By: Matthew Larson
People in advertising spend a lot of time handling ethical issues, and those issues are almost never crystal clear. They're subtle, shades-of-gray issues that have a great weight on the success of a message. My first example of an ethical issue comes from an infamous Volvo commercial. In a real-life monster truck show, the Volvo was the only car left uncrushed; this was a great idea for a commercial! However, the film company needed to shoot several takes. So they reinforced the beams inside the car to withstand the continuous crushing. When released to the press, Volvo was furious and their ad agency got fired, ultimately going out of business. There was no doubt that the demo was rigged. But, what it showed was the truth: if a monster truck runs over you once, are you safer in the Volvo?
As consumers we are exposed to these types of messages and ad campaigns daily. Finding out that a message isn’t ethical or that it is falsely demonstrating a product or service could be detrimental to a business’s appearance. Therefore, ad companies continuously monitor their messages and even before they break out for consumers to view they are tested. An ethical brainteaser that consumers deal with every day is "What can you simulate and entice to illustrate the truth?" Before you answer "nothing!” one could ask themself if a higher purpose would be served if Pampers and Kotex commercials showed the real thing instead of that fake blue water. There are just some things that can’t be shown.
Ads for reputable companies are almost never false. They have to be able to prove what they say to their own corporate counsel. Ad agencies have lawyers, and network approval committees that work regulating alongside the FDA and the FTC. With at least five different government agencies looking over advertisings shoulder, the cost of being caught cheating is simply too high. In addition, the individuals inside a company want to be able to look at themselves in the mirror. Some like to think of business people as belonging to some other species, but remember that most of them are you a few years from now. The simple fact is that humans possess feelings. We are emotionally charged and anything could offend consumers, so ethics is an ongoing issue for advertising companies.
Advertising, like human beings, lives where reason meets desire. A few years ago, Coca-Cola invented a better product. No consumer product had ever been so thoroughly tested with so many consumers. This new Coke was proven to be much better. But consumers not only didn't buy it, they demonstrated against it. A lot of what they loved about "real" Coke wasn't inside the bottle. It was the idea of Coke and their experiences with it and how those experiences were connected to so much of what we imagine life in America should be like. Advertising isn't just about the things we buy. It's about how we feel about things, including ourselves. It’s the image associated with any advertisement we see, we place ourselves in that role. We can physically go to that place in time and exist because of the image projected.
Ethical issues in advertising cover a wide variety of areas. Advertisers have to be careful how they advertise tobacco, alcohol, condoms and pharmaceuticals. A common misconception is that tobacco ads should be outlawed from particular magazines and television stations. However, these business’s make money based on the consumers they can get to smoke. Same goes for alcohol, the only way they can make money is by promoting beer and hard liquor during sporting events and other heavily watched television programs. So how do these companies get a positive message across? Recently alcohol companies started putting drink responsibly after the ad runs on air. This is just an added safety precaution. Issues of ethics will always exist in advertising; consumers will always be sensitive to certain material. Companies will continue to deal with consumers and their relation to products.