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Advertising Ethics

Ethics in advertising

Ethics in advertising has in recent years become a much debated and contentious issue. In this regard it is important to understand what is meant by advertising ethics and why it is such an important issue particularly in the contemporary world.

In the first instance, as Wallace Snyder (2008) states, the advertizing industry is extremely influential and a powerful medium that can and does have a very significant impact on society. This power and influence brings with it certain responsibilities. Snyder makes reference to the fact that "the economic activity generated by advertising supports 21 million of the 138 million jobs in the United States." (Snyder, 2008, p.8) the figures and facts which show the economic significance of advertising can be augmented and supported by many other studies and findings in this field. For example as one pundit states,

Advertising is big business. Billions of dollars are spent each MONTH on advertising. Many industries exist solely due to the influx of money advertising brings in. The cable TV industry, magazines, newspapers and many other media and non-media industries would be drastically changed if they couldn't sell advertising space.

(Ethics in Advertising: Rubak)

The fact that this industry is so powerful and influential therefore places stress and emphasis on forms of regulation. This again raises a contentious issue as the industry baulks at outside regulation in a free and independent economic system.

Another related and significant aspect also mentioned by Snyder in his article the Ethical Consequences of Your Advertising Matter is that the industry is generally not viewed in a very positive light by the general public. In essence the general public feels that the advertising industry has very little ethical integrity and therefore is not to be trusted. "the public still has little regard for the profession." (Snyder, 2008, p.8) This is an increasingly important factor for the industry if one takes into account the nature of modern communications and the way that technological advancements have affected and impacted on the industry in terms of the immediacy of communication. This in turn has potentially negative consequences for the "bottom line" and question of financial profit.

As a result, there is, in Snyder's opinion, an increasing need for creation of a more ethically aware advertizing industry. Snyder also notes the increasing importance of ethical considerations of taste and decency in the industry. This and other related contentious issues will be discussed in greater depth in this paper.

The central thesis of this paper is that Snyder's views on ethics and particularly on the importance of taste and decency are well founded and extremely important for a number of reasons. The first is purely economic and suggests that the public image of the advertising industry needs to be enhanced. This also refers to the issue of brand marketing and the impact that poor taste has on the viability of the product being advertized. The second is that the advertising industry is too large and influential to avoid its essential ethical responsibly for society. It will be argued that these two aspects are not mutually exclusive and that importance of the internal regulation of taste and decency is an essential factor in the future growth and development of the advertising industry.

2. Brief overview of ethics in advertising

In order to place the views that Snyder puts forward in context it is important to very briefly discuss the place of ethics in the business and economic context. Simply stated, ethics is concerned with whether certain actions or forms of behavior are right or wrong. This can be succinctly stated as follows: "The field of ethics, also called moral philosophy, involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior." (Ethics: The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) This statement however raises many difficult issues and problems -- for example, who determines what is right or wrong?

On the one hand there is the utltilitarian approach that was advocated by thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 19th Century. They suggested that ethical action was concerned with providing "... The greatest balance of good over evil." (Ethics: The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) on the other hand there is the view that economic ethics is concerned not only with utilitarian concerns but in fact affects the entire society; which places a great responsibility on those who determine ethical standards. In this regard and in a contemporary context the power and influence of the advertising industry places it in a position where the ethical standards that it adheres to have a wide-ranging and important effect on society.

Therefore, from one point-of-view advertising as a purely economic enterprise is concerned with profit and wealth. On the other hand there is an increasing concern and debate about the issue of ethical responsibility and integrity in the business and economic world. Recent controversies, such as the Enron scandal have also highlighted the issue of ethics in economics and business.

Therefore many critics are of the opinion that a more involved and responsible attitude should be developed in the advertising industry with regard to ethical concerns. An important point made by theorists is that, "The nature of modern economics has been substantially impoverished by the distance that has grown between economics and ethics [economics] can be more productive by paying greater and more explicit attention to the ethical considerations that shape human behaviour and judgement." (Sen, 1987, p 7)

The above point is one that Snyder refers to and emphasizes in the Ethical Consequences of Your Advertising Matter and in many other column and articles. As he and other pundits suggest, these two seemingly differing points-of-view - that advertising is concerned with profit and the view that it also has an ethical and social responsibility -- are not necessarily divergent. Rather it is suggested that both these standpoints should be integrated in order to facilitate a more positive future for the industry.

This view of the modern importance of ethical standards is supported in many studies and by an increasing number of pundits. The following extract sums up the contemporary perceptions of business and advertising ethics.

As recently as a decade ago, many companies viewed business ethics only in terms of administrative compliance with legal standards and adherence to internal rules and regulations. Today the situation is different. Attention to business ethics is on the rise across the world and many companies realize that in order to succeed, they must earn the respect and confidence of their customers.

(Business ethics and corporate social responsibility, 2005)

This view, which is also subscribed to by Snyder, is cognizant of the importance of customer behavior and reactions to advertising -- particularly with regard to the issue of taste and decency.

3. Snyder's views on advertizing ethics, taste and decency

Taking the above discussion into account we can better examine the views that Snyder suggests about modern ethics in advertising. Snyder states that the following three aspects as being cardinal to the contemporary advertizing industry.

The first is the issue of truth. This is an area where there is general agreement as to need for ethical standards. As one pundit notes;

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.

(Ethics in Advertising)

Snyder emphasizes the importance of ethical fairness in that "Fairness includes both the nature of the audience and the nature of the product or service." (Snyder, 2008, p.8) This also refers to the sensitivity that advertisers have to observe in dealing with culturally diverse markets. This relates to what is possibly the more controversial aspect of his vision of advertising ethics; namely the importance of taste and decency.

Taste and decency poses a number of problematic questions. The most obvious of these is who exactly determines or defines taste and decency. While other ethical aspects such as fairness are more easily defined and agreed on, this is often not the case with the concept of decency.

Snyder refers in this regard to the ethical mandate of the American Advertising Federation (1994) which states that, " Advertising shall be free of statements, illustrations or implications that are offensive to good taste or public decency." (Snyder, 2008, p.8/9) Another important aspect of this mandate is that the application of taste and decency ethics is not governmentally controlled but is left to the advertisers themselves to determine these standards.

Snyder goes on to expand on this area of ethics as follows: he emphatically states that, "We can - and must -- do much better in the area of taste and decency." (Snyder, 2008, p.8/9) Furthermore he also states that, "While clear-cut standards are not possible, advertisers must demonstrate greater self-restraint… [END OF PREVIEW]

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