Ethical Issues in Advertising

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Advertising is a paid non personal communication about an organization and its products that is transmitted to a target audience through a mass medium. It is a kind of promotional activity. Advertising is widely criticized.

Advertisements often do not include much objective information for the simple reason that their primary function is not that of providing unbiased information. Exaggerated claims and outright falsehoods are the most obvious targets for complaints, followed closely by the lack of taste, irritating repetition, and offensive character of many ads. More recently, questions have been raised about the morality of specific kinds of advertising, such as advertising for alcohol and tobacco products and ads aimed at children. Particular ads are also faulted for their use of excessive sex or violence or for presenting negative stereotypes of certain groups. Other critics complain about the role advertising plays in creating a culture of consumerism.

There are some social and psychological effects of advertising. A familiar criticism of advertising is that it debases the taste of the public by presenting irritating and aesthetically unpleasant displays. To be effective, advertisement must often be intrusive, strident and repetitive. Advertising necessarily emphasizes the consumption of material goods, people are led to forget the importance of their other, more basic, needs and of other more realistic ways of achieving self-fulfillment. As a result, personal efforts are diverted from non materialistic aims and objectives, which are more likely to increase the happiness of people, and are instead channeled into expanded material consumption. The difficulty with this criticism, however, is that it is uncertain whether advertising actually has the large psychological effects the criticism attributes to it.

A second major criticism brought against advertising is that it is wasteful. Resources consumed by advertisements do not add anything to the utility of the product. Such resources, critics conclude, are wasted because they are expended without adding to consumer utility in any way. Moreover, even if advertising were an effective spur to consumption, many authors have argued, this is not necessarily a blessing. Increase in consumption has led to a rapid industrial expansion that has polluted much of the natural environment and has rapidly depleted our non-renewable resources.

“For many decades, Nicholas Kaldor and others have claimed that the massive advertising campaigns of modern manufactures enable them to achieve and maintain a monopoly power over their markets” (Tap 1998). Monopolies lead to higher consumer prices. He argued that large manufacturers have the financial resources to mount massive and expensive advertising campaigns to introduce their products. These campaigns create in consumers loyalty to the brand name of the manufacturer. Small firms are then unable to break into the market because they cannot finance the expensive advertising campaign that would be required to get consumers to switch their brand loyalties. As a result, a few large oligopoly firms emerge in control of consumer markets from which small firms are effectively barred.

The criticism of advertising based on its social effects are inconclusive. They are inconclusive for the simple reason that it is unknown whether advertising has the capacity to produce the effects that the criticisms assume it has.

John K. Galbraith and others have long argued that advertising is manipulative: “it is the creation of desires in consumers for the sole purpose of absorbing industry output“ (Bird 1998). He distinguished two types of desires: those that have a physical basis, such as desires for food and shelter; and those that are psychological in origin, such as the individual’s desires for goods that ‘give him a sense of...
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