the various goods and services available to them. It is an essential instrument of communication between the consumers and the sellers. ‘Advertising both informs and transforms the product by creating an image that goes beyond straightforward facts.’ (Wells et al, 2003:14). Advertisements have the ability to attract more customers to a particular item, lower the price of certain commodities because of increased demand etc. There has occurred an evident change in the kind of advertisements and the importance of advertisements. ‘The most dramatic change affecting advertising has undoubtedly been the growth in importance in promotions, both consumer and trade. Advertisements leave a long lasting impact in the minds of the consumers.’ (Jones, 1998:16). ‘Advertising may be defined as a paid non personal communication from an identified sponsor using mass media to persuade an audience. Today, advertisers can provide customisation through interactive media such as the Internet. Traditionally a one- to- one approach or personal selling was adopted. This kind of interactive advertising helps to reach a larger audience.’ (Wells et al, 2003). ‘Ethics can be simply defined as a set of prescriptive rules, principles, values and virtues of character that inform and guide interpersonal and intrapersonal conduct: that is, the conduct of people towards each other and the conduct of people towards themselves.’ (Spence and Heekeren, 2004:2). What seems to be ethical to one may not always be ethical to another. Ethical decisions are influenced by the cultural background, values, and religion, legal aspects etc. of a person. Therefore the ethical standards differ from person to person. ‘There is nothing morally wrong with the practice of advertising in itself. But how managers advertise may generate moral problems. These problems usually centre around the use of persuasion and the creation of consumer demands. Moral questions may arise, sometimes; because of the way advertisers go about trying to convince people that they should buy their product. Advertising ethics affects the practice of our lives and also the practice of business in subtle and prominent ways.’(www.questia.com). Advertisements have several economic, political, cultural and moral benefits and disadvantages. (www.vatican.va/roman_curia). Advertising can be a useful tool for sustaining honest and ethically responsible competition that contributes to economic growth in the service of authentic human development. Advertising is economically beneficial as it informs people about the availability of rationally desirable new products and services and improvements in existing ones, helping them to make informed, prudent consumer decisions, contributing to efficiency and the lowering of prices, and stimulating economic progress through the expansion of business and trade. This helps in the creation of new jobs, higher incomes and a more decent and humane way of life for all. Advertising helps developing countries to improve their standard of living. ’Twenty to forty percent of the price consumers pay for the products they buy, goes into the production costs and for commercials. The manufacturers first convince the consumers to buy their products, which might not ordinarily be required. Then they charge the consumers for the cost of advertising.’ (Consumers Association of Penang, 1990:98). Serious harm can be done if advertising and commercial pressure become so irresponsible that communities seeking to rise from poverty to a reasonable standard of living are persuaded to seek this progress by satisfying wants that have been artificially created. The result of this is that they waste their resources and neglect their real needs, and genuine development falls behind. Moral advertising helps to convey messages of faith, of patriotism, of tolerance, compassion and neighbourly service, of charity toward the needy, messages concerning health and education, constructive and helpful messages that educate and motivate people in a variety of beneficial ways. But sometimes advertisements can be vulgar and morally degrading. Today, some advertisers consciously seek to shock and titillate by exploiting content of a morbid, perverse, pornographic nature. It has been observed that advertisements of tobacco and alcohol result in a rise in its consumption. Sometimes these advertisements have a negative impact on children especially youngsters. ‘Each year one million young people take up smoking and the figures continues to grow.’ (Wells et al, 2003:40). But it can be argued that there is no evidence that people have started smoking or consumption of alcohol because of advertisements. Advertisements may cause consumers to switch brands. It may also make them aware of the variety of products available in the market. Most people are found to have started smoking or consuming alcohol as a result of peer pressure. Advertisements can betray its role as a source of information by misrepresentation and by withholding relevant facts. Deliberate misrepresentation of facts or even concealing of facts is unethical. This might help to increase sales in the short run. But once the commodities do not achieve the perceived expectations, the consumers turn to other options. This will drastically affect the company in the long run. Concealing information by advertisements is also unethical. Advertisements are required to provide full and honest information to the consumers. Concealing information is as good as giving away false information. ‘Advertisements can distort the truth by implying things that are not so or withholding relevant facts.’ (www.vatican.va/roman_curia). Sometimes we may also find exaggeration of advertisements. This may give wrong expectations to the consumers. When results are not achieved as expected it causes frustration. This is very true with regards to cosmetic products. For example, pimple cure creams, slimming tablets, shampoos for hair loss etc. Many of these products promise quick results. When these expectations are not met, the company will lose their customers. Therefore exaggeration of advertisements may also be treated as being unethical. One another unethical practice is oversize packing of small products to make it look like the customer are getting a lot for his/ her money. Advertisements sometimes, deliberately manipulate by playing on the anxieties or feelings of inadequacy of some people. This may not be considered unethical as long as the advertisement simply presents the attractiveness of the products. There are some organisations, which are formed to deal with such unethical advertisements. ‘The Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) provides a free public service in complaint resolution. It provides determinations on complaints about most forms of advertising in relation to issues including the use of language, the discriminatory portrayal of people, concern for children, portrayals of violence, sex, sexuality and nudity, and health and safety. The Advertising Standards Board is made up of members of the public invited to reflect current community attitudes in serving as Board members. The Board considers written complaints about advertisements in the mainstream media, using the Advertiser Code of Ethics as the basis of its determinations. It considers advertisements which people find offensive on the basis of: • Discrimination (race, nationality, sex, age, sexual preference, religion, disability) • Violence • Language • Portrayal of sex, sexuality or nudity • Health and safety • Alarm or distress to children The Advertising Standards Board is one way in which the advertising industry is seeking to maintain high standards in all forms of advertising.’ (www.advertisingstandardsbureau.com). ‘Advertising industry must adopt a harm- minimisation policy by which bad and harmful consequences from various advertising practices and strategies shall be, if not eliminated, at least minimised. Only this will help to develop ethical advertising. For this purpose, proper ethical policies that include adequate ethical training for practitioners, codes of ethics and adequate self- regulative ethical controls by way of rewards and penalties should be adopted by the advertising industries as a whole. Ethical advertising helps to create a cultural environment, which is not only responsive to ethical advertising but also has individual who are pro- active in enhancing the ethical possibilities of advertising that meet the challenges of its hybrid and paradoxical nature.’ (Spence and Heekeren, 2004:119). ‘Advertising is morally neutral in itself and as long as advertiser’s respect people’s freedom to make choices without pressure about goods and services advertisers are perfectly justified in telling people, even persuasively, what they have to sell.’ (Williams, 1992). Advertisers must be vigilant about what they are advertising, how they advertise etc. in today’s society, advertising has a profound impact on how people understand life, the world and to a great extend themselves, especially in regard to their values and their ways of behaving. ‘Advertising can be conceived and conducted not merely in an ethically neutral manner, a category in which a lot of advertisements fall, but in appositively ethical manner.’ (Spence and Heekeren, 2004:122). Roger Crisp (1987) argues that ‘all forms of a certain common type of advertising are morally wrong’, on the ground that they override the autonomy of consumers and manipulates them without their knowledge and for no good reason. He claims that such advertising causes desires in such a way that a necessary condition of autonomy — the possibility of decision — is removed. The author discusses ‘four notions central to autonomous action - autonomous desire, rational desire and choice, free choice, and control or manipulation’. He also claims ‘that the argument developed by Philip Nelson, which concludes that even if persuasive advertising does override autonomy, it is still in the interests of consumers to be subjected to it, is seriously mistaken’. I have found several very interesting books which are written to defend advertising. Kirkpatrick’s aim (2007) was to undermine a critique of advertising as a offensive monopolistic force which must be heavily regulated by the government. Similarly, ‘Ethics and Manipulation in Advertising’ examines the claim that advertising should be subject to more political control and regulation because its manipulates consumers. Surprisingly, author does not deny the existence of manipulative advertising. Instead, he discusses the question of whether that advertising is a good or bad thing, using widely accepted ethical theories as criteria for making his claims. Philips classifies advertising practice and clearly distinguishes between informational ads – those whose essence is rational persuasion that ‘induces changes by convincing a person through the merits of the reason put forward’ (1997:16) - and manipulative ads – all persuasive ads, especially associative advertising and subliminal ads that ‘foil the rational evaluation of a product by creating the illusion that it will satisfy conscious or unconscious desires that it may not, in fact satisfy.’ (1997:18).

Semiotics of Advertising

Advertising takes products and turns them from something normal and ordinary into something desirable, something that people associate with being trendy, popular and fashionable. This results in ordinary products turning into ‘name brands’ as people feel that they cannot be successful or happy unless they own these products. To get these brands to change from being ordinary to being called ‘name brand’ is hard work on the side of the advertisers, but with the use of semiotics we are able to see the coded messages that the advertisers are sending, making us want to have that brand. Semiotics began as a method for analysing language but now it is used for analysing how all sign systems work. Semiotics is concerned with meaning and with the ways in which meanings are produced. Semiology is defined ‘as the science of signs, it suggests that all communication is based on sign systems , which work through certain rules and structures’. (O’Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2002:80). The semiotic analysis of advertising assumes that their creators design the meanings of advertisements. As well as just asking us to buy something, Williamson (1994) argues that advertisements ask us to participate in ideological ways of seeing the world and ourselves. Advertisements make use of signs, codes, and social myths that are already in circulation, and ask us to recognise and often to enjoy them. While reading and decoding the signs in advertisements, we participate in the structures of meaning that advertisements use to represent advertised product, society, and us. Bignell (2002) states that “To possess the product is to ‘buy into’ the myth, and to possess some of its social value for ourselves”. Buy using semiotic analysis we are able to identify the attempts to link to these myths. It helps us understand how products are linked to these cultural myths, and how they normalise some myths which may be obscene to some, or just untrue. Bignell states that often “Advertising has been critiqued as one of the social institutions which perform this function of naturalising dominant ideologies in our culture”. Semiotics is a very useful tool to decode advertising, for both academics and those who aspire to work in the advertising industry. It is also highly useful for the consumers of advertisements and their products. It gives viewers another tool in avoiding consumerism by seeing that in advertising “the ‘hard sell’ has been replaced by a more defuse range of functions.’ (Sinclair 2006).

Psychoactive Ads and Audience

There is a widely-used tool of advertising, the full consequences of which are still unknown: the emotion-arousing ad (Hyman and Tansey, 1990). It may be used in the variety of situations but whatever it promotes, it does so by reaching out, grabbing its viewers and demanding attention. One type of these ads seems to be especially morally controversial – a psychoactive ad: ‘A psychoactive ad is any emotion-arousing ad that causes a meaningful, well-defined group of viewers to feel extremely anxious, to feel hostile toward other, or to feel a loss of self-esteem.’ (Hyman and Tansey, 1990:106). Given that these ads can actually hurt viewers, therefore Hyman and Tansey (1990) believe that it is unethical to carelessly produce and use such ads. They argue that because some ill-conceived psychoactive ads can cause harm, ethical issues must arise during their production. If not for sake of caring about society, people responsible for advertising practices should be aware of the possible audience reactions to the use of such ads. When customers feel that specific advertising practices are unethical, they may exhibit an unwanted behaviour, ranging from indifference to the products, to boycotts or demands for government regulations (Snipes, LaTour and Bliss, 1996). Such actions can be very costly for a company and may tarnish its image permanently. Though all psychoactive ads cause viewers to respond emotionally, all ads that cause viewers to respond emotionally are not psychoactive ads. Neither upbeat ads nor warm ads are psychoactive (Hyman and Tansey, 1990). Upbeat ads are ads that cause viewers to feel alive, cheerful, happy, light-hearted, care-free and so forth (Edell and Burke,1987). Warm ads are ads that cause viewers to feel a ‘positive, mild, volatile emotion involving physiological arousal and precipitated by experiencing directly or vicariously a love, family or friendship relationship’ (Aaker et al., 1986:366). Hyman and Tansey (1990) provide description of psychoactive ads, defined and organised by type. On this view, ads that can cause extreme anxiety rely on appeals using pathos, tragedy, heroism or fear. Emotion-arousing ads are widely used and are commonly perceived to be very effective. There is an empirical evidence indicating, that subjects better remember and more regularly recall ads awakening fear, than they do warm or with no emotional content ones (Thorson and Friestad, as reported in Psychology Today 1985) and I am about to examine it in my dissertation. Polay (1985, cited in Henthorne et al., 1993) claims that fear appeals have been used extensively in marketing communications. Rosenberg (1956) suggested that use of fear appeals is grounded in the belief that some form of arousal is necessary for individual behaviour change to occur. Moreover, the presentation of information alone is insufficient to change, or greatly influence, individual behaviour (Leventhal and Niles, 1964). Therefore, in order to make advertising appeals more distinctive, hence and persuasive, advertisers frequently use dramatic emotional ads-messages designed to ‘shock the emotions and make the brain itch’ (Moore 1989 ). However, it is worth to mention, that individuals may differ significantly in the level of emotional intensity with which they respond to an advertising stimulus, and the intensity level may have a parallel influence on attitude formation (Moore, Harris and Chen, 1995). Larsen and Diener (1987) confirmed that when people are exposed to equal levels of affect-producing stimuli, some individuals consistently respond with high levels of emotional intensity while others respond with only moderate levels. In other words, advertising does not affect all viewers in the same way. Hopefully, I will be able to prove it while working on the dissertation. The adult audience (the subject of my concern) tends to be selective in its exposure to media. The meanings they take from the media are influenced by its attitudes, experience, peer groups, membership of sub-cultures and so on (Curran, 1990). Precisely that is why, some individuals may experience intense emotional discomfort when exposed to negative emotional appeals and others may be only mildly affected (Moore and Harris, 1996). Studies in U.S. show that only 17% consumers see advertising as a source of information to help them decide what to buy – surprisingly, Americans are highly sceptical, which prove that advertising’s powers have been greatly exaggerated (Brierley, 1995). Americans attitudes toward television and other mass media are mixed. Some of their fear and distrust arises from a belief that the mass media are monolithic, controlled by ever-fewer people and speak with a single voice (Jamieson and Campbell, 1997). For the advertising analysts, the audience scepticism and knowingness undermine simplistic critiques of advertising effects, in which people do what ads tell them, accept the role offered in ads as representations of the world, and take up the positions offered by advertising texts (Myers, 1999). There are clearly tensions between seeing the audience as sceptical and rational on the one hand, and as vulnerable on the other. There is also a tendency to generalise, to create a homogeneous ‘public’ that underlines the regulatory demands for honesty and decency

The use of ‘shock’ ads is the subject of much debate in the advertising community. Critics have warned that these ads may produce excessive levels of anxiety that may pose a genuine threat to the psychological well being of the message recipient. The images and messages contained in such adverts are very powerful and a study of this area should prove interesting as advertising impacts on all areas of our lives.

