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Ethics in Advertising

Note: The following speech was written by Chris Moore of Ogilvy & Mather to help liven up what can be a bland topic. While it has been edited by the AEF and contains basic information about topics we have found to be of interest to students, you will want to use your own words and examples where possible.

I'm here to talk about ethics in advertising.

No, this isn't going to be "The shortest lecture ever given." People in advertising spend a lot of their time dealing with ethical choices, and those choices are almost never black and white. They're subtle, shades-of-gray choices, juicy enough for a Philosophy major.

Let's start with the truth. Telling the truth seems like a pretty basic ethical standard. The world's best example of truth in advertising may be a tiny "Help Wanted" ad that appeared in the London papers in 1900:

"Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success. Ernest Shackleton."

Englishmen being what they are, the ad drew an overwhelming response. And Shackleton's Polar expedition turned out to be far, far worse than his bleak copy promised - a rare case of an advertisement over-delivering on its claims.

Now let's look at a more subtle shade of truth in this infamous Volvo commercial. In a real-life monster truck show, the Volvo was the only car left uncrushed - a great idea for a commercial! But to make the ad, the film company needed to shoot several takes. So they reinforced the beams inside the car to stand repeated squashing. When this came out in the press, Volvo was pilloried and their ad agency got fired, ultimately going out of business. Did it serve them right? Or was it a bum rap? No question the demo was rigged. But what it showed was the truth: if a monster truck runs over you once, you're safer in the Volvo.

An ethical brainteaser we deal with every day is: "What can you legitimately simulate to illustrate the truth?" Before you answer "nothing!", ask yourself if a Higher Purpose would be served if Pampers and Kotex commercials showed the real thing instead of that fake blue water.

Ads for reputable companies almost never lie. They have to be able to prove what they say to their own corporate counsel, the ad agency's lawyers, the network's approval committees and to any number of regulating bodies like the FDA and the FTC. With at least five different government agencies looking over our shoulder, the cost of being caught cheating is simply too high. In addition, the individuals inside a company want to be able to look at themselves in the mirror. Some like to think of business people as belonging to some other species, but remember that most of them are you a few years from now.

So we tell the truth -- but not always the Whole Truth. Like lawyers, our job is to put our clients in the best light. When you go on a job interview or a first date, you don't assume a false identity - but you probably don't make a full disclosure either. Chances are you keep your lactose intolerance and foot odor issues in the background, and save your Federation Starfleet uniform for later in the relationship - if there IS a later.

For a company trying to sell something, an ad is like getting a job interview with millions of people all at once. The ad wants to make a good first impression and really, really doesn't want to make people mad. But different people react differently.

During the 2000 Super Bowl, millions of people saw the following commercial for Christopher Reeve walking again.

Some of us saw an uplifting message of hope. Some saw a cynical company manipulating people's hope to make a buck. Still others - many of them with disabilities - saw an ad that gave false hope. What did you see?

It's an axiom in advertising that when you do something bold, it's likely to polarize your audience. And big events like the Super Bowl or the Olympics make advertisers bolder.

You can tell the ad agency really enjoyed creating the horror movie spoof with an Olympic runner. This Nike commercial ran during the 2000 Olympics. But this commercial received over 2,000 complaints. Nike heard them and killed the spot and unlike Freddie Kruger, this ad stayed dead!

A lot of people question the ethics of selling consumers things they don't need - which presupposes that we shouldn't have the things we don't need but want anyway. We don't need 90% of the stuff in our apartments. We don't need artwork, among other things. Neanderthals didn't need cave paintings, but they sure brighten up a grotto. Why did so many of us bring bottled water - that we paid for - into this meeting room today, when carrying a canteen of tap water is so much more… rational?

