Ethics in Advertising Decisionmaking: Implications for Reducing the Incidence of Deceptive Advertising

By Davis, Joel J. | The Journal of Consumer Affairs, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Ethics in Advertising Decisionmaking: Implications for Reducing the Incidence of Deceptive Advertising


Davis, Joel J., The Journal of Consumer Affairs


Advertising exerts a significant impact on consumers' lives (Pollay 1986). On the positive side, advertising has discouraged participation in harmful behaviors (such as drunk driving and drug use), encouraged participation in socially beneficial behaviors (such as conservation and physical fitness), and provided detailed information which consumers need to accurately conduct product evaluations. On the negative side, advertising has misled and deceived consumers resulting in misinformed and inappropriate (and, in the case of health and environmental products, potentially dangerous) product selections.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has primary responsibility for review, regulation, and, when appropriate, elimination of deceptive advertising. However, in response to significant reductions in staffing, the FTC has allocated its resources to areas and claims felt to have the greatest detrimental impact on the consumer.(1) Individual states have attempted to fill the regulatory void left by the FTC but a lack of resources also hinders these efforts. As a consequence, less significant but still deceptive advertising may go unregulated. These latter types of deceptive practices may include

* advertising puffery (when believed by consumers), typically defined as the use of exaggeration, superlatives, or hyperbole (Cunningham and Cunningham 1977; Kamins and Marks 1987).

* general, rather than detailed, descriptions of product features that lead consumers to draw incorrect inferences about product benefits and performance (Alwitt and Mitchell 1985; Harris et al. 1989).

* qualifiers and vague quantifiers. An advertiser might state, "Why do many doctors recommend our aspirin? It may be because of our special formulation." This technique is used in the hope that the consumer will interpret the copy to mean "Most doctors recommend our aspirin because of our special formulation."

* small (and, in the case of television, fleeting) qualifiers and disclaimers which generally fail to provide the consumer with important product-related information (Foxman, Muehling, and Moore 1988).

Because current regulatory control is insufficient to reduce or eliminate deceptive advertising practices, the task is to identify other methods for reducing the incidence of deceptive advertising practices. Discussions of alternate approaches for reducing the incidence of deceptive advertising are typically framed in terms of economic or political theory: for example, relative appeal of regulatory versus free market solutions (Bloom 1989). As might be expected given the divergence of opinion reflected in these perspectives, no consensus for the "best" approach exists.

This research examines the problem from a different perspective. One means for altering an individual's behavior is to first identify the factors which exert the greatest influence on decisionmaking and then develop programs, communications, or activities that specifically target, or at minimum recognize the existence of, these factors (Ajzen 1985; Albert, Aschenbrenner, and Schmalhofer 1988; Fishbein and Ajzen 1975). In other words, once the dominant influences on decisionmaking are identified it is then possible to develop programs that (1) establish or reinforce those influences which lead to decisions in the consumer interest and (2) reduce or eliminate those influences which lead to decisions counter to the consumer interest.

Research suggests a number of competing external and internal factors may influence how advertising professionals evaluate alternate decisions related to advertising content and policy (Akaah and Riordan 1989; Strong and Meyer 1992). External influence factors include legal considerations such as laws and regulations, business/performance results (e.g., anticipated business or economic outcomes of the decision), general industry considerations (e.g., standards and professional codes of conduct), corporate considerations (e.

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