Advertising Ethics: A Multi-Level Theory Approach

Minette E Drumwright. The Sage Handbook of Advertising. Sage Publications Ltd. 2007.

Advertising ethics. Just saying the phrase evokes many different responses. Some smirk and ask if it isn’t an oxymoron—even “the ultimate oxymoron?” (Beltramini, 2003) Others insist that advertising is among the most ethical of professions because of close regulation. A common reaction is a desire simply to avoid the topic. Delving into ethical questions is hard for any profession. It raises complex and perplexing issues, and many prefer to let sleeping dogs lie. Avoidance, however, is probably never a good strategy; in a post-Enron, post-WorldCom world, it surely is not.

Advertising pushes the boundaries of what is familiar and acceptable. In such an environment, making ethical judgments can be particularly difficult. Concomitantly, scholarship about ethics in advertising faces difficulties ranging from making normative judgments to defining the object and scope of an investigation. Ethics is now considered a mainstream topic in the advertising literature (Hyman et al., 1994), but the amount of academic research on it has not been commensurate with its importance (Drumwright and Murphy, 2004). The scope of advertising ethics is so broad and encompassing that research is thin and inconclusive in important areas, and some issues have received far greater treatment than others.

Historically, the topic of ethics in advertising has been examined largely through a bipolar approach—a micro-macro divide. The “macro” perspective focuses on advertising’s effects on society; the “micro” perspective focuses at a more individual level–individual consumers, individual advertising practitioners, individual ads or campaigns, and specific advertising practices. I propose a third level: the “meso.” The term is borrowed from organizational science (House et al., 1995). The meso level, between the micro and macro levels, is the level of the organization or groups of organizations—whether agencies, clients, or media. It has largely been ignored. Neglect of the meso level is particularly problematic because the organizational culture of advertising agencies has a strong influence on the moral sensitivity of individual advertising practitioners (Drumwright and Murphy, 2004; Keith et al., 2003). Moreover, solutions to some macro level ethical problems to which advertising contributes require the collaborative efforts of organizations or groups of organizations (Brenkert, 1998; Bishop, 2000).

This chapter presents ethical issues in the context of a multilevel framework of micro, meso, and macro and concludes with a discussion of approaches to discriminating between ethical and unethical behavior and a summary. Before turning to the multilevel framework, it is important to confront a major problem, the law–ethics distinction that often blocks or impedes engagement with ethical issues.

The Law-Ethics Distinction

There is often confusion between law and ethics. Frequently the two are mistakenly equated. Other professions also confuse these two topics, but the problem seems especially acute in advertising. Laws are ultimately a reflection of ethical judgments, and we often make illegal what we consider most unethical. A fundamental mistake, however, is to assume that because something is legal, it is ethical, or if something is unethical, it will be made illegal (Drumwright, 1993). Advertising law is a subset of the domain of advertising ethics. It does not and cannot encompass all of advertising ethics. Nor do professional codes complete the task. In many professions, industry codes set higher standards than law, but advertising industry codes, such as those of the American Advertising Federation and the American Association of Advertising Agencies, are less helpful. They generally restate the law and focus largely on avoiding deception and staying free of fraud. Advertising practitioners can conclude that if something is not explicitly against a code, then it must be ethical. Ethical considerations may lead to laws or codes, but ethical judgment is also about making decisions in areas that are not currently regulated. Cunningham (1999: 500) defined advertising ethics as “what is right and good in the conduct of the advertising function. It is concerned with questions of what ought to be done, not just what legally must be done.” Preston (1994: 128) observed that for advertisers who believe that the law is sufficient, “ethics never really starts.”

Reliance on the law is problematic from several perspectives beyond the fact that writers in ethics generally view the law as the “floor,” the moral minimum. Another problem is that law is often reactive. It is slow to be instituted, and it often takes effect only after a problem has become egregious. Even practices that are ethically egregious may not be codified in law for any of a variety of reasons. A problem may not be well enough understood to inspire legislation, or a legislative solution may not be available. For example, the First Amendment precludes law from dealing with some ethical problems that arise from advertising. Legislation to solve one problem may create another equally or more troubling problem. And of course, political interests often outweigh ethical judgments.

Many of the ethical judgments about advertising that have been codified in law involve manifestations of truthfulness—avoiding deception and staying free of fraud. They set parameters around what advertisers can and cannot do. They involve such questions as, “What are advertisers’ rights? What can they do and what must they do to avoid deception and fraud?” The discourse around these issues is based on two fundamental assumptions: (1) that advertising is worthwhile from economic and social perspectives and (2) that advertisers have the right to persuade. When the discourse turns from law to ethics, it begins to question the assumptions. It is not about the rights of advertisers; it is about their responsibilities—what advertisers should do. The discourses—law and ethics—are often based on different sets of assumptions, approaches, and research paradigms. As such, the participants typically appear to be talking past each other and do not inform each other as much as they might (Drumwright, 1993). Participants in the legal discourse often fail to raise the broader questions, while participants in the ethical discourse often have difficulty bringing their discussion to the practical level of empirical investigation. This is, at least to some degree, a manifestation of the micro-macro divide and the paucity of integrating meso-level research.