BOOKS:   Brierley, S. (1995) The Advertising Handbook 2nd Edition, Routledge Consumers Association of Penang, Selling Dreams- How Advertising Misleads Us, Jutaprint, Malaysia, 1990.   Jamieson, K.H Campbell, K., The Interplay of Influence: News, Advertising, Politics and The Mass Media 4th Edition, Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1997. Jones, J.P., How Advertising Works- The Role Of Research, Saga Publications Inc, United States Of America, 1998.   Kirkpatrick, J. In defence of Advertising, TLJ Books, Claremont, California, 2007. Maddock, R.C. Fulton, L., Marketing to the Mind: Right Brain Strategies for Advertising and Marketing, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996. Myers, G., Ad Words: Brands, Media, Audiences, London: Arnold, 1999. O’Shaughnessy, M., Stadler, J., Media and Society an Introduction, South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2002. Phillips, M.J. Ethics and Manipulation in Advertising: Answering a Flawed Indictment, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997. Spence, E. and Van Heekeren, B., Advertising Ethics, Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 2004. Wells, W. Burnett, J. and Moriarty, S., Advertising Principles and Practice, 6th Edition, Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 2003. Williams, G.J., Ethics of Modern Management , Quorum Books, New York, 1992. Williamson, J., Decoding Advertisement: Ideology And Meaning In Advertising. London: Marion Boyars Publishers, Incorporated, 1994.    JOURNALS AND ARTICLES: Aaker, David A. Stayman, Douglas M. Hagerty, M.R., ‘Warmth in Advertising: Measurement, Impact, and Sequence Effects’ Journal of Consumer Research, 1986, 12, 365-381 Burke, Marian Chapman & Edell, Julie A., ‘The Impact of Feelings on Ad-Based Affect and Cognition’ Journal of Marketing Research, 1989, 26, 69-83 Bignell, J. ‘Analysing Advertising’ Media Semiotics: An Introduction, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2002   Crisp, R. ‘Persuasive advertising, autonomy, and the creation of desire’, Journal of Business Ethics, Vol.6, No 5, July 1987 Curran, J., The new revisionism in mass communication research: A Reappraisal, 1990, 2, 135-164 Henthorne, T.L. LaTour, M.S. Nataraajan, R., ‘Fear Appeals In Print Advertising: An Analysis of Arousal and Ad Response’ Journal of Advertising, 1993, Vol.22, No 2 Hyman, M.R. Tansey, R. ‘The Ethics of Psychoactive Ads’ Journal of Business Ethics, 1990, 9, 105-114 Larsen, R.J. Diener, E., ‘Affect Intensity as an Individual Difference Characteristic: A Review’ Journal of Research in Personality, 1987, 21 (1), 1-39 Leventhal, H. Niles, P., ‘A Field Experiment on Fear Arousal with Data on the Validity of Questionnaire Measures’ Journal of Personality, 1964, 32 Moore, D.J. Harris, W.D., ‘Affect Intensity and the Consumer’s Attitude toward High Impact Emotional Advertising Appeals’ Journal of Advertising, 1996, Vol.25, No.2 Moore, D.J. Harris, W.D. Chen Hong C., ‘Affect Intensity: An Individual Difference Response to Advertising Appeals’ Journal of Consumer Research, 1995, 22, 154-164 Psychology Today: 1985 Advertising: Sold on Emotion 19 (3), 9 Sinclair, J., ‘Advertising’ in Cunningham S. and Turner G. (eds), The Media & Communications in Australia, Allen & Unwin, NSW, 2006 Snipes, R.L. LaTour, Michael S. Bliss, Sara J., ‘A Model of the Effect of Self-efficacy on the Perceived Ethicality and Performance of Fear Appeals in Advertising’, Journal of Business Ethics, 1996, 19, 273-285 WEBSITES:   www.questia.com [accessed 24.10.2008]   www.vatican.va/roman_curia [accessed 12.11.2008]   www.media-awareness.ca [accessed 11.11.2008]  www.advertisingstandardsbureau.com [accessed 25.10.2008]

ethics in advertising essay

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  • 02 February 2024

Elon Musk’s Neuralink brain chip: what scientists think of first human trial

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The logo for Neuralink on a smartphone screen in front of a portrait of Elon Musk.

Neuralink, founded by Elon Musk, has launched a long-awaited clinical trial. Credit: CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty

Neuralink, the company through which entrepreneur Elon Musk hopes to revolutionize brain–computer interfaces (BCIs), has implanted a ‘brain-reading’ device into a person for the first time, according to a tweet posted by Musk on 29 January .

BCIs record and decode brain activity , with the aim of allowing a person with severe paralysis to control a computer, robotic arm, wheelchair or other device through thought alone. Apart from Neuralink’s device, others are under development and some have already been tested in people.

Neurotechnology researchers are cautiously excited about Neuralink’s human trial. “What I hope to see is that they can demonstrate that it is safe. And that it is effective at measuring brain signals — short term, but, most importantly, long term,” says Mariska Vansteensel, a neuroscientist at University Medical Centre Utrecht in the Netherlands and president of the international BCI Society.

But there is frustration about a lack of detailed information. There has been no confirmation that the trial has begun, beyond Musk’s tweet. The main source of public information on the trial is a study brochure inviting people to participate in it. But that lacks details such as where implantations are being done and the exact outcomes that the trial will assess, says Tim Denison, a neuroengineer at the University of Oxford, UK.

