Advertising Ethics: Contradiction in Terms? NO!

Gene Ahner in his book on Business Ethics states, “Six Services are considered critical in a global economy: accounting, advertising, banking, insurance, law and management consulting.” For me the business and societal purpose of advertising is to provide consumers with the information needed, including competitive performance and pricing, to make our purchase decisions.  Advertising does provide the basis for product and service improvement.  After all, if you could not inform consumers about your product why would you want to improve it?

To achieve its critical role in the economy advertising must be conducted in an ethical manner.  My ethical standard is “Do the Right Thing for Consumers.”  Specifically, claims must be truthful with clear and conspicuous disclosures so they are not overstated; treat consumers “fairly” depending on the nature of the audience, e.g. children, and nature of the product, e.g. alcoholic beverages; and not contain content that stereotypes people, or contains violence, including against women.

Today’s advertising requiring ethical diligence include not blurring the line between paid ad content and editorial/news (“Native Advertising”), being transparent as to the conditions, e.g. payment, affecting consumer endorsements on blogs; protecting consumer privacy and providing choice regarding information collected online; and assuring that children understand that the messages directed to them are advertisements.

Consumers care about ethics and will reward and punish companies for how it is practiced.  Their ability to do so has been enhanced by online consumer information power.  Recent research shows that 95% of consumers have shared a negative experience; the good news is that 87% have shared a favorable one.

Perhaps, the greatest incentive for the practice of enhanced advertising ethics rests on the shoulders of our industry professionals.  Gene Ahner, who I quoted earlier, terms their ethical decisions “Ethics by Achievement,” ruled by their feelings, and hearts, not their brains.

When you know how important your profession is you should want to do your best ethically and professionally.

About the Author

Wally Snyder

Wally Snyder, Institute for
Advertising Ethics, AAF

Wally Snyder has devoted his entire professional career to working on advertising development, regulation and ethics. He served as a trial lawyer and as Assistant Director for Advertising Practices at the Federal Trade Commission before joining the American Advertising Federation where he served as president and CEO, from 1992–2008. Currently, he serves as Executive Director for the Institute for Advertising Ethics. Wally was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame® in 2009.