What Are the Ethics of Advertising?

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A close-up of a television remote facing a television screen.
A close-up of a television remote facing a television screen. (Image: opreaistock/iStock/Getty Images)

Advertising is essential for businesses to relay information about their goods and services to the public, but the goal of convincing consumers to buy products can raise a variety of ethical issues. Ads generally embellish a product's features while downplaying drawbacks, and when taken too far, businesses can end up using advertising methods that are unethical and possibly illegal.

Deceptive Advertising

The truthfulness and thoroughness of information businesses provide is one of the main ethical issues in advertising. Businesses may be able to increase sales by hyping products and exaggerating their benefits while omitting information about problems. Advertisements that mislead consumers through deceptive information or omission are illegal. According to the Federal Trade Commission, before a company runs an ad, it needs to have a reasonable basis for the claims it makes, such as objective evidence gathered from surveys, agreement with experts in the field or results from scientific tests and studies.

Unfair Advertising

Some ads try to convince consumers to buy things that will actually cause them harm. According to the FTC, advertisements are unfair if they push products that cause or are likely to cause substantial consumer injury that could not be reasonably avoided. For instance, if a drug has serious side effects that are not outweighed by the benefits, making ads for the drug could constitute unfair advertising.

Advertising and Vices

Some consider advertisements involving harmful products or services or ones that use seductive methods to be unethical. For example, some companies advertise products that are a drag on societal health like alcohol or tobacco and may even target advertisements for such products at groups that cannot legally use them, such as teens and children.

Bothering Consumers

Certain legal advertising practices may still be considered unethical if they are unwanted and present significant annoyance to consumers. For instance, direct mailings, telemarketing calls and marketing emails are not always illegal, but many consumers consider these advertising techniques bothersome. Ultimately, ethical questions are not always black and white, so what one person considers unethical, another person might consider acceptable. Using advertising methods that could be construed as unethical puts businesses at risk of angering consumers.

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