Ethics in advertising: How to deal with Marketing Messages gone rogue

mac3Written By Chipo Mapungwana

Statistics in Marketing studies show that many consumers think that company communication messages are  a misrepresentation of the truth. In other words, companies “are not telling the truth” in their marketing messages. There is a growing emphasis on business ethics in recent years, because of more interest from the public on how businesses behave. Consumers are becoming  more sceptical, have less respect for businesses and business people in general.  This is fuelled largely by wider availability of information  regarding organisations  and less ability of companies to be able to keep secrets in the Internet age. Tell a lie about your company and its products and someone is bound to Google you and  find out about it.

 Consumers are  becoming increasingly concerned about:

®  Misleading or false advertising

®  Shocking, tasteless or indecent material in marketing communication messages.

®  High pressure sales especially to vulnerable groups

®  Telesales or ‘spam’ emails that invades personal privacy

®  Payment of ‘bribes’ to win business

Sins of Marketing communication

Product Misrepresentation

Misrepresentation is when false promises or incorrect statements are made by a company about its products or services in a marketing communication message. Puffery may be considered as harmless, but how much is enough? When companies sort of infers that their products may make you lose 10 kgs in  a week, should that be acceptable?

Putting indecent and immoral  material for all to see

Another emerging problem is that of using material that is unsuitable for viewing by certain age groups and even in certain cultures, in marketing messages. Visual and audio content that creates such discomfort includes graphically violent videos, abusive language , swear words and even racially or religiously derogatory terms meant to make fun of another race or religion. This also includes placing adverts that are intolerant of other cultures. For example, displaying an alcoholic drink in a Muslim community.

Stereotyping Women

Women are used in many company adverts  to sell things. Yes , we have all seen the images of the bikini clad size 6 models lying on top of the latest models of cars, strolling on the beach to advertise some health cereal, or health drink.

Alternatively, when women are shown to be using the latest dish washing liquid or soap, or doing the grocery shopping, this is another type of female stereotyping that many brands use. Are there no men out there who look after their children, do the dishes and take care of their houses? Sure ,there are and they also know a thing or two about soaps and cleaning gadgets.

Use of Children in advertising

Marketers should be careful when using children in marketing materials. One can ask how else can a diaper company  advertise its new brand of protective diapers, but do they consider that 20 years from now someone is going to point at that child and tell them that they had their behind exposed for all the world to see, because mom wanted to make a few dollars. There have been reports of children who have grown up with this stigma, growing up to be dysfunctional adults because of the ridicule suffered as a result of these types of adverts.

Unverified claims

How many times have you seen a commercial saying that this is the best, longest, fastest, tastiest, most advanced…. etc etc product of its kind on the market. Now, unless your brand has spent a lot of money on research and comparison, your company  has not right to make unverified claims.

Unhealthy Brand Comparisons

There is an increasing tendency for brands to compare themselves with other brands. The thoughts behind this maybe that, “well, if we can’t think of anything good to say about our brand, we might as well insult the other guy”. Consumers see behind this façade and they will buy the brand that they want, no matter what you say.

Forgetting to tell consumers that the product might be harmful

The media is full of horror stories of products that caused terrible harm to consumers because the manufacturers forgot to tell customers that there may be harmful reactions to their product. Hair dyes have been known to cause skin reactions  and loss of life, cell phones are exploding, some baby foods are not meant to be consumers by babies and TVs are emitting harmful cancer causing rays and the list goes on.

Where we go from here?

A general ethical requirement should be to design communications that

 show understanding of , and concern for the needs of the receiver.

®  Brand should create adverts that show concern for vulnerable groups such as children and if need be, control the timing and place when and where their adverts are shown.

®  Brands should tell the truth about their products. Need I say more? We will love you better for it.

®  Companies should be socially responsible and realise that they do not operate in a vacuum, but in multi-cultural and heterogeneous communities.

®  Products should be manufactured with, first and foremost, health and safety of consumers in mind, not the dollar sign. We don’t want our babies to choke on small bits of plastic from the toys that you have made.

®  Brand should test their products to make sure that they avoid harming consumers.

®  While we all like a bit of junk food once is a while, we don’t want to see dirty, gungy  water flowing into our sewer systems from your kitchens. And we hate to see smoke coming out of your massive chimneys, or piles of non- biodegradable plastic bottles in the streets.  Companies need to be environmentally conscious and create production systems that won’t cause our beloved planet to go “bang” one day.

For Brand reputation consulting and training, contact Chipo at


About chipomaps

A brand reputation, marketing and new media trainer and consultant. Constantly curious, constantly learning.
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6 Responses to Ethics in advertising: How to deal with Marketing Messages gone rogue

  1. Agreed 🙂 Although slightly skeptical about the point about using children in advertising – would being in a baby ad really have this effect?!

    • chipomaps says:

      Thank you so much for your comment. While advertising can be great for a child’s self esteem, in some instances , children may be teased for the adverts that they appeared in. We all laugh and smile at baby adverts, but when these kids grow up and see themselves, they may not be so happy about it. And if they get teased or ridiculed, they may turn out to be not so well adjusted. The point is for advertisers and parents to be careful because what they do has future pros and cons.

  2. dongrgic says:

    Great post. I like your summary and will use it as a guide for my marketing endeavors. Thank you.

  3. Khumo Baakile says:

    You are so on point…I have always had a problem with brands that compare themselves with other brands and make fun of their fellow competitors, they constantly attack each and every move the competitor makes. Some dwell too much on this negativity such that they forget about their own business needs…GOOD Post Chipo.

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