The Multilevel Framework

We now return to the multilevel framework that encompasses micro, meso, and macro levels. The framework enables us to think about ethical issues in advertising in an integrative manner and allows us to borrow insights outside of advertising and ethics per se. Management scholars have argued that multilevel approaches “begin to bridge the micro-macro divide, integrating the micro domain’s focus on individuals with the macro domain’s focus on organizations, environment, and strategy” (Klein et al., 1999: 243). The three levels are often interdependent and overlapping. The point is not to precisely categorize each issue at the correct level but to consider issues at different levels, since they often raise different problems and prompt us to ask different research questions.

Micro-Level Ethical Issues

Effects on individuals are traditionally at the core of advertising research. Not surprisingly, much of the work done on advertising ethics falls in this vein. Like advertising research more generally, this work draws on psychology more than other social sciences and on experimental paradigms that examine the short-term effects of specific stimuli, and there is more empirical research at the micro level than at the macro level. Microlevel research can be grouped according to questions about the message, the product, the target audience, the media, or the behavior of the advertising practitioner.

Is the Message Unethical Because of Inappropriate Persuasion?/
Perhaps the most prevalent issue related to advertising content involves the information versus persuasion distinction. Does the ad merely inform with facts, or does it use persuasive messages–for example, emotional appeals, self expressive benefits, and/or visual representation—that may be harmful in some way?

Some philosophers such as Santilli (1983) have asserted that all informative advertising is ethical, and all persuasive advertising is unethical. Persuasive ads are objectionable because they can undermine the rational cognitive processes by which people determine what their needs really are. As such, advertising actually creates desires (e.g., Galbraith, 1958, 1967; Braybrooke, 1969), and consumers act on desires that are not really their own when they buy persuasively advertised products or services. The most common criticism involves the negative effect that advertising can have on individual autonomy, which is the “ability of an individual to recognize (and neutralize) the manipulative power of advertising” (Nwachukwu et al., 1997: 108). For example, Hyman and Tansey (1990) found fault with “psychoactive ads” that use emotion to play on the anxiety and fears of consumers in ways that can be harmful.

Others have argued that advertising does not violate consumer autonomy in any relevant way (e.g., Arrington, 1982; Bishop, 2000; Sneddon, 2001). In an analysis of image ads, Bishop (2000) argued that consumers have choice regarding whether they are exposed to most image ads, that they can accept or reject the creation of symbols and images in the ad, and that they do have choice in buying the product. Although Bishop acknowledged that image ads can create desires, he argued that the desires created are not compulsive, unconscious, irrational, or not truly the desires of the consumer. As such, autonomy of desire is not violated. Bishop’s analysis is representative of the typical defence of advertising—“that consumers knowingly interpret visual or text-based messages, selectively choose meanings and resist rhetorical persuasion” (Borgerson and Schroeder, 2005: 258). Some argue that this defence is in sync with what consumers believe because “it does not feel like one is being jerked around and parted from one’s money like a puppet,” and as such, “advertising is implausibly seen as a threat to autonomous choice” (Sneddon, 2001: 15). In contrast, Pollay (1986: 23) referred to this perception as the “myth of immunity from persuasion.”

The stance against persuasion at the micro level is problematic for several reasons. First, it sometimes can be difficult to make a distinction between information and persuasion in an ad. Most, if not all, advertising messages appear to combine information and persuasion. Second, we often want persuasion regarding advertisements of social causes, such as prevention of drinking and driving, drug abuse, and AIDS. Should advertisers of social causes be denied persuasion as a tool? Few ethicists would say “yes.” For less noble causes, one must ask, what is wrong with persuasion? Is it harmful because of its medium, the mass media? Are other forms of persuasion—for example, personal selling, telemarketing, or direct mail—wrong? That all persuasion is not bad does not invalidate concerns about inappropriate persuasion.

Is a Message with Puffery Unethical?

Another potential accusation of persuasive ads is that they create false or misleading promises. Ads that create false or misleading promises are generally illegal and are dealt with in depth in Chapter 6.1. Some scholars, however, assert that puffery, which is legal, makes misleading promises (e.g., Preston, 1975, 1994; Prosser, 1971). Puffery is defined as “advertising or other sales presentations that praise the product or service with subjective opinions, superlatives, or exaggerations, vaguely and generally, stating no specific facts” (Preston, 1975: 17). Prosser (1971: 723) asserted that “the ‘puffing’ rule amounts to a seller’s privilege to lie his head off, so long as he says nothing specific ….” Preston (1975: 29) referred to puffery as “soft core” deception and asserted that its “continued existence in the mass media shows that advertisers think it effective with a substantial portion of the public in obtaining reliance and altering purchase decisions.” Others have different views. Bishop (2000) argued that image ads do not create false or misleading promises because they do not make specific product claims and implied claims are discounted by consumers as puffery. He also asserted that some implied claims (e.g., wearing a certain brand of jeans will make one sexier) could be self-fulfilling prophecies.

Puffery is generally acceptable under the law. Richards (1990) argued that scholars such as Preston use an overly broad, colloquial definition of puffery and that the legal definition of puffery is narrower and precludes deception. The key legal distinction is between falsity and deception. Deception is a characteristic that is subjectively interpreted as injurious to consumers and, as such, is illegal. In contrast, falsity is an objective characteristic that may or may not be deceptive and illegal. The legal question regarding puffery is not whether it is false, but whether or not it is deceptive.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the courts view puffery as not deceptive on three grounds (Stern and Eovaldi, 1984). First, they assume that reasonable consumers do not rely on positive expressions of praise by the seller in making purchases. Second, because these positive expressions of praise are not likely to be relied on by reasonable consumers, they do not have the capacity to deceive. Third, there is not an objective way to establish that general statements of praise are false.

