A Study of Perceptions in Society regarding Unethical Practices in Advertising

Article excerpt

Advertising exercises a significant influence on people and society in large, shaping their attitudes, behavior and priorities. It is considered unethical if it refers to disruption of societal values and norms established by the religious, governmental or political institutions to which one looks for moral and ethical guidance. It is also held to be deceptive if it has the tendency to deceive a substantial number of customers in a material way. This study endeavors to develop an insight about the perception of society regarding the unethical practices in advertising. An effort is made to find out the factors responsible for making an advertisement unethical. It further looks at the stakeholders to be responsible for such practices and given authority, what sorts of measures are likely to be taken for treating the responsible one. Finally, the conclusions and implications of the study are discussed.

INTRODUCTION

The gradual realization of the development of a complex distribution system, the requirements of market economy and the need to ensure a constant flow of mass production, have given rise to the development of various promotional techniques. Of these techniques, advertising was found to be of enormous value not only for producers and distributors but also for consumers. It enables contact with widely scattered and often unknown customers by assisting in selection of goods and services, based on their particular requirements. Advertising can be defined as mass and paid communication, the ultimate purpose of which is to impart information, develop attitude and induce action beneficial to the advertiser - generally the sale of a product or service (Colley, 1961). Consumers could turn to advertising for desperately-needed information that could help them reduce their anxiety in a complex and confusing world (Dyer, 1982). Consumers respond to it because of its high visibility and readily availability, and because it emanates authority and certainty (Cushman, 1990). It tells us what we must do in order to become what we wish to be (Berman, 1981). Advertising, thus, has the ability to influence our culture as well as to affect our attitudes and values regarding the most fundamental issues in our lives, even when it does not affect our buying habits (Schudson, 1984). Therefore, it is pertinent to say that it has a profound impact on how people, in particular and society, in general, understand life, the world and themselves.

The above discussion subsequently leads us towards identifying the impact of advertising particularly the social impact. Advertising exercises a significant influence on people and society in large, shaping their attitudes, behavior, and priorities. However, advertising, because of its visibility has been particularly open to criticism (Hunt et al, 1990) and practitioners are particularly uneasy about the truthfulness and ultimate social impact of advertising (Greyser and Reece, 1971). Pollay (1986), further, suggests that advertising has profound consequences due to its pervasiveness, stereotypical portrayals, manipulative and persuasive nature, preoccupation with materialism and consumption, frequent use of sex appeals and lack of information. Some other criticisms include advertising's targeting practices to potentially vulnerable groups such as children, minorities and the disadvantaged (Christians et al, 1991); overly dramatic and increasingly graphic use of fear appeals (LaTour and Zahra, 1989); unethical or irresponsible handling of potentially harmful or offensive products (Kohn and Smart, 1984; and Christians et al., 1991). It is considered unethical if it refers to disruption of societal values and norms established by the religious, governmental, or political institutions to which one looks for moral and ethical guidance. It is also held to be deceptive if it has the tendency to deceive a substantial number of customers in a material way. Ironically, many advertising related issues are left to the discretion of the advertiser which might be based on a variety of considerations, including die objective of the advertising campaign, the attitudes of the target authence, and the philosophies of the agency and the advertiser, and legal precedent and particularly on ethical concerns (Wells and Burnet, 1998). …