Five Points for Advertising Ethics

The ADMERICA! conference in Boca Raton, Florida happened in late May this year, and I had the pleasure to attend one of my favorite workshops right out of the gate Thursday morning (It is my intent to use at least five sports cliches in this recap… two down already, and I’m only in sentence one. Score! Um, make that three… stay tuned.)

The professional development workshop was the Advertising Ethics Certification Program, and the panelists included Linda Thomas Brooks, President of gearDigital, Jim Norton, Head of Global Media Sales for AOL and Mike Kelly, Chairman of ColSpace. Each provided their insight into advertising ethics, and they were joined by moderator Wally Snyder to dispel the myth that most people think…“There are no ethics in advertising.” If that were the case, this would be a very short blog post.

The question is: why do people feel this way?

Consumers have no problem dissing our industry, or questioning the ethics in advertising. They feel this way because our industry shares much of the blame about this misconception because of its tumultuous start.  Yes, in advertising’s early days, claims of medical miracles of snake oil, ointments, or even cigarettes were outlandish.  The benefits of products and services were also falsified because regulations were not in place to police them. But over the years, the advertising industry, and the AAF has worked with municipalities, self-regulated, and through accountability and trust have healed this negative conception. But ethics don’t stop with the claim substantiation of products and services. Ethics transcends to employee behavior, dealing with clients and vendors, and business partners.

“We are an industry that trades on trust.” – Mike Kelly

And it’s this trust, honesty and transparency that define ethics. It’s doing the right thing even if it costs you more money.  It’s taking your lumps when the easy way out would be to pass blame, and it’s being fair and truthful in representing you and your clients’ brands. Principles and practices for advertising ethics are stronger than ever. But ethics will, and always will be, only as good at the people to uphold them, who work in our agencies and companies.

Linda states, “It’s not enough to just have a mission statement hanging on the wall, but how do you live it?” Better yet, do your employees live it? When you make tough ethical decisions, it’s uplifting to the entire organization. Do your clients understand your position? When you tell ethical stories you gain trust from the very clients that entrust you with their brand.

We at the AAF and the Institute for Advertising Ethics, serve a high ethical standard in serving the public and have an understanding that our industry has an obligation to exercise the highest level of personal ethics when creating content and disseminate that content to consumers.

As an industry, we need to clearly distinguish advertising, public relations and corporate communications from news and editorial content both online and offline. In the digital age this is becoming increasingly difficult, but consumers are savvy and are supporting and not supporting brands based on their authenticity and honesty (Read: ethics). In the race to be the first to break news stories, twitter feeds, Reddit, or any other social media sites have become the go-to source, and dangerously so. We as advertisers need to have transparency for disclosing the identity of endorsements. Finally, we should always treat consumers fairly based on the nature of the audience to whom the ads are directed.

Steps and laws are in place to respect personal privacy in marketing communications, and choice to participate or opt out should be transparent and easily made. User behaviors have always been tracked even in the heyday of print or broadcast; however, Mike Kelly states, “Information about shopping habits has always been used by marketers… but instant (online) use of information creates ethical dilemmas for marketers to serving up advertising.”  This is why opt out measures need to be in place in all forms of online communications and needs to be transparent.

Our industry has become very good at self-regulation and has assisted the creation of many federal, state, and local laws to ensure to the public we have an obligation to continuously revise and champion those initiatives. Advertisers and their agencies should routinely discuss potential ethical concerns early on in the ideation process.

Five ethical points to keep in mind:

  1. Consumers rank ethics as central to a company being seen as a good corporate citizen.
  2. Ethics can determine the price consumers are willing to pay for a product. Organics are a great example.

  3. Honest advertising is the main aspect as to whether a company is considered ethical. So, in short: Don’t lie.

  4. Truthful advertising is protected by the first amendment. Free speech is not in place to allow deceitful marketing.

  5. Our industry is built on trust, and ethics are best when looked at as an individual responsibility so step up and give 110 percent. (As promised… the last two sports clichés.)


This blog post was originally published on May 31st, 2014 on the AAF Blog and can be found here.