Is an Ad Message Unethical if the Sponsor is Not Clearly Identified?

Ads that are designed to look like editorial material fall into this category, but increasingly popular nontraditional approaches such as product placement in films and buzz advertising fall into this category as well. For example, when Ford introduced the Focus, they recruited opinion leaders in key markets to drive and talk up the car without revealing that the company supplied it (Murphy et al., 2005). Do consumers have a right to know the sponsor of an advertisement or of marketing communications more broadly? In political advertising, regulators have decided that viewers have a right to know the sponsor of an ad. Nebenzahl and Jaffe (1998) asserted that consumer autonomy is lessened when vital information about paid sponsorship is withheld. They recounted that the right to be informed is among the basic consumer rights that were adopted by President Kennedy and the Congress in 1962. They asserted that the right to be informed includes the right to know if a message is sponsored.

Answering this question often involves making the difficult distinction between “pushing the edge of the envelope” appropriately versus being unduly offensive, in poor taste, or even harmful. Researchers have investigated consumers’ perceptions of ad messages that are considered controversial, such as sexual appeals, fear appeals, and political messages. For example, a majority of respondents in Treise et al.’s (1994) study believed that there is too much sex in current advertising and that nudity is not appropriate for general interest magazines. Maciejewski (2004) found that female Gen Y respondents (individuals born between 1977 and 1994) were more likely to view the use of the sexual appeals as unethical than male Gen Y respondents. Both male and female Gen Y respondents appeared to be permissive of fear appeals. Forty-three percent of the consumers whom Triff et al. (1987) surveyed believed political advertising misrepresented the political candidates that they publicized. Tinkham and Weaver-Lariscy (1994) found that ethical judgments of political ads were salient and contributed significantly to global evaluations of political commercials. However, they found that an unethical political ad could also have a positive impact, if it tapped positive emotional feelings of the hedonic type. Questions have been raised regarding the ethics of negativity in political advertising both because of its increasing prevalence (West, 1993; Lau and Sigelman, 1998) and data that demonstrate that it disenfranchises voters, which can lead to low voter turnout and involvement (Ansolabhere and Iyergar, 1995). While prior research has shown that negative information about candidates is more influential than positive information (Klein 1991, 1996), Klein and Ahluwalia (2005) recently have demonstrated that this is the case only when voters dislike the candidate.

Identifying potentially controversial ads that significant groups of consumers find offensive before they appear in the mass media has proven difficult. Recognizing this problem, Bush and Bush (1994) introduced “the narrative paradigm” as a tool to identify aspects of an ad that convey an underlying meaning that will be problematic to audience segments before the ads appear. In addition, techniques for scanning and evaluating media and public discourse to identify emerging social issues and attitude shifts could be helpful, if applied to ethics. Some advertising agencies provide “futurist” services such as these for their clients.

How Do Consumers Make Ethical Judgments about Ads?

Some empirical research investigates the manner in which consumers’ perceptions of advertising ethics varies based on their personal perspectives on moral philosophy. For example, Triese et al. (1994) investigated the manner in which consumers’ ethical judgments varied as a function of their stances on relativism and idealism. Relativism was defined as the degree to which ethical judgments are context bound and subjective versus universal. Idealism was defined as the degree to which consumers believe that acts should be judged as right or wrong irrespective of the outcomes versus the degree to which acts should be assessed as right or wrong based on their outcomes (pragmatism). Triese et al.’s (1994) results suggested that relativists were more tolerant of many controversial advertising practices and more likely to grant latitude to advertisers. Idealists were more likely to object to practices targeting children and to cigarette ads. Using Triese et al.’s approach, Maciejewski (2004) found that Gen Y respondents’ stances on moral philosophy affected their perceptions of sex appeals but not of fear appeals. Although descriptive in nature, work in this vein draws upon a compelling theoretical base in moral philosophy.

Are Ads Unethical Because of the Product?

Is the client’s product or service dangerous or problematic in some way? Some approaches to determining the morality of advertising hinge on the worthiness of the product rather than on the characteristics of the message, the media, or any behavior of the advertiser (e.g., Leiser, 1979). Ads for cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, or guns could be deemed unethical on these grounds, and marketing in each of these product categories has been subject to a high degree of controversy (Davidson, 2003). Nwachukwu et al.’s findings (1997) suggested that consumers make moral assessments on the basis of the product advertised. Respondents perceived ads for harmful products (e.g., cigarettes, alcohol) as less ethical than ads for non harmful products (e.g., baby formula, athletic shoes). Likewise, advertising practitioners who refuse to work on tobacco or alcohol accounts are making decisions on these grounds. Determining morality based on the product’s worthiness involves making what are often difficult judgments about the harmfulness of certain products and services. For example, are sugared cereals problematic enough to be considered harmful? What about high fat fast food or diet pills?

Some ads may be deemed ethical based on the usefulness of the product. For example, Leiser (1979) asserted that moral ads are those about products and services that are essential and useful, while immoral ads are about those things that people do not need. Such an approach requires determining what the genuine needs of various individuals really are. Do people really need designer clothes or expensive jewelry? Does everyone need the same thing? Are financial planning and nursing home insurance needed by some people and not by others?

The difficulties of determining the morality of an ad based on the product are at least threefold: (1) how to determine which products are problematic enough to be considered harmful, (2) how advertisers (or anyone) can determine the genuine needs of various individuals or groups, and (3) how a message can be confined to the people who need it.

Others such as Santilli (1983) have argued that morality should be determined by the truthfulness of the message rather than by the worthiness of the product. They make a distinction between moral problems with making and selling a product as opposed to informing the public of the product, and in their view, advertising practitioners are not responsible for decisions regarding whether products should be made or sold.

Is it Unethical to Target Certain Groups?

If we assume that targeting vulnerable groups is unethical, then we have to examine the characteristics of the individuals in the target segment and raise normative questions about the appropriateness of targeting them. For example, should a state lottery target people in low income neighborhoods, who can be more easily lured with the prospects of winning megabucks, or should the target be affluent professionals for whom the expense of a lottery ticket is trivial? Should a company with high fat, high sugar products target young children, who are unable to think critically about the commercial messages they see on television, or young adults, who have the ability and knowledge to understand the risks of their products? Should a cigarette company target nonsmokers, or should it target existing smokers? It is important to recognize that vulnerable groups who were not the intended or primary target of advertising can also be affected by advertising because of the inability to limit the reach of mass media. These issues are dealt with in Chapter 6.4. Here, suffice it to say that some people assert that advertising is harmful and immoral, even if truthful, when those receiving the message are unable to respond in a normal, mature manner. As such, ethical issues related to targeting typically involve assessing consumer sovereignty, which is “the level of knowledge and sophistication of the target market of an advertisement” (Nwachukwu et al., 1997: 108). The logic underlying consumer sovereignty is that knowledgeable, sophisticated consumers are autonomous and thus can distinguish between their own genuine needs and those needs created by advertising.

Smith (1993: 30) recommended a three-part test for assessing consumer sovereignty, which he asserted is based on “the promise of marketing ideology: promoting as first priority the interests of the consumer.” First, the capability of the consumer must be assessed for vulnerabilities that would compromise sovereignty (e.g., young children’s deficiencies related to reasoning and cognitive processing). Second, the quality and availability of information must be examined to determine if it is sufficient for the consumer to judge whether her expectations will be fulfilled upon purchase. Third, the test involves determining whether the consumer has choice and the opportunity to switch to an alternative supplier, which involves examining the level of competition and the “switching costs.” Consumer sovereignty is product specific in that a consumer may be sovereign with respect to one product and not another, and it can be affected by the amount of information provided by an advertiser (Nwachukwu et al., 1997). As such, assessing the ethics of targeting a specific market segment involves understanding potential interactions among the target, the product, and the ad content.

Do Ads, Because of Media Characteristics, Invade Privacy?

Can consumers opt out of exposure to advertising? Is advertising “creep” through newly discovered media inundating consumers? Is new technology enabling advertisers to access and share consumer information in ways that consumers would not choose or condone? Accusations of intrusiveness and issues of privacy come into play. Determining whether consumers have a choice regarding whether they are exposed to advertising is an important factor in assessing accusations of intrusiveness and invasion of privacy. The characteristics of various media must be considered. For example, consumers generally can opt out of exposure to print advertising. Outdoor ads, which have been criticized for polluting the environment, are more difficult to avoid, but they comprise only six to seven percent of total mass media expenditures (Bishop, 2000). Technological advances provide consumers with products that enable them to screen or skip broadcast ads. However, Hyman and Tansey (1990) argued that people viewing an ad often do not suspect that it will have images that they find intolerable until it is too late to avoid them. They recommended that advertisers introduce potentially problematic broadcast ads with an announcement to give viewers time to decide if they want to opt out. They also urged advertisers to use media with well defined audiences rather than a mass audience so that they can create ads with themes that are acceptable to specific audiences. New media and new technologies often create powerful “double edged swords.” They often enable tighter targeting, providing consumers with more relevant information and lessening aggravation and waste, and as such, can make targeting practices more ethical. However, they also enable the collection and use of consumer data—data mining and data sharing—in ways that are beyond the consumers’ control and that can violate consumer privacy. The continuing advent of new forms of nontraditional media and new technologies will keep issues of privacy on the agenda.

Is the Behavior of Advertising Practitioners Unethical?

The role and behavior of advertising practitioners themselves raise skepticism and mistrust among the public. In polls assessing consumer trust, advertising practitioners typically duke it out with used car salesmen for last place (e.g., Steel, 1998). In recent scandals, individual advertising practitioners in venerable agencies have been convicted for the likes of bid rigging, inflated billing, cash kickbacks, and excessive gift giving (e.g., Edwards, 2004a, 2004b, 2005a, 2005b).

Relatively few studies have examined the views of advertising practitioners. Of those that exist, most have used scenarios to assess the perceptions of respondents regarding the ethics of certain behaviors and practices (e.g., Davis, 1994; Ferrell et al., 1983; James et al., 1994; Pratt and James, 1994; Moon and Franke, 2000). These studies are helpful in identifying behaviors that are generally accepted or condemned and in revealing differences in groups’ or individuals’ perceptions. For example, in Pratt and James’s (1994) study, the most criticized practice involved the use of outdated research findings to make an agency’s campaign appear more effective than was indicated by new research results. Moon and Franke (2000) found that Korean advertising practitioners were more ethically sensitive in their reactions to the scenarios, on average, than American advertising practitioners. James et al. (1994) used scenarios to identify differences in the reactions of students versus practitioners. For example, students were more likely to apply deontological approaches (i.e., duty-based thinking) to ethical decision-making than practitioners. Deontological approaches are often contrasted with teleological or outcome based approaches.

A small body of work has surveyed advertising practitioners to ascertain perceived ethical problems. Rotzoll and Christians (1980: 429) reported that most of their respondents encountered ethical issues at work and that “most of the responses show a lively interest in doing the right thing.” They ascertained that the major areas of ethical concern involved the content and creation of advertising messages and the agency/client relationship. Hunt and Chonko (1987) reported that most of their respondents reported ethical problems in their daily work, and more than half of them encountered problems involving treating clients fairly or creating honest, non-misleading, socially desirable advertisements. Hunt et al. (1989) found that advertising agency personnel, in comparison to other marketing professionals, “perceived their companies to have the highest ethical values” (p. 84).

Drumwright and Murphy’s (2004) findings from in-depth interviews with advertising practitioners were not nearly so encouraging. They found that within their sample of the advertising community, significant numbers of practitioners either did not see ethical dilemmas that arose or their vision was shortsighted—a condition they referred to as “moral myopia.” When ethical issues were recognized, there was little communication about them—a condition they called “moral muteness.” Often rationalizations were the culprits that prevented advertising practitioners from seeing or talking about ethical issues. The authors categorized common reasons and rationalizations underlying moral muteness and moral myopia. Some advertising practitioners did see and talk about ethical issues. The ethically sensitive advertising practitioners did not differ from the others in any systematic way in terms of age, seniority level, gender, job assignment, or background. What did seem to matter was the context in which the advertising practitioners were working.

Wilkins and Coleman’s findings (2005) regarding the ethical reasoning of advertising practitioners also provide reason for concern. Wilkins and Coleman administered a web-based survey to a nonrandom sample of advertising practitioners using the Defining Issues Test, a set of scenarios presenting ethical dilemmas that were developed by psychologists in the 1970s and have been administered to 20 000 people in different professions. They found that advertising practitioners demonstrated considerably lower ethical reasoning than journalists, lower than most other professions tested, and lower than US adults in general. Advertising practitioners used lower moral reasoning when the dilemmas were about advertising than when they dealt with other professions. Wilkins and Coleman argued “that advertising practitioners are capable of reasoning at a higher stage of moral development, but when asked to do so in a professional setting, they suspend moral judgment to focus on the financial implications of their decisions, specifically the financial implications for themselves and the client” (2005: 119). Working longer in the advertising industry was negatively correlated with moral reasoning, a finding that raises troubling questions related to industry socialization.

The dominant paradigm of micro-level research involves a consumer information processing model in which advertising is viewed as a conduit of information. Much micro-level work has been descriptive as opposed to normative, as has been the case for research in marketing ethics more generally (Dunfee et al., 1999). To advance, research cannot be solely descriptive and must engage normative questions. Relatedly, consumer perceptions cannot be the sole determinant of ethicality.

Macro-Level Ethical Issues

Macro-level criticisms of advertising focus on the aggregate effects of advertising. They are sometimes referred to as “advertising’s unintended social consequences, the social by-products of the exhortations to “buy products” (Pollay, 1986: 19). Macro-level criticisms of advertising are a major part of the social and economic criticisms focused on the marketing system (Wilke and Moore, 1999). However, there is little empirical work on macro-level concerns. Scholarship consists mostly of commentary and debate. It typically raises a variety of far reaching societal concerns rather than focusing on answering a single question. Mirroring the literature, we will not focus on specific questions but on the broader concerns.

It is important to emphasize that macro-level criticisms usually do not focus on an individual ad or campaign but on the collective impact of many ads and campaigns. Whatever the ethics of a single advertisement for liquor or cigarettes that targets inner-city African Americans, the aggregate number of advertisements for liquor or cigarettes targeting inner-city blacks might be problematic. As an example, in Baltimore 76% of the billboards in low income neighborhoods advertise alcohol and cigarettes as compared to 20% in middle and upper income neighborhoods (Brenkert, 1998). While intimately related to micro-level criticisms of individual ads and campaigns, macro-level criticisms raise a different sort of issue.

Although there have been a myriad of social criticisms of advertising, many of them fall into three categories: (1) encouraging excessive materialism, (2) creating, or at least reinforcing, problematic stereotypes, and (3) creating false values and the resulting problematic behavior. The charges related to excessive materialism revolve around negative effects from elevating consumption over other social values, socializing individuals as consumers rather than as citizens, and using goods to fulfil social needs such as friendship and love. Examples of the harmful effects of materialism include inducing a work-spend treadmill, a general dissatisfaction with one’s life, and a state of “affluenza,” which is sickness from affluence (de Graff et al., 2001). The charges related to stereotypes revolve around the manner in which advertising portrayals can selectively reinforce stereotypes, whether for sexes, races, ages, occupations, or any other group in a way that is harmful to that group. For example, in a comprehensive study of gender roles in television advertising around the world, Furnham (1999: 434) found that ads “typically show men as authoritative and knowledgeable, whereas women are confined at home.” Taylor et al. (2005) found that portrayals of Asian Americans in magazine advertising conform to the stereo types of them as the “model minority”—successful, hardworking, serious, and technologically savvy. The authors highlighted the manner in which even positive stereotypes do a disservice to a group as a whole and harm group members. Often, the most marginalized and vulnerable groups are the focus of the stereotyping. The specific harms of stereotyping typically involve damage to the self-esteem of group members and/or undermining their opportunities in addition to reinforcing and perpetuating the stereotypes among the entire audience. The accusations related to false values and the resulting problematic behavior are many and varied. For example, advertising allegedly promotes values that contribute to ecological problems (e.g., waste, pollution, over-consumption of natural resources), nutritional problems (e.g., over-consumption of high sugar, high fat, high caffeine products), self-image problems (e.g., idealized conceptions of female beauty), taste and decency problems (e.g., sexualized images, near nude images), and other harmful behaviors (e.g., idealized images of smoking or drinking). Macro-level criticisms are dealt with in Chapter 6.5 and Chapter 6.6.

Debate and commentary regarding advertising’s aggregate effects have a long history and cut across academic disciplines (e.g., Bishop, 1949; Galbraith, 1958, 1967; Leiser, 1979; Pontifical Council for Social Communication, 1997; Waide, 1987). Pollay (1986) typified these writings by scholars from fields other than advertising and marketing as “a major indictment of advertising” (p. 31), which he characterized as “shocking” in its “veritable absence of perceived positive influence” of advertising (p. 19). In contrast, advertising practitioners have difficulty taking macro-level criticisms seriously. Drumwright and Murphy (2004) found that the advertising practitioners in their sample were least likely to recognize ethical issues at the societal level. Common defences among practitioners and academics alike are that advertising does not create values—it merely reflects them—and that the real culprits are other parties—for example, peers, parents, regulators, media (Lantos, 1987). Because macro-level criticisms often involve subjective judgments (e.g., what are false values?), some authors merely admonish advertising practitioners to adhere to their own sense of decency (e.g., Bishop, 2000), which is a micro-level response to a macro-level issue. It is the aggregate effect that is problematic. If one individual changes, while commendable, it may not address the problem. Phillips (1997) argued that criticisms of advertising related to materialism are really criticisms of capitalism for which advertising gets blamed. Often, macro-level criticisms are met with microlevel defences such as advertising’s role in providing information. Responding to macro-level criticisms with micro-level defences typically ends in a stalemate.

Accusations of harm done by advertising in the aggregate hinge not only on advertising’s pervasiveness, persuasiveness, and intrusiveness but also on its lack of a social conscious or a sense of responsibility to society. Historian David Potter (1954: 177) asserted that “though it wields an immense social influence, comparable to the influence of religion and learning, it [advertising] has no social goals and no social responsibility for what it does with its influence, so long as it refrains from palpable violations of truth and decency.” In addition, consumers have little education or training in understanding advertising’s social, cultural, or pedagogical role or in interpreting and resisting advertising’s influence as a representational system (Borgerson and Schroeder, 2005).

Macro-level criticisms often are premised on acknowledging that advertising can act as a “representational system that produces meaning outside the realm of the promoted productor service” (Borgersonand Schroeder, 2005: 257). As such, macro-level criticisms often hinge the “gross imbalance of the images presented” in advertising (Bishop, 2000: 381). Marketing communication’s ubiquity does not necessarily improve one’s capacity to engage in reflective analysis of it as a representational system (Schroeder, 2002).

The difficulties of dealing with macro-level criticisms are legion. First, it is difficult to imagine having any perceptible impact on macro-level social problems from the microlevel of an individual practitioner; we will deal with this difficulty in the next section on meso-level concerns. Second, macro-level criticisms are difficult to research. As Pollay observed, “… our research paradigms are at quite a loss in dealing with the fundamental questions in the macro market’s evolution” (1986: 32). For example, since the alleged macro-level effects occur over time and are not typically directly observable, longitudinal effects must be captured, and appropriate measures are difficult and perplexing. But beyond that, there is the daunting difficulty of researching environmental issues from within the environment in which all individuals are already “treated.” Pollay (1986) called for drawing on greatly expanded research approaches that draw from other disciplines such as history, literary criticism, sociology, and anthropology, to name a few. As an example, Ahuvia (1998: 143) advocated and demonstrated a “doubly integrated” approach to social criticism that combines literary analysis with the use of empirical data and also integrates the system by which ads are produced with the way they are comprehended. Schroeder and Borgerson (1998) used an interpretive method drawing from social psychology, feminist theory, and art history to analyze contemporary images of gender. Borgerson and Schroeder (2002) examined visual representations in ads from an interdisciplinary perspective that drew on ethics, visual studies, and critical race theory.

In part because they are difficult to research, macro-level criticisms are among the most contentious and controversial issues in society. There often is not a general consensus about whether a problem exists, or if it does exist, whether business has a responsibility to deal with it. For example, some people claim that advertising’s commercial effects on culture are positive and lead to increased prosperity, while others argue that they lead to “affluenza” (de Graff et al., 2001). Friedman (1970) argued that the social responsibility of a business is simply and only to create profits for its shareholders and jobs for its workers–not to solve society’s problems. In contrast, others (e.g., Donaldson and Dunfee, 1995; Quinn and Jones, 1995) argued that corporations are responsible for multiple stakeholders, including society. Furthermore, the fact that society allows corporations to exist implies a social contract that imposes obligations on companies to consider society’s interests in their actions.

Advocates of corporate ethics and corporate social responsibility have long argued that companies should be concerned with a “triple bottom line.” In addition to the traditional, financial bottom line, responsible and ethical businesses should also be concerned with a social bottom line, which focuses on stakeholder relationships with the immediate community, and an environmental bottom line, which involves assessing the business’s impact on the natural environment. Now some experts propose a quadruple bottom line. The fourth dimension is cultural, which assesses a firm’s influence and impact on the culture or cultures within which it operates, and puts macro-level issues on the agenda of socially responsible firms in an increased way. Given the prevalence of macro-level criticisms, the cultural bottom line seems especially relevant for firms operating in the advertising industry.

Meso-Level Ethical Issues

During the past several years, the trade press has been abuzz with reports of scandals among venerable agencies and their organizational partners. An understanding of ethics at the meso level—the level of the organization and of groups of organizations—is critical to encouraging ethical decision making at the individual level and to finding ethical solutions to macro-level problems. Murphy (1998b: 318) referred to the primary players in the advertising industry—agencies, clients, and media—as “the unholy trinity” because of the opportunity that they have to “pass the buck” to the other players, causing ethical behavior to sink to the lowest common denominator. Unfortunately, there is a paucity of research at the meso level.

At the level of the organization, issues related to organizational climate, culture, systems, policies and procedures that encourage individuals to be ethically sensitive come into focus. In a study of how advertising practitioners view ethics, Drumwright and Murphy (2004) found that organizational context had a tremendous influence on the ethical sensitivity of individuals. In fact, it seemed to be the differentiating factor between advertising practitioners who were ethically sensitive and those who were “morally mute” and “morally myopic.” In a study using scenario analysis, Keith et al. (2002) found that an advertising agency’s ethical culture—especially the ethical behavior of peers—affected the comfort level and the ethical behavior of students who are potential employees. Yet, there is a dearth of advertising literature that addresses these organizational topics that encourage ethical sensitivity. As compared to other businesses, advertising agencies appear to be underdeveloped with respect to organizational codes of ethics and explicit policies and procedures that encourage ethical sensitivity. Pratt and James (1994) reported that advertising practitioners in their survey reported that they perceived strong reluctance on the part of their ad agencies to institute policies, either written or oral, that would proscribe unethical conduct. In a book of exemplary ethics statements, Murphy (1998a) featured only two codes from advertising agencies. Advertising agencies appear to be less concerned with the potential for perverse effects due to organizational and industry incentive systems. For example, there is little work on whether a powerful client’s advertising revenues shape media programming and influence news coverage in undue ways. Historically, advertising agencies have been compensated on the basis of the media time that they buy for their clients, which has the potential to bias the recommendations made to clients. However, ethical problems with incentive systems have not been a major topic in advertising management research. It certainly appears to have been a major issue to clients, who have recently insisted on different approaches to agency compensation. Ethical leadership and ethical training are other organizational topics that warrant more investigation. How can leaders encourage and reinforce ethical leadership in an advertising agency, and what types of training programs are most effective in equipping advertising practitioners with the capabilities and skills needed for ethical decision-making?

At the level of the advertising industry, ethics codes provide a form of self regulation. The most prominent are those of the Better Business Bureau (, the Better Business Bureau’s Children’s Advertising Review Unit ( guidelines.pdf), the American Association of Advertising Agencies (, and the American Advertising Federation ( Self-regulation—the development of norms and responsibility for self monitoring—is one of the primary criteria for a profession, and as such, codes play an important role in the process of creating and maintaining a “profession” (Advertising Faculty, 2000; Shaver, 2003). Yet, advertising industry codes deal primarily with micro-level concerns. They are largely a reflection of laws and primarily revolve around avoiding deception and staying free from fraud. As such, they do not deal with meso or macro-level concerns, and they pose some of the same problems as the law in that one could assume that if a behavior is not forbidden in an industry code, it must be ethical. Shaver (2003) asserted that codes require “a minimum level of ethical reasoning—the advertising practitioner must examine the decision or choice to be made and decide whether it fits into one of the established guidelines or rules” (p. 296). In addition, advertising industry codes typically are stated in terms of “negative absolutes” or practices that advertisers should not engage in. They might be more effective and inspirational if they were stated in terms of “positive absolutes” or meritorious duties that advertisers should do (Murphy et al., 2005). Awareness of industry codes is often low, and unlike self-regulation in professions such as law or medicine in which professionals’ licenses can be revoked, self-regulation in advertising often imposes no real penalty (Shaver, 2003).

The most comprehensive mechanism for advertising self-regulation is the National Advertising Review Council (NARC), which was established in 1971 by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the American Advertising Federation, and the Association of National Advertisers. It has two operating arms: the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus and the National Advertising Review Board (NARB). The NAD monitors advertising practice and reviews complaints. When a complaint is valid, the NAD contacts the advertiser and requests modification or discontinuation of the ad. If the NAD and the advertiser reach an impasse, either party has the right to review by an NARB panel, whose decision is binding.

Do groups of organizations have a collective responsibility for the cumulative consequences of their actions? Brenkert (1998: 13) asserted that a group of businesses can have a collective responsibility if they can communicate and act together even if they do “not have a formal decision making structure.” He cited industry associations and joint lobbying efforts as evidence that a group of businesses can communicate and act together. Brenkert argued that malt liquor advertisers that targeted inner-city blacks had a collective responsibility for the harms that their collective actions imposed upon blacks. Likewise, Bishop (2002) argued that the fashion industry had such a responsibility as much as the images it created had the potential to harm the self-esteem of groups of women consumers.

One could argue that advertising agencies are merely doing their clients’ bidding, and that the clients, not the advertising agencies, bear the responsibility for collective action of the type that Brenkert recommended. This perspective reduces the advertising agency to the roles of craftsmen or implementers rather than trusted business advisors and professional counselors. If advertising agencies are to claim the roles that they desire both as trusted business advisors and as professionals, they cannot relinquish professional responsibility along these lines. Professionalizing the advertising industry through ethics education and training is one approach to affecting meso-level concerns.

Determining What is Ethical

In an area as contentious as ethics, advertising practitioners and scholars would certainly benefit from a set of principles that discriminate between ethical and unethical behavior. However, agreement on such a set of principles goes to the heart of what we consider ethical, and that will probably always be under contention. That said, a few authors have proposed batteries of questions that advertising practitioners should address when contemplating whether an action is ethical. One approach is to elicit questions based on the issues specific to advertising such as those discussed in this chapter, while another approach is to fashion questions or tests based on comprehensive ethical theories. As an example of the specific approach, Garrett (1961) presented a battery of questions that deal with topics such as ad content (e.g., Is the information in the ad truthful?), the psychological effects of advertising (e.g., Does the ad seriously disturb the existing psychological position of the person without sufficient reason?), and social consumption (e.g., Does the ad and the product advertised lead to a waste of natural resources?) Murphy et al. (2005) adapted Garrett’s list and proposed that advertising agencies and their clients develop their own checklist of ethical questions for their mutual consideration. While it is important to be systematic in asking questions, the checklist approach has shortcomings. For example, it does not tell one how to make ethical judgments; it only suggests what one should think about. As an example of the ethical theories approach, Murphy et al. (2005) proposed a set of eight questions based on ethical theories that are intended to provide tests regarding the ethics of an action. For example, will major damages to people or organizations result from the action (the consequences test)? Is the action contrary to widely accepted moral obligations (e.g., duties of fidelity, duties of gratitude, duties of justice, etc. [the duties test])? Does the action enhance the ideal of a moral community, and is it consonant with what the marketing organization wants to be (the virtues test)? Does the action leave another person or group less well off (the justice test)? While it is helpful to consider how ethical theories would play out in a specific situation, how does one know which test to draw upon in any given situation, and what should one do when there are conflicts between tests or even within a test? How would one apply a given test, and how would it translate into action? For example, what exactly does it mean to be virtuous or just in advertising? Which duties are the most important? Certainly, this is an area that is ripe for further research and reflection. Issues and methods of assessing fairness in behavioral economics may provide a helpful paradigm. For example, Kahneman et al. (1986a, 1986b) conducted experiments to identify the criteria that people use in their fairness judgments and the specific pricing and compensation tactics that they perceive to be unfair. Similar studies could be conducted to determine what consumers view as fair, virtuous, or meritorious in advertising. Note that Kahneman et al. (1986a, 1986b) found that the manner in which a tactic was framed made significant differences in perceptions of fairness, indicating that perceptual biases may influence consumers’ perceptions. While consumer perceptions can certainly inform managers regarding the impact of advertising tactics, one has to wonder if consumer perceptions are sufficient to illuminate the ethics that should guide managerial action.


Advertising pushes the boundaries of what is familiar and acceptable. Making ethical judgments can be difficult, and a common desire is to avoid the topic or rationalize. A confusion between law and ethics impedes engagement with ethical issues, often leading advertising practitioners to assume that if something is legal that it is ethical or that if something is not illegal it must be ethical. Law is a subset of ethics, and ethics often involves making decisions in areas that are not regulated.

Ethics in advertising has been investigated through a bipolar approach. The “micro” perspective focuses at a more individual level—individual consumers, individual advertising practitioners, individual ads or campaigns, and specific advertising practices. Microlevel research can be grouped according to questions about the message, the target audience, the media, or the behavior of advertising practitioners. The “macro” perspective focuses on the aggregate effects of advertising on society. Criticisms generally fall into three categories: (1) encouraging excessive materialism, (2) creating or reinforcing problematic stereotypes, and (3) creating false values. This paper proposes a meso level. It is the level of the organization or groups of organizations—agencies, clients, or media. Issues related to organizational climate, culture, systems, and policies come into focus at the meso level as do industry level approaches such as self-regulatory codes and other collective actions of groups of organizations. This paper argues that research must incorporate an awareness of all three levels—the micro, meso, and macro. For example, the micro-level decisions of individuals influence the ethical sensitivity of the organizational culture at the meso level. In turn, meso-level issues such as organizational culture create a context that affects the moral sensitivity of individual advertising practitioners and their micro-level decisions about individual ads. It is often insufficient to determine the morality of an ad or an advertising campaign by looking only at the micro-level of a single campaign. A campaign must be assessed in terms of the collective effects of similar campaigns targeting the same group or groups. It is often insufficient to consider only an information processing model of research in which advertising is viewed as a conduit for information. Advertising must also be examined as a visual and nonverbal form that is part of a larger representational system. The Meso-level collaboration of organizations or groups of organizations typically is needed to affect macro-level criticisms of advertising.

Practitioners, scholars, critics, and ethicists will continue to disagree about what constitutes unethical behavior, when the line is crossed, where responsibility lies, and how to study ethics in advertising. Disagreement is not the problem. Avoidance of the topic is.