Advertising ethics has changed drastically over the years. What was acceptable advertising in the 1950s would probably not be acceptable in today’s society. Looking back at old ads, you will see many depictions of different ethnic groups, both genders and ages of the past. The Aunt Jemima ads of years past would not be something that our society would overlook. Women being depicted as housewives whose only job is to serve their husbands would certainly cause a controversy in this day and age. Somewhere along the way, ethics were introduced into advertising. In more recent years, companies have been called to take more responsibility for what they are putting out to the public. The days of being ignorant of standards and practices, in my opinion, have come to an end.
Consumers will speak out and hold a company responsible for any type of ads that are viewed as insensitive, racist, or grotesque. Many consumers don’t realize that some companies outsource advertising companies to create these campaigns if they don’t have in-house advertising. It turns into a domino effect when an advertising company fails to use ethics when creating a campaign for a client. It will not only damage the client’s reputation but theirs as well. One must be mindful of ethics when creating ads that the public will view. It could be said that any ad created will offend someone, but if you can lessen the number of those offended, you might find yourself with a successful and ethical ad campaign.
The CNN article, “How is advertising influenced by ethics?” explained, “The ethical issues advertisers have to contend with as they develop advertising that is designed to capture interest, and ultimately drive purchase.” The article goes on to discuss the question that was asked at the beginning, “How do you balance ethical issues when designing seductive advertising campaigns for potentially hazardous products such as alcohol or tobacco?” Using legal requirements and ethical implications were two ways the article suggested for advertisers. The most interesting part of the article was the section that talked about conscience-driven considerations. One line states, “Advertisers are careful to guard the quality of advertising. And today this means speaking truths.”
Having a background in mostly PR, I’m not familiar with what it takes to create an advertising campaign. From what I do know, ethics plays a major role in advertising just as in PR. Both industries have similar components, but the two are still different. There are many ethical theories that exist, but when thinking of advertising, a few come to mind but only one really fit in this case.
The first that comes to mind is Deontology. Deontology is most associated with German philosopher Immanuel Kant. The basis of this theory is we have a moral obligation to do the right thing. According to Kant, actions have true moral worth only if they come from good will. So, are advertisers acting out of good will? Are they fulfilling their moral obligation? In my opinion, they are not. I feel advertisers should act with good will all the time, but unfortunately others who only have the interest of the company can sway the individual away from doing the right thing. Critics of this theory say it is too rigid and it doesn’t take into account cultural differences. Everyone’s morals are not the same. This theory has good intentions, but not the best for advertising.
The second theory that I think of is Communitarianism. This theory says that we have a responsibility to the community. We should do what is best for the community and not for ourselves. In this theory, one principle is to have a like-minded philosophy to the public. Another principle is the “individual I” does not exist, only the “common I.” As good as it sounds, this theory has a few criticisms. The definition of community, and what if the community mind is wrong are, two issues that arise. When people look at an ad, everyone will not have the same opinion. Some will absolutely love it, others will hate it and a handful could care less. Communitarianism sounds good at first when applying it to advertising, but as you dig deeper you can see this would not fit.
The third and last theory is Utilitarianism. This theory says that the greater good is the only concern. If using Utilitarianism, the right course of action will lead to the greatest pleasure or least amount of pain. This takes into account the majority rather than the minority, which if thinking about government, this is commonly how things play out. I believe this is the theory that most fits modern advertising. The majority of ads today get their fair share of complaints unless it is just so offensive to viewers that it causes an uproar.
Case in point, The Hail to the V ads. Advertising powerhouse The Richards Group never thought that the different cultures represented in the ad were offensive. If anything was so offensive, it would be the fact that these hands are representing a talking vagina. The ads were pulled almost immediately. I think it was a good idea to represent all cultures of women, but the stereotypes are what killed this campaign.
I believe some ethical theories work for different situations. With Utilitarianism and advertising, you want your public to experience the greatest pleasure than any pain at all. Of course, there are people that who can’t be pleased and will get upset over anything. Advertisers have to keep many things in mind when creating an ad campaigns. The CNN article toward the end reminds readers, “We know that this is the source of good business — for us and for our clients. And if we ever for a moment stray from this guiding principle, we are sure to be held accountable.” This is advice that anyone, no matter the industry, can use.