It is really hard to keep up an ethical reputation in the advertising field even if you've done nothing wrong. There is a preconceived notion that “advertising” is a synonym for “lie.” No matter how ethical your decisions as an agency may be, there seems like there will always be another agency or company that messes up that reputation for the entire field.
In my Ethics class, we have been studying many unethical cases where PR firms or advertising agencies have failed to keep a clean conscious within their released statements and advertisements through various outlets.
Seeing a case where Hydroxycut lied within their case studies about their “success rates” and even secretly put harmful/banned substances within their product makes it hard for anyone to trust any kind of diet pill again. Why would the public believe in these products if they've been lied to before?
I think that because of some of its unethical history and the stereotypes of advertising, the field has a lot of work to do to take back its reputation.
I heard a saying once that went something like, “When you're arrested on suspicion of a crime, your mug shot will be on the front of the newspaper. Later when you're acquitted of all crimes, the information will be somewhere in tiny letters on the back page.” Although I don't believe this totally of the newspaper industry, the saying seems to fit with the unethical reputation of advertising.
Anytime the advertising world has something negative happen, everyone knows about it. “I can't believe they would put that on television,” “That product didn't do anything it said it would,” and the complaints go on. However, who tells their friend about a truthful advertisement they saw? Probably not too many people. The good things are rarely noticed, it is the bad things that are talked about for months and years.
The Institute for Advertising Ethics have tried to start this new reputation by making a code of ethics for the advertising field. While reading through the codes, I wanted to put some of my own opinions into a couple of the principles.
I've always appreciated magazine ads that looked like articles that would fit into this kind of magazine, but I was always a little annoyed at the little black text stating “ADVERTISEMENT” in the center top of the print ad. I now know they were just being ethical. This ethical principle keeps the audience from being tricked into thinking something is news when it's really just an ad. This serves a good purpose to prevent anymore War of the Worlds radio disasters from wreaking havoc on a large audience.
This principle helps define what should be advertised to innocent audiences, like children, and what should not be. It's pretty clear that beer and cigarette advertisements should be left for the adults only, however what about the fatty foods that are being advertised?
In a time when America has its most obese children in its history, this subject has been brought up many times. Are children competent enough to understand the differences in bad foods and healthy choices when a talking dolphin cartoon is swaying them to buy a product? It is hard to say. Just like we discussed in one of the recent Ethics classes, shouldn't the education of eating habits be taught by parents? At first glance it's easy to agree with that statement wholeheartedly. Then you start thinking about the “what ifs.” What if a child is being raised by a single working mother who isn't home to make their dinner each night? Is it the mother's fault that she isn't there to educate the child about healthy eating habits? Adding in that this child is probably watching over 3 hours of TV alone, being bombarded with friendly cartoons, urging sugary drinks and snacks with more calories than a meal should have. In this instance it does seem that advertising is tricking a child and failing them.
Many food products have taken the initiative and created more positive advertising for their child audiences before laws have even been created. They promote healthier snacks and encourage playing outside, along with other forms of exercising. At the end of the day, advertisers cannot come into homes and control the amount of food a child chooses to eat. The issue at hand has no real black and white answers, but hopefully these healthier promotions can encourage children to be a little more active and keep angry parents off of agencies' backs.
The rest of the principles are a great place for advertising agencies to start when beginning the process of planning a campaign. If agencies will go through these ethical principles and make sure what they are doing will be seen as “ethical” in the mind of the consumers, advertising can continue building a new, positive reputation.