List of Ethical & Legal Issues When Advertising
The advertising industry operates within strict federal regulations and is monitored by the Federal Trade Commission. Even with truth-in-advertising laws in place, advertisers have significant leeway to violate the ethical standards of a wide range of consumers. Advertisers have to be especially careful to act ethically at all times, taking extra care when advertising to children, advertising potentially harmful products and using psychological tactics to stimulate demand. Having a list of ethical and legal issues at hand when creating advertisements can help you to craft legal, responsible ad messages.
Truth in Advertising
The Federal Trade Commission Act set forth requirements for truth in advertising and created the FTC to enforce the provisions of the act. The Bureau of Consumer Protection’s Business Bureau notes that advertisements in the U.S. must by truthful, not deceptive and not unfair. Advertisers must also have evidence available to back up claims they make.
The FTC defines deceitful statements as those that are likely to mislead consumers who act reasonably under normal circumstances and that are likely to affect consumers’ purchase decisions. The FTC defines unfair advertisements as those that are likely to cause substantial, unavoidable injury when using a product, unless the injury is outweighed by the provable benefits.
Advertising to Children
Although the FTC places special emphasis on truth-in-advertising laws when applied to children, the law allows for a great deal of unethical behavior here. Former FTC commissioner Roscoe B. Starek states that children are not likely to understand exaggerated statements or images, citing the example that children may believe a toy helicopter to come fully assembled when in fact assembly is required.
This interpretation of the law completely ignores the unethical ramifications of purely legal advertising, such as building brand loyalty in children before they even understand what a brand is, encouraging children to develop negative self images or getting children hooked on products that can impede social development. The best way to act ethically in this area is to advertise to parents, not children.
Advertising Harmful Products
Different countries look differently on the advertising of vice products and services, striking a balance between placing personal responsibility on citizens and regulating what citizens are allowed to indulge in. The United States highly regulates some forms of vice, prohibits others and gives still others a free hand. For example, cigarette advertising is only permitted on specific media, excluding television and radio, while alcohol advertising is allowed on all media.
Companies have to take a good look at the true nature of their product lines when deciding whether they are acting ethically as advertisers. Television ads for fast food hamburgers are completely legal and effective at building demand, for example, but doctors in the 21st century are beginning to find links between fast food and a national obesity epidemic. Pharmaceutical ads with lists of side effects, as another example, are often followed 10 years later by attorneys’ ads for class-action lawsuits against the companies for wrongful injury.
Advertising Tactics and Challenges
Advertising tactics present additional ethical challenges. Advertisers have a range of less-than-ethical yet legal tools at their disposal, including subliminal advertising, emotional appeals, taking advantage of less educated individuals, spreading propaganda for political campaigns, and other tactics ethical advertisers consistently refrain from using. At the end of the day, consumers will be more attracted to companies that do not use underhanded, psychologically manipulative tactics to gain their business.