The Ethics of Advertising: Do Advertisers Go Too Far?

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The Ethics of Advertising:
Do advertisers go too far?

Advertising is any paid form of non-personal communication about an organization, good, service or idea by an identified sponsor (Berkowitz, Crane, Kerin, Hartley, & Rudelius, 494). Advertisements are displayed through various means to a large audience. They can be found on the Internet, in a magazine, or even on the highway. Advertisements are everywhere! Their main goal is to grab the consumer's attention about a specific good, service or institution. To achieve this goal, advertisers use an assortment of techniques. However, some of the techniques used are illegal, unethical, or both. To illustrate, there is an illegal trick known as "bait and switch". This tactic requires placing an ad for an item at tremendous value. Upon reaching the store, the shopper finds that the item is "no longer available" and in order to alleviate their sorrow at missing the deal they are directed to a similar item that, while not as good of a bargain (sometimes no bargain at all) closely matches what they came for (Rubak, 2001). There is a great deal of controversy concerning the ethics of advertising. Advertising is more accepted by society if there are benefits, like cheaper prices. With their product ads, companies sponsor events (such as sports), reduce newspaper and magazine prices, and cover production costs for television shows. Conversely, when advertising has a negative effect on society, it is rejected. For example, the ban placed on smoking ads. Smoking causes people to be ill, so they visit the hospital. Society (the tax payers) pays for the medical costs; therefore smoking ads are not advantageous.

Depending on the call for action, advertising can be classified as either direct-response or delayed-response. Direct-response advertising seeks to motivate the customer to take immediate action (Berkowitz et al., 496). For instance, when a television as asks the consumer to dial a toll-free number now and place their order. Delayed-response advertising presents images and/or information designed to influence the consumer in the near future when making purchases or taking other actions (Berkowitz et al., 496). Furthermore, advertising can take three main forms. These are: pioneering, competitive and reminder.

Pioneering or informational advertising is used when a product is first introduced to consumers (Berkowitz et al., 495). The objective of these advertisements is to tell consumers what the product is, what it can do, and where it is available (Berkowitz et al., 496). It mainly focuses on the physical attributes and functional performance of the product (Lippke, 5). However, there are strict regulations placed on the information being presented. As detailed in the ICC International Code of Advertising Practice, under article 5, "advertisements should not contain any statement or visual presentation which directly or by implication, omission, ambiguity, or exaggerated claim is likely to mislead the consumer." (World Business Organization, 1997) For example, the value of the product and the total price actually to be paid must be stated clearly.

Competitive or persuasive advertising promotes a specific brand's features and benefits (Berkowitz et al., 495). The purpose of these ads is to convince consumers to choose a firm's particular brand over its competitors'. One form of competitive advertising is comparative advertising. Comparative advertising involves the appearance of one brand's features relative to its competitors' (Berkowitz et al., 495). Firms that use this strategy need to conduct adequate and thorough market research. In regards to comparative advertising, the ICC states that: "Advertisements containing comparisons should be so designed that the comparison is not likely to mislead, and should comply with the principles of fair competition. Points of comparison should be based on facts which can be...
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