The trial is not registered at ClinicalTrials.gov , an online repository curated by the US National Institutes of Health. Many universities require that researchers register a trial and its protocol in a public repository of this type before study participants are enrolled. Additionally, many medical journals make such registration a condition of publication of results, in line with ethical principles designed to protect people who volunteer for clinical trials. Neuralink, which is headquartered in Fremont, California, did not respond to Nature ’s request for comment on why it has not registered the trial with the site.

Nature examines how Neuralink’s implants compare to other BCI technologies, how the trial will advance BCIs and researchers’ concerns.

How is the chip different from other BCIs?

Like Blackrock Neurotech in Salt Lake City, Utah, Neuralink targets the activity of individual neurons — an approach that requires electrodes that penetrate the brain. Other companies are developing electrodes that sit on the brain’s surface — some of which are easily removable — to record averaged signals produced by populations of neurons. Neuroscientists have long argued that data from individual neurons are needed for sophisticated thought-decoding. But research indicates that averaged signals can allow decoding of complex cognitive processes , such as inner speech 1 . And New York City-based company Synchron has shown that a low-bandwidth surface BCI can provide basic but reliable smartphone control 2 .

Like the Synchron system, Neuralink’s is fully implanted and wireless. That’s a first for BCIs that record from individual neurons. Previous such systems had to be physically connected to a computer through a port in the skull. This poses an infection risk and limits real-world usage.

One man attaches a device to the bare chest of another man.

An engineer fits a brain–computer interface device produced by another company, Synchron. Credit: William West/AFP via Getty

The Neuralink chip contains 64 flexible polymer threads, providing 1,024 sites for recording brain activity, according to the company’s study brochure. That is considerably more than Blackrock Neurotech’s BCIs, the only other single-neuron recording system to have been implanted long-term in humans. So the Neuralink device could increase the bandwidth of brain–machine communication — although some users have had several Blackrock devices implanted. Neuralink touts the flexibility of its threads, and says it is developing a robot to insert them into the brain.

Denison says the spectrum of approaches is exciting. It is now a case of seeing which perform best, in terms of safety, signal quality and durability, and user experience. “We need to all play the long game for the good of patients,” he says.

What will scientists learn from the Neuralink human trial?

Neuralink has released little information about its trial’s goals and did not respond to Nature ’s request for an interview. But experts expect safety to be paramount at this stage. That involves observing the immediate impact of the device, says Denison — “no strokes, no bleeds, no vasculature damage, anything like that” — as well as for infections, and long-term follow-up to check that it remains safe to have the device implanted.

Neuralink’s study brochure says that volunteers will be followed for five years. It also indicates that the trial will assess the device’s functionality, with volunteers using it at least twice weekly to control a computer and feed back on the experience.

Vansteensel would like to know whether the quality of the detected neuronal signals degrades over time, which is common in existing devices. “You’re not going to replace electrodes easily after implantation,” she says. “If, in a month from now, they demonstrate beautiful decoding results — impressive. But I will want to see long-term results.”

Denison is also keen to learn how a wireless system that can be used in non-laboratory settings performs.

What concerns do scientists have about the Neuralink BCI?

Now that human trials have begun, volunteer safety and well-being is a pressing question. The trial was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which rejected an earlier application from Neuralink. But some researchers are uncomfortable that the trial is not listed on ClinicalTrials.gov. “My assumption would be that the FDA and Neuralink are following the playbook to a certain extent,” says Denison. “But we don’t have the protocol. So we don’t know that.”

Transparency is also important to the people whom BCIs are intended to help. Ian Burkhart, a co-founder of the BCI Pioneers Coalition based in Columbus, Ohio, was paralysed after breaking his neck in a diving accident and spent 7.5 years with a Blackrock array implanted in his brain. He’s excited about what Neuralink might achieve. But, he says, “they could do much better with how much information they are releasing, instead of having everyone speculate on it. Especially for the patients who are so eagerly waiting for this type of technology to be able to improve their lives.”

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-024-00304-4

Metzger, S. L. et al. Nature Commun. 13 , 6510 (2022).

Article   PubMed   Google Scholar  

Mitchell, P. et al. JAMA Neurol. 80 , 270–278 (2023).

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