What Is Unethical Advertising?

When and How Does Advertising Cross The Line?

Unethical Behavior
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Advertising, like any legitimate industry out there, is regulated. There are certain practices which have become outlawed over the years, and we have definitely come a long way from the days of snake oil salesmen, subliminal ads, and out-and-out lies.

BUT, that’s not to say that advertising is innocent. While there are rules that agencies cannot break, they can bend them to make their point. Quite often, they bend them a lot. And then there are cases when some agencies, or businesses, blatantly break the law with schemes like "Bait 'n' Switch" or false advertising. 

Unethical vs. Illegal. What's the Difference?

Sometimes, advertising can be both. For example, the aforementioned "Bait 'n' Switch" scam is not only unethical but has been made illegal. If an advertiser or business uses the practice, they are breaking the law and can face severe consequences. 

But what about just unethical advertising? Well, being unethical means not adhering to the proper rules of conduct for the industry, and also lacking moral principles. In everyday life, examples of this include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Lying to your spouse about money or an affair
  • Taking credit at work on a project you didn't do
  • Exaggerating skills on your resume to get the job
  • Gossiping about a friend or family member

While these are not examples of good behavior, you're not really breaking any laws here. You're just relaxing your moral code to get what you want. 

The same can be true of a business. For example, a doctor or dentist dating a patient is not against the law, but it is definitely considered unethical. Or, if a company consistently asks a salaried employee to work longer than 40 hours week after week, leaving him or her exhausted and highly stressed, that's unethical. 

So, now that we have established where the line is drawn, here are some examples of how advertisers, marketers, and businesses walk that fine line of unethical, but not illegal, behavior.

Any “Cash Advance” or “Payday” Loan Ad

Let’s be really clear here. Firms behind these loans are not breaking any laws. However, their advertising preys on people who are desperately in need of money to pay for food, bills, and other essential life purchases. The average annual income of a typical payday loan customer is less than $23,000.

These loans are a legalized form of “loan sharking,” offering quick and easy money but hiding the insanely high-interest rates in the small legal print at the foot of the ad. How high? A typical payday loan comes with an interest rate of between 391 and 521 percent. Of course, you won’t see that advertised prominently. And that’s both predatory and ethically bankrupt.


Most Political Advertising

Once again, political ads do not break any laws. Well, none that can be prosecuted anyway. But most political ads are referred to as “attack ads,” and they paint a very poor picture of the opposing politician. These ads are designed to scare people into voting for the politician responsible for the ad, making it seem like the whole world will come to an end if you elect the wrong person.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. In the USA, the opposing political parties are divided by wedge issues (gay marriage, abortion, gun rights), but when it comes to the issues that really affect the running of the country, they’re in a very similar territory. Sadly, this is not likely to change anytime soon. Attack ads, while unethical, are proven to work time and again. Indeed, many people who voted in the last election said they did not really vote for Donald Trump, they just didn't want Hillary Clinton in power.

It was an anti-vote, based on a series of powerful attack ads run by the Trump campaign. 


Anything That Promotes Unethical Behavior

Something that also crosses the line is the promotion of behavior that is immoral or unethical. A recent example of this is the Reebok ad that was quite happy to encourage infidelity. The headline read “Cheat on your girlfriend, not on your workout.” It could quite easily have read “A workout is like a girlfriend – you never cheat on it.” But the ad agency and Reebok thought the other approach was edgier. Maybe, but also unethical. You can also add to this list the following: dangerous driving, excessive drinking, unruly or anti-social behavior; cruelty to animals; neglect of children.


Using Fear as a Motivator

The old saying “if it bleeds, it leads” does not only apply to journalism. Advertising agencies and clients love fear tactics. But, using them without the correct justification is unethical. If you are trying to promote something that will save lives, like anti-drinking and driving, anti-tailgating, the dangers of domestic violence, anti-smoking, or anything else that will do a direct public good, then fear is justifiable.

However, some agencies use fear in all the wrong places. For example, telling people just how horrible their lives will be if they don't have a certain type of insurance. Or, hinting that without this type of alarm on your property, you'll be raided and killed in a home invasion. You should not scare people into buying anything; using unjustifiable fear is just plain wrong.

Misleading Claims

Finally, we come to the massive exaggeration of the truth. Remember when KFC decided to rebrand itself as Kitchen Fresh Chicken, because fried food was the devil? It not only misled people, it basically promoted fried chicken as a healthy piece of food to eat. What?! We all know what KFC is, and it is not health food. If any advertising makes claims that just completely mislead the public, then it is unethical. Of course, there is also a line between misleading, and crazy exaggeration. No-one has ever really thought that if you spray your arms with a deodorant you'll be chased down the street by dozens of Victoria's Secret models.

However, if you say your deodorant will keep you fresh and dry for a week, when in fact it only works for a day, then that's not only misleading ​but potentially a class action case in the making.