Advertising, like human beings, lives where Reason meets Desire. Years ago, The Coca-Cola Company invented a better product. No consumer product had ever been so thoroughly tested with so many consumers. This new Coke was provably much better. But consumers not only didn't buy it, they demonstrated against it. Because a lot of what they loved about "real" Coke wasn't inside the bottle. It was the idea of Coke and their experiences with it and how those experiences were connected to so much of what we imagine life in America should be like. Advertising isn't just about the things we buy. It's about how we feel about things, including ourselves. That's what makes it interesting.

Cause-related marketing

Speaking of feelings, 80% of Americans say they feel better about companies that are aligned with social issues. Two thirds of us say we'd be inclined to switch to a brand that we identify with a good cause. It's why American Express put on the Tribeca Film Festival in lower Manhattan to help bring people back to the area after September 11th. Wal-Mart focuses on community efforts of their associates and stores. General Mills' "Spoonfuls of Hope" campaign features Lance Armstrong promoting cancer research. Johnson & Johnson - always at the top of polls as a socially responsible company -- has been running a campaign to help promote nursing as a career:

Does the extra business and good will these companies stand to gain compromise the good that the causes do? What are the ethics of enlightened self-interest? Not long ago a major advertiser donated a quarter-million dollars in food aid to Bosnians in the wake of the war there. By all accounts, the aid did a lot of good. Later, the company spent over a million dollars to advertise their good deed to American audiences. What decision would you have made?

Tobacco Advertising

Ronald Reagan once appeared in ads touting the health benefits of a cigarette brand. Times have changed. Now the space in which tobacco can be promoted in any form is growing more restricted every day. And tobacco isn't the only legal - and potentially lethal - product that poses ethical, not to mention public policy questions for us.

Ad agencies and individual advertising people make their own decisions about categories like tobacco and guns. Many say, "No, thanks" to working on certain businesses. But would you turn down the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese assignment because another division of the same corporation makes Marlboros? That's a tougher question.


There are hundreds of beer commercials on the air, but not one of them shows somebody actually drinking the beer. Does that make them more ethical? And although there's the same amount of the same chemical in a can of Bud and a shot of Jack Daniels, you don't see hard liquor advertised on television. In the case of alcohol, advertisers themselves have made these "ethical" choices. But do they make rational sense? The Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) probably don't make the same distinction between beer and bourbon that advertisers do.

Incidentally, advertising people working for free because they believe in the cause create MADD's ads. Ad folk like to work pro bono for nonprofits and good causes. Public service campaigns, including anti-smoking messages, got over $1.5 billion dollars in free media last year. Altogether, they'd be the fifth largest advertiser.

The ethical issue isn't the alcohol in the product, it's the brand name on the bottle (Smirnoff Ice). When I say the word "Smirnoff", what do you think of? - you're not alone. A rival company says this commercial is misleading you because there's no vodka in Smirnoff Ice. It's a malt beverage. Does the name "Smirnoff" mean "vodka" or is it just a name? Many of you are in the target audience. Are you being fooled here? And if you thought Smirnoff Ice contained vodka, did you also think it contained ice? You don't have to take time from your studies to decide this case. As we speak, it's being examined by the ATF (Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms).


I assume these are not unfamiliar to you. Should they be advertised? Most networks won't accept condom ads because they might offend certain audiences. Even where condom ads are okay, there are ethical choices to make about what kind of product demonstration is appropriate. And in what context? One example of context is that people in condom ads usually wear wedding rings. Because even though the biggest market probably lies outside the Marital Bed, the truth about where all those condoms are really going raises some touchy issues. If you were the Creative Director on the Trojans account, is that an ethical issue? Do you show the real truth and take the consequences?


Society imposes context on advertising ethics all the time - especially in advertising that involves children. Here's a commercial for children's shampoo. On behalf of Society, can you see what's wrong with this message?

The problem isn't something in the spot - it's what's missing. There is no adult supervision shown around the swimming pool. The Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of the Better Business Bureau (BBB), which also monitors kid's programming, requires that adults be shown supervising children when products or activities could be risky. So L'Oreal changed the commercial to model good parental behavior. Score one for Society. Another commercial for Aim toothpaste showed a child who went to the bathroom in a museum to brush her teeth. Good hygiene or not, it had to be taken off the air when teachers complained that they'd never, ever, let a child leave the group unattended.

