What Is Unethical Advertising?

When Does Advertising Cross The Line?

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Fingers Crossed. Getty Images

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.

Here are some examples of unethical behavior in advertising. While most of this is not illegal, it is doing nothing to improve the bad reputation of the industry.

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 what we call “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 very similar territory.

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 had read “A workout is like a girlfriend – you never cheat on it.” But the ad agency and Reebok thought the other approach was more edgy. Maybe, but also unethical. You can also ad 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. You cannot scare people into buying insurance, diet sodas or cars. Using fear to sell them is just plan 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.