Transmitting a message to audiences using means such as advertising always comes with the risk of having a negative impact on targeted people. This is why the advertising industry follows strict regulations and is monitored by regulatory bodies throughout the world. It is very easy to act in an unethical manner, especially when it comes to advertising to children or using various psychological tactics to determine demand. Here are some of the biggest ethical issues in advertising today and throughout the last decades:
Advertising to children
Although this type of advertising is highly regulated, many experts in the field and theoreticians are against advertising to children first of all because this category does not have the same cognitive skills as adults and consider every fact they hear to be true. Children will not understand that product assets are emphasized and embellished just to make the sale. Furthermore, advertising is considered to instil materialism in children, as they will think they need objects in order to be accepted by society and to be appreciated by people around them.
Advertising harmful products
Types of harmful products include cigarettes, alcohol, fast food, and pharmaceuticals. This is why advertising such items is strictly regulated and for instance, cigarette advertising is only allowed in specific media, while pharmaceutical ads need to list side effects.
Some of the most effective advertising tactics can be unethical, such as emotional appeals, subliminal advertising, propaganda, and taking advantage of less educated people. Businesses are not allowed to use psychologically manipulative tactics to promote their products and services, but even in today’s strictly regulated advertising world, such slips from the norm do happen.
Advertising materials end up in the garbage bin and eventually in the environment, causing pollution. Pollution is also caused during the manufacturing process of these materials, and by increasing consumption of various products. Some of the most blamed practices are oversize packaging, although every aspect in the advertising industry has an effect on the environment.
Increasing consumption and waste
The role of advertising is to sell more by convincing audiences they should buy products and services. People end up wanting products or just thinking they need them, which adds fuel to the fire of consumerism. Furthermore, this determines people to waste more, because they need to throw things in order to buy new ones, as advertisements encourage them.
Advertising unhealthy food
Many food ads promote products like sweets, snacks, and ice cream which are unhealthy and contribute to the obesity epidemic worldwide. Wholesome, healthy foods are rarely advertised, and this is a major issue as studies have demonstrated what we already know: children choose to eat what they see on TV commercials, and adults are also influenced by promotional messages, although they have increased discernment and could abstain from unhealthy foods.
Cluttering public spaces
Nowadays it is impossible to imagine an urban setting without advertising. Advertising invades public space and in the end it also enters the private sphere of people, affecting privacy. Some voices have called advertising a new type of dictatorship one cannot escape, as the public space has been transformed into a giant billboard for ads of all kinds.
This point derives from the previous – as the public space is invaded with more and more ads, each business has to push further and to make more and more efforts for their message to have impact on the public. There is simply no more space for commercialism, and the human brain has gotten used to filtering these messages, no matter how insistent they are.
Sexism, stereotyping, and discrimination
The messages we are subjected to shape the way we think, and advertising has a huge impact on children and less educated individuals. For instance, women’s image in advertising is very criticized for the following aspects: being depicted as a toy for the self-affirmation of men, serving men and children and reacting to every little demand, not being able to complete the simplest operations, doing menial work for others who are completing more complex tasks, and being presented as an expert only in fields like cosmetics, fashion, food, cleaning, and at the most, medicine.
Promoting unreal body images
Another harmful stereotype promoted in advertising is represented by thin, young bodies. People are objectified by selecting only those actors or models who match the standards for what is considered beautiful and desirable. What is seen as beautiful in other cultures or traits of the average people are left out, and being subjected to this standard every day, year after year, puts pressure on people and makes them feel unhappy about their appearance.
Doing business or working in the advertising world breeds a constant dilemma for those with strong ethics and who want to avoid doing harm to consumers. On the other hand, we, customers, need to educate ourselves and avoid using products that do us harm or at least limit the amount we buy and consume.