Ethics in Advertising: What They Are and How They Apply

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published July 24, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

An advertisement aims to persuade the viewer to buy a product by positioning it as a solution to a problem. Marketing professionals are responsible for the content of these advertisements and usually evaluate if the message considers the target audience's values. By studying advertising ethics, this responsibility may become easier for a person to handle it effectively. In this article, we explain the basics of ethics in advertising, discuss when they're most relevant, and provide advice on how to act more ethically.

What are ethics in advertising?

Ethics in advertising are the principles a marketing professional follows based on legal requirements and their moral responsibility to others. By following these principles, a person can better ensure that the decisions they make avoid causing significant harm to individuals or groups of people. Maintaining a strong ethical standard can help a marketer balance their responsibilities to their employer with their extensive responsibilities to the public.

When are ethics most relevant?

Ethical behaviour becomes especially important in some situations, such as:

When a product can cause harm

Some products can cause harm to people if they use them incorrectly. One example is medication, which can perform an essential medical function but also may have negative side effects. When a marketer sells these types of products, it's important for them to explain the risks a product has. This allows potential customers to make informed decisions about these products. It also allows regulators to make appropriate rulings on the product, such as considering if special labelling is appropriate.

When an ad misleads the customer

Honesty is important in ethical advertising. Ethical marketing materials avoid misleading customers with inaccurate claims or by omitting important details. If materials can mislead someone, it's necessary for the marketer to redesign the materials so they more accurately represent the product. Broadly, it's important that a customer understands all the product features before purchasing the product. A marketing effort is ethical when marketing materials help inform a purchase decision.

Related: What Is Consumer Behaviour? (With Importance and Types)

When the product or the ad has legal issues

In certain scenarios, ethical behaviour can help a company avoid legal trouble. Regulators often create laws fashioned to protect consumers, essentially coding ethics into the legal system. By avoiding unethical marketing tactics, an employee can also help their company avoid legal penalties. Acting ethically can also help protect a marketer from liabilities, as it ensures they work within the confines of the law and in good conscience.

How can marketers act more ethically?

You can act ethically in your marketing by implementing some of the following practices:

Keep marketing truthful

One good ethical standard for advertising is that those involved in creating an ad share the common objective of truth. Consumers value ethical and honest advertising, so maintaining an objective to share the truth can help advertisers better appeal to a wide audience while maintaining their ethics. Keeping advertisements truthful can help avoid legal difficulties and encourages a company to develop and sell quality products and services.

Some ads make untrue statements without causing a major ethical concern. Sometimes, marketers can employ obvious hyperbole or jokes if misleading a customer is unlikely. For example, writing, This soda will have you over the moon, isn't misleading, as a reasonable customer understands that's a metaphor. If a marketer is careful and avoids misleading, they can use these types of resources that imply using statements that aren't true.

Related: 8 Common Communication Problems and How to Address Them

Distinguish between advertising and news or editorial content

It's important that marketers make the differentiation between advertising and editorial content or news as clear as possible. Editorial content and news have a distinct style, with the overall goal being to inform the public about a product or service. Companies can avoid misleading consumers by differentiating advertising content from this informative content. They can also add disclaimers to advertisements to further reduce any confusion about their purpose.

Address mistakes promptly

Sometimes, marketers make mistakes that produce unintentional results. For instance, an ad may have misleading wording or omit a detail the advertiser later understands is important. Often the best way a company can respond to these mistakes is with swift action. If possible, it can change or remove misleading material. It can also address the mistake on its social media pages or in a press release. By acting fast, a company shows consumers it cares about its integrity and gives its customers an accurate message about its products and services.

Related: What Is Crisis Communication? (Definition and Helpful Tips)

Respect customers' personal information

Advertisers have an obligation to consumers to provide transparency around the usage of their personal information and provide details about why they're gathering this data. As marketers use enhanced methods to target online behaviours and actions, consumers want to know what information a company might collect and if they may share that information. Some federal and provincial regulations have also shifted the way marketers obtain and use private information, affording more control to consumers over what they share with businesses.

Customer information is a valuable resource for companies and there are ethical ways to source this information. For instance, an opt-in system, where customers can choose to share their information in exchange for targeted offers and deals, is an offer many customers appreciate. Many companies use an account system, and these systems can have pages where a customer can choose what data they share.

Treat consumers fairly

Companies owe consumers advertisements that treat them fairly and correctly represent the nature of their services or products. Different groups also require different levels of care when crafting ads. For instance, products for children may have stricter advertising regulations because children are more impressionable. Similar rules may apply to the elderly. Prescription drugs and alcohol also have unique regulations applied to their advertising because of the potentially sensitive nature of these products.

Even when the law permits certain types of ads, a company may further self-regulate to avoid doing harm. A company's marketing team can note the traits associated with a product's target audience. Some important details include their level of education, the expected level of health, and financial background. The team can then consider these facts to craft advertisements using a style its audience can understand.

Related: What Is the Consumer Decision-Making Process? (A Guide)

Grant the discussion of ethical concerns

Those working in advertising benefit from having permission to discuss any potential ethical concerns when developing and launching ad campaigns. Practising and applying the highest ethical standards requires those involved in the development of advertising campaigns to analyze the key standards for ethics in advertising. They can then talk to decision-makers and ensure that what they share with consumers adheres to those standards.

By encouraging discussion, marketers can work together to improve the quality of their ads, maintain their integrity, and protect their customers. It's helpful to involve a diverse group of people in these discussions, such as people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. By doing this way, a company can get multiple perspectives on an advertisement, some of which may be less apparent to one group than another.

Related: Facilitate Effective Meetings by Thinking with Six Hats

Disclose all material conditions and endorsement identities

An advertisement may offer a product for free in exchange for an action performed by an individual. A marketer can make the conditions of such an exchange clear to maintain a high ethical standard. A company can also note any endorsers in advertisements in the interest of transparency and full disclosure. For instance, social media influencers often share their opinions about products and services in exchange for compensation or free products and services.

Implementing this kind of disclosure in ads, sponsorships, and endorsements is often easy. A company can encourage the individuals it endorses to deliver a short message about the nature of the endorsement. A company can also announce any sponsorships clearly on relevant social media platforms. Presenting this information clearly allows a consumer to make an informed decision.

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