Ethical Claims in Advertising

Seminar Paper, 2011

16 Pages


Table of Content

1 Introduction

2 Theoretical Definitions
2.1 Ethics and Business Ethics
2.2 Corporate Social Responsibility and Stakeholder
2.3 Business Ethics and CSR
2.4 Advertising and Advertising Ethics

3 Ethical Claims in Advertising
3.1 Truthfulness
3.2 Respect for the Dignity of the Human Person
3.2.1 Manipulation
3.2.2 Vulnerable Groups Vulnerable Groups in general Children as one exemplary vulnerable group
3.2.3 Presentation of People
3.2.4 Shocking Images / Shock Advertising
3.2.5 Privacy
3.3 Social Responsibility
3.3.1 Culture, Values and Norms
3.3.2 Wasteful Lifestyles
3.3.3 Special Requirements and Conditions
3.4 Subsumption

4 Practical Examples Analysis

5 Conclusion


1 Introduction

Advertising is the life blood of all businesses. Without advertising “no products or services could flow to distributors or sellers and on to the consumers or users” (Devi N. et al. 2010, p. 50). Advertising is a booster of our market economy. It informs people about new products, services or brands, or improvements of existing ones so they can make rational and carefully considered buying decisions (Foley 1997). Advertising creates transparency and therefore a greater variety of offers (Bolten 2009). All this contributes to efficiency, boosts sales and stimulates the economy for example through the creation of jobs and higher incomes (Foley 1997).

Today advertising still persists in our minds with negative connotations. That’s also obvious to their creators. Advertisers need to design attracting and appealing advertising which is entertaining, terrifying or teasing. Their main task is to get the attention of the audience. The producers of the enlisted product want their product to be noticed and to gain center stage for just a few seconds. That’s the main task and challenge of the whole advertising industry. Advertisers know attention is hard to catch and therefore do everything for it. They use sexual innuendoes, break taboos or shock the audience (Bolten 2009).

But what happens if the developed advertising campaign perfectly attracts the aimed target group but coincidentally discriminates a vulnerable group? Is it fine to make jokes based on elderly, printed on flyers which are thrown in every mailbox in the country? How should advertisers behave?

This paper is going to examine some ethical claims and causes for thought in advertising ethics. It aims to assist advertisers in trying to behave as ethically as possible while struggling through the jungle of audience demands.

In the first part some necessary theoretical definitions will be given. In the second and main part the ethical claims are described, subdivided in three key moral principles: Truthfulness, Dignity and Social Responsibility. In the last section an exemplary advertisement will be analyzed in order to show the work of seemingly ethics-unconscious advertisers.

2 Theoretical Definitions

2.1 Ethics and Business Ethics

Ethics is the philosophical study of morality. It aims to study the goodness, the goodness of a life or an action (van Meerhaeghe 2006, p. 137).

Business Ethics can be described as a company’s responsibility for its actions and their consequences (Franken 2010, p. 223).

2.2 Corporate Social Responsibility and Stakeholder

Whereas the European Commission defines Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as „a concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and in their interaction with their stakeholders on a voluntary basis” (European Commission 2011).

The term “Stakeholder” (cf. Stakeholder Theory) refers to all internal and external persons which are directly or indirectly affected by the company’s current or future actions (Thommen 2011).

A company can therefore be seen as a “system of stakeholders” with which it is in contact and which it needs to manage in order to stay capable of acting (Müller-Stewens/Lechner 2003, p. 171).

2.3 Business Ethics and CSR

So, one can divide business ethics in:

- ethics of companies towards the social community (CSR towards external stakeholders, e.g. clients, suppliers, state, etc.) and

- ethics of companies within companies (CSR towards internal stakeholders, e.g. employees, managers, etc.).

In this paper the terms Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Business Ethics will be used synonymously because of the substantial similarity.

2.4 Advertising and Advertising Ethics

Advertising consists of the advertising message and the advertising process, a “program or a series of activities”, which are needed to deliver the message to an intended person (Devi N. et al. 2010, p. 50). In general it has two basic objectives: to inform and to persuade or to do both simultaneously (Foley 1997). Advertising can be implemented on a variety of traditional and non-traditional communication media.