Advertisers spend most of their waking hours trying to anticipate what their audiences will want and how they'll react. We try our best, but sometimes we miss.

Pharmaceutical advertising

Information is ethically neutral. In an academic setting like this, we welcome more information because the marketplace of ideas enables individuals to form their own judgments - which brings us to advertising about prescription drugs. Not long ago, only a doctor could tell you about a new medicine. You probably never heard of it before you walked in; you didn't know if it was the only one in the world or one of dozens that did pretty much the same thing. Now advertisers spend millions of dollars telling you about their medicines. Advertising puts more information in people's hands. Studies show that drug ads raise awareness of some conditions so more people seek treatment. And they know more about their options before seeing the doctor. That's good, right?

But of course the drug companies don't advertise their cheapest products. They promote the big moneymakers. There's more information out there, but it comes with a heavy dose of Point-of-View. Sometimes there are two points of view in the same commercial. The FDA requires that, if you promote the benefits of your medicine, you must also reveal any significant risks or side effects. So we have them to thank for the now legendary disclaimer for a weight-loss drug. The medicine worked miracles, but the company was also obliged to mention it's unpleasant side effects, with the result that the drug turned into a national joke! Does more information elevate the national dialogue?

Product placement

What are the ethics of advertising that doesn't look like advertising? In a movie chase scene, the hero and the bad guy are going to need some kind of car to drive. In the theatre we have no way of knowing whether the director chose those cars because they fulfilled his artistic vision - or because the car manufacturer made a deal with the producer. The car people get exciting exposure for their brand and she saves a nice piece of change on her production budget. Audiences like realism in movies. Made-up brands break the spell because they're obvious fakes. But the difference between something that's just a prop and something that's a product promotion is getting murkier all the time, on TV shows as well as movies.

This kind of "product placement" happens in real life, too. If you go out to a club tonight, you might see some particularly good-looking young people using a new kind of cell phone. It lets them shoot pictures of people to their friends across the room: "Here's a cute guy - want to come and meet him?" Fun stuff like that. If you're curious, maybe they've taken your picture and they'll be happy to show you the phone and let you try it. The phone is very cool. And the people are what advertisers call "aspirational" because they're way cooler than you are. They're people you want to be. They're also actors and this is a gig for them. Their job is creating the impression that using this phone is The Next Trend. If you ask them directly if they are actors, they won't lie. But if you don't ask, they won't tell. This is the reverse of the Volvo story. Volvo's demonstration was rigged, no question, but what viewers saw on TV was the truth. With this cell phone, the demonstration is the absolute truth, but the scene in the club is pure theater.

(Note: This new "guerrilla" marketing campaign for Sony Ericsson has received a great deal of negative publicity already for being deceptive in its approach.)

Subliminal advertising

There's one more thing I know you want me to talk about. If you believe subliminal advertising exists, you don't any more because I embedded a convincing subliminal denial in this talk. In case you missed it, subliminal advertising is one of those "urban legends." Try this experiment. Take a photograph of a glass of ice water or the beverage of your choice and make a fake ad out of it. Then invite people in your Psych department to find the subliminal messages in your ad. They won't disappoint you.

If a bunch of students can create subliminal messages, imagine what the pros on Madison Avenue can do.


This wouldn't be a talk about ethics in advertising without a word from our sponsor and here it comes.

80% of American companies have a written Code of Ethics. And probably 100% of you do too, if you gave it some thought and wrote it down. Ethics happen, or don't, in our relationships with others. Advertisers are in the business of communicating with thousands, even millions, of "others" all the time. That gives us thousands or millions of chances to practice what we believe every day. And try to get it right.


Ogilvy & Mather

Copyright © 2004 AEF. All rights reserved.