Commercial advertising is a phenomenon closely associated with capitalist consumer culture. The ubiquitous ad space that engulfs urban human habitation has no parallels in terms of its reach and influence. Advertising performs a key role in industrial economies and its infiltration into both print and online formats is unlikely to abate. With ad spends always on ascent it is not difficult to understand why advertising businesses expect maximum Return on Investment (ROI) on their ad spends. Advertisers’ intention is to make their products/services appear very attractive to a broad consumer base. Advertising is not inherently sinister, but its practical application as of today makes it ethically dubious. In other words, the concept of marketing commodities in a consumer market had long drawn the criticism of ethicists. The fundamentally weak moral imperative of capitalist culture makes this outcome inevitable. As a result, marketing strategies in industrial societies have attracted flak and condemnation from the judicious members of society – the United Kingdom being no exception.
Benjamin Disraeli bemoaned more than a century back “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” (Edman, 2001, p.417) It would be apt to add advertising to this list, especially since the latter half of the twentieth century. In this view,
“Advertising, like statistics, is recognized commonly as a medium where facts can be interpreted, twisted, and emphasized according to the advertiser’s needs. When business judgment and professional ethics fail to enforce reasonable standards, the courts may have to decide if advertisers have twisted the facts too far.” (Edman, 2001, p.417)
There is a basic economic theory of consumer behaviour which says that consumers make rational choices – buying only products and services they want and shunning those that are unnecessary or overpriced. But a brief glance at the shelves of our department stores would reveal how fallacious this theory is. The fact of the matter is, to a large part, consumers are made to act irrationally, to buy products and services they don’t want and can’t afford. The boom in the credit card industry since the 1970s (across all advanced societies) is a testament to how people have accustomed themselves to living on debt. (Scott, 2004, p.187)
Advertisers claim that their ad campaigns are designed to ‘educate’ the target audience about the advantages and benefits of a particular product. There is also the implicit assumption that the product thus promoted is essential to living a comfortable life. But both of these claims are usually untrue. Far from informing the public, ad campaigns mislead or misinform them. And it stands to reason that basic necessities of life need no promotion. For example, people will continue to buy wheat flour and other staple food items despite total lack of advertisement for the same. In this scenario, the theory that most advertisements are designed to sell products that people don’t need becomes evident. As for the theory that they pay with money they don’t have, one only needs to look at the frequency of economic depression and recession over the last four centuries. At the same time that globalization and free flow of capital took off across the world, the boom in credit card usage happened concurrently. This resulted in a society that runs perennially on debt. The global economic meltdown of 2008 was due to the collapse of sub-prime housing loans that were promoted aggressively in the years leading up to the crisis. (Mujtaba, 2005, p.60)
Beyond the twin sins perpetuated by advertising – selling people things they don’t need and making them pay with money they don’t have – there is a more sinister side to the concept. A case in point is the drug Vioxx, which attracted several consumer lawsuits after being pitched for sale by Olympic gold medallist figure-skater Dorothy Hamill. In this case, so many thousands of patients’ lives are endangered due to selective disclosure of all the side-effects and risk factors of the drug. When consumers are misled into believing that the claims made by an advertisement are correct, when in reality they are not, the situation constitutes a ‘harm’ directed toward consumers. People act upon their assumptions and beliefs; and hence a misled consumer “may be tempted to buy the advertised product. More consumers are likely to buy the advertised product as a result of the ad claim because they believe it to be true”. (Mujtaba, 2005, p.61)
An area of concern regarding ethical marketing practices is the presently fashionable marketing technique that tries to attract target consumers in such a manner that they do not even realize they’re dealing with an advertisement. And quite rightly, this has attracted the ire of media watchdogs such as Commercial Alert. As marketing messages get embedded and ingrained into “new, apparently casual conversation and unbranded commercial websites, new legal and ethical questions about when marketing should be labelled as such are emerging fast” (Marks, 2005, p.31). This recent development poses a risk for gullible internet users, for whom the credibility of a claim made online is difficult to assess. In spite of a few regulatory efforts on part of the governing authorities, the situation remains tense. Recently advocacy group Commercial Alert “called on 305 book editors not to review what it said was an ad, not a young-adult novel”. (Marks, 2005) This episode is the most recent of many marketing tactics that has brought forth disclosure questions – especially for global marketing brands such as P&G – as it indicates an increasing willingness on part of marketers to try non-traditional and non-ethical tactics (Marks, 2005, p.31). This also makes it clear that the beyond catering to the basic needs of citizens, advertisements attempt to create a longing for fashionable consumption that borders on greed and luxury.
Clearly, claiming a product or a service to be essential to life when it is not (sometimes it can even be harmful) is attempting to deceive gullible consumers. Researcher Aaker was the first to formulate the now-common view that advertisements can also mislead the consumer. According to him, deception is said to exist when “the output of the perceptual process (a) differs from the reality of the situation and (b) affects the buying behaviour to the detriment of the consumer”. (Nagar, 2009, p.106)
Many companies interweave social issues with their advertisement campaigns to show they care about issues and causes dear to the general public, from illnesses such as AIDS to the environment to funding educational institutions. No one expects brands to go un-noticed in these campaigns, but too much “brand bull-horning” has left the public with sentiments of suspicion and disillusionment. They have come to the conclusion that it’s more about selling the product than about working for the cause. This is a blatant violation of public trust. It is also a cheap way of gaining publicity for their products. Such marketing strategies are despicable and need to be curbed by the authorities concerned.