Advertising Ethics belongs to Marketing-Communication Ethics and overlaps substantially with Media Ethics. It can be defined as „what is right or good in the conduct of the advertising function. It is concerned with the questions of what ought to be done, not just with what legally must be done” (Cunningham 1999, p. 500).

According to the CSR approach, a company should act social responsible in all its actions which also applies to its marketing communication and advertising actions. So if a company thinks and acts social responsible within its advertising it is somehow doing Advertising Ethics, too.

3 Ethical Claims in Advertising

Advertising, as an activity contributing to economic prosperity, could be held to be a social responsible activity. But ethics does not declare any activity which is solely assisting the economic prosperity as morally good because of its stimulating economic impact (e.g. selling weapons to children). Ethics and Social Responsibility is a multifaceted concept (Preston 2005, p. 61).

It is well known that “advertising profoundly impacts the way people understand themselves and the world around them”. This also includes the influence on essential values and individual behavior (Foley 1999, p. 220). But advertising has great potential for good and bad. It is an instrument which can have positive but also negative impact on individuals and society (Foley 1997).

Ethics of advertising activities depend on the way of how they are conducted (Christy 2001, p. 72). This applies to the meanings and techniques of advertising. Manipulative, exploitative, corrupting methods of persuasion and motivation are morally wrong.

For example if there’s an advertising which aims to move people to do destructive evil doings, those advertisers are behaving unethical. But if there’s an advertising which aims to support consumers “to choose and act rationally in morally good ways that are truly beneficial for themselves and others, advertisers and others involved, do morally good (Foley 1997).

In fact there are two types of ethical criticism based on advertising (Christy 2011, p.72):

1. Advertising is not desirable regardless of how it is implemented. (Because it is manipulating anyway.)
2. Advertising is desirable, but should be implemented ethically.

In this paper advertising is assumed for something desirable, depending on its implementation.

In order to implement it in a desirable way one should follow three key moral principles on which advertising should be based on: truthfulness (3.1), respect for the dignity of the human person (3.2) and social responsibility (3.3) (Foley 1999).

3.1 Truthfulness

Of course there are rules and laws against unethical behavior in advertising, but there’s also a wide discretion allowing advertisers to make puffery or exaggeration. They can decide which aspects of truth they want to communicate and how they do it. In this way advertising is sometimes not accomplishing the ethical claim for truth (Christy 2001, p. 74).

Advertising can also be an instrument to deliver a message of false or misleading information, implying wrong statements or withholding crucial facts. The content of advertising should “be communicated honestly and properly”.

When judging truthfulness of advertisement messages one needs to take into consideration the special forms of (rhetoric) stylization, e.g. enthusiastic exaggeration. One needs to distinguish between harmless whitewashing (puffery) and deception, or in other words if the way of expression or phrasing is “within the limits of recognized and accepted practice” (Foley 1997).

3.2 Respect for the Dignity of the Human Person

Advertising can violate the dignity of a human person by its content and by its impact (Foley 1997).

Therefore advertisers underlie a “moral imperative” which urges them to be a “constructive force in the community and to respect persons, particularly those who are vulnerable” (Carrigan/Szmigin 2000, p. 43). To vulnerable groups affected by advertising belong: children, young people, elderly, poor or culturally disadvantaged (Foley 1997).

To treat others as autonomous human beings and to show them the required respect and not to offend them is the most important aspect. Advertisers shouldn’t use others as means to an end. This general ethical claim has many implications for advertisers which will be elaborated hereinafter.

3.2.1 Manipulation

Advertising is present in our daily lives. Due to its ubiquity and its objective to make customers buy a certain product, it surely aims to manipulate us (implicitly) somehow. It creates needs for products which the audience sometimes or even often does not need.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Ethical Claims in Advertising
Comenius University in Bratislava
Business Ethics
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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440 KB
Ethik, Wirtschaftsethik, Werbung, Advertising, Ethik in Werbung, Ethische Werbung
Quote paper
Maike Dürk (Author), 2011, Ethical Claims in Advertising, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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