Some cynics would say advertising ethics do not exist, but the truth is that advertisers are quite serious about being ethical. To most, this means being as honest and truthful as possible. Social responsibility refers to doing the right thing for society. A socially responsible advertiser thinks about the consequences of its advertising on society, and often donates advertising dollars for causes that benefit society.
While advertisers want to sell products, they don't want to lie, for several reasons. Research has shown consistently that consumers want to do business with an ethical company, and the No. 1 factor that makes a company ethical in their eyes is honest advertising. Another reason advertisers are concerned with ethics is that they are policed by the Federal Trade Commission; the Food and Drug Administration; the Federal Communications Commission; and other government agencies, networks and media, as well as their own corporate lawyers whose goal is to avoid lawsuits.
Social Responsibility, Part 1
Being socially responsible goes beyond being truthful to asking if it would be socially irresponsible to present a particular truth in a certain way. An often discussed situation is advertising to children. Certainly children would love to consume a mountain of snacks while waiting for dinner, and eat candy several times every day. Appealing to their desire to do so might have them pester and nag their parents enough that they give in to some of these bad habits and produce sweet profits for the company, but it would not be socially responsible.
Social Responsibility, Part 2
Another aspect of social responsibility is using time, talent and money to bring attention to good causes. A sportswear company may sponsor a race to fund cancer research, donating prizes, headbands and T-shirts and funding the advertising to promote the race. Sometimes, advertisers back a cause that has nothing to do with their company or products, such as sponsoring airtime for a telethon fundraiser. The general consensus is that advertisers spend so much money on encouraging the public to buy their products, that the advertiser should also spend some of its profits for the benefit of the public.
Shades of Gray
Many times, being ethical and socially responsible also benefits the advertiser. If the company is perceived as honest, then some people will buy more of its products. Being socially responsible -- whether by ensuring their advertising is appropriate or by becoming involved in good causes -- makes a company look very good in the public's eye. However, if the public believes the advertiser is doing these things mostly for the good press it will receive, in the hope that its sales will then increase, then the public may turn on the advertiser. For example, if a company donates $1 million to a charity, then spends $2 million to advertise what it did and why, then the public will perceive the company as caring more about profits than the cause.