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ADText: Advertising Curriculum
Unit 13: Ethics and Advertising

ADText Unit 13

1. Ethics and Culture

Throughout history, famous people have often been cited as exhibiting some of the best and the worst behaviors. Within American history, the very names of some presidents evoke notions of truth and honesty while some warn of the consequences of lying. Abraham Lincoln earned the nickname "Honest Abe" and George Washington "could not tell a lie." On the other hand, Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace and Bill Clinton suffered impeachment because they lied.

The world of advertising has its own set of stories about the good and the bad, truth and dishonesty. This unit focuses on truth and deception in advertising and on the ethical dilemmas of those who produce advertising. These stories show that in advertising, just as in the world at large, there are not only clear instances of good and bad behaviors but also a vast grey area that lies between these extremes—an area where ethical decisions must be made on a daily basis.

2. What is Deceptive Advertising?

Claiming that a product can do something that it cannot is a clear-cut case of deception. Saying that a package is one and one-half times bigger than another (if it is!) is a clear-cut case of telling the truth. But in the real world of advertising, the issues are seldom so clearly demarcated. Is it deceptive, for example, to say that Big Macs and Whoppers taste great without also saying that too many of them can make you fat, raise your cholesterol, or increase your sodium intake above healthy levels?

The public wants and expects advertising to be truthful, but exactly what does this mean in practice? Does it mean saying that a new car can get you from New York to California in style is insufficient? For the ad to be truthful, does it also need to say that driving cars adds to environmental pollution and that you might get hurt or killed in an accident along the way? Does "honest" advertising require that some products (like prescription drugs, for example) need to make fuller disclosures about possible side-effects than do ads for hamburgers and cars?

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