Importance of ethical principles in advertising | Page 2 | Sunday Observer

Importance of ethical principles in advertising

23 May, 2021

Leo Burnett, recognised as one of the most influential advertisers in the 20th century said “Anyone who thinks that people can be fooled or pushed around has an inaccurate and pretty low estimate of people – and he won’t do very well in advertising.” This quote alone explains the importance of adhering to ethics when a common message is given to the public at large to sell a product or service. 

Ethics are defined as a distinct set of principles that govern the ways of communication that take place between a buyer and a seller. Hence, respecting ethical principles that provide moral and social responsibility is the first important reason in delivering a message to customers. 

In modern society, we come across various types of advertisements, carrying both ethical and unethical messages. While ethical advertisements are dependable and they mean social responsibility, the advertisements fall into the purview of the unethical category that delivers morally and socially damaging contents to the public at large. However, advertising is an essential element in society, especially in a market economy such as Sri Lanka.  

Although the advertisements are created to a target audience, the reach of an advertisement, whether it is conventional, digital, or social media, is mostly unlimited. Hence, the message is watched, seen, or read by a much larger and wider audience than the target segment.  

Abusive, misleading, or falsified advertisements that are falling out of line appear in the media every day. Amidst these unethical practices, professional advertisers who create advertisements for successful companies take a significant personal interest to deliver good messages through their creations. 

Truthful advertising

Moral principles are essential for an organisation to be responsible for the needs of its customers. By providing justifiable information to customers by way of truthful advertising helps them to make reasonable judgments on the product or service they need to purchase.  Therefore, organisations need to divulge that they operate on moral values where customers feel that the organisation cares about what they need. This can make them feel secure with the company and the product.   

An ethical advertisement does not give incorrect information deliberately, makes false claims, fabricated stories or unsubstantiated facts. Regrettably, today there are advertisements with either false or exaggerated stories with gross disregard to ethical norms and principles.  

Some advertisements claim that their products are the best, most competitive, better than all other similar products, more cost-effective, longer-lasting, more beneficial, and so forth. However, in reality, no product can have all these characteristics. This reveals that some of these claims can be false and misleading. 

The best examples for these types of unethical advertisements are those made for children as the target segment. Particularly, glossy and attractive advertisements made for snacks and candy for kids often are misleading but convince them to purchase. Also, advertisements made by using children as actors for certain products are common. There are ample examples that exist in the market for exploiting children.   

Very often children are being used for advertisements as they are major sellers of products with the power to convince customers more intensely. Also, usually, advertisements with children are more appealing to customers.

However, children also are being misused in advertisements sometimes, particularly when there are no regulators to monitor unethical advertisements. 


Responsible companies use children in their advertisements very carefully and only if there is a direct relevance. Although getting children into advertisements is productive, it also poses a danger of negative social reaction if used unethically. 

Advertisers must believe in what they create honestly and genuinely. To bring positive results, the customers should understand the contents and influence them to act on such content. Contrarily, if advertisers think that they can take customers for a ride by willfully giving wrong information, they undoubtedly lose customer trust in the long run. Many such advertisements appear constantly in the media although the products or services they represent most often fail to succeed in the market.

In Sri Lanka due to the intense competition and price war, organisations shift from what is best for the society in the long run and concentrate more on meeting the competition as a short-term measure. The opinion of advertisers is that although ethics have to be practiced, in the context of their job, they have to concentrate on the marketing success of an advertisement more.   

For example, comparative advertising is done by mentioning a competitive product to imply the inferiority of the competitor. At times comparative advertisements are used to put down or slander rival firms or products without basis or facts. This leads to unhealthy competition in the market.

As notable examples, the world has seen the infamous ‘Cola War’ between soft drink giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi in the 1980s where one of them ran a series of advertising campaigns that was branded as grossly unethical at the time. 

Similarly, in Sri Lanka, two of the leading automobile agencies (the names cannot be mentioned for ethical reasons) competed with each other where one of them repeatedly published abusive and disparaging contents about the other openly. Many similar incidents occurred in Sri Lanka in the recent past where some of which led to fierce legal battles.  

The internet and social media platforms are the most misused vehicles of unethical advertising. These two have created many cost-effective and creative ways for businesses and markets to communicate with their respective clienteles. Nevertheless, in the absence of regulators and properly laid down guidelines or ethical standards, the trend is to use the wild-west of advertising. 

Lack of understanding

Currently, digital advertisements are created most often by a relatively young group of advertisers. Lack of understanding about the legalities and moral responsibilities in their creations can lead to unethical practices in digital advertising.    

Internet advertisers are using pop-ups and fake dialog boxes. The pop-up or pop-under appears in a small window of the main browser screen. The advertiser intends that the user will unconsciously click the window while attempting to close it where they get directly connected to the advertiser’s site without the consent of the user. This is commonly taking place and a common experience to anybody using the internet.  

Even though advertisers use this tactic to get internet users to involuntarily enter into their sites, research shows that pop-ups are one of the most disliked techniques in online advertising. Despite the high click-through obtained by the pop-ups or dialog boxes, the intended customer response is not achieved as most often the click is generated involuntarily.  

Ethical advertising is supposed to respect consumers and their views. Advertisement that complies with ethical principles helps to end the widespread view that the advertising misleads or confuses consumers.  

Ethical advertising benefits the image of a brand or an organisation. Ethics can be a great opportunity to differentiate themselves from competitors.

It also helps the advertiser to create an exemplary and viable business model. The best benefit is that with time customers build up a trusty relationship with such organisations.   

Advertisers must treat the target audience regardless of what the product is. Extra care must be given to messages directed at children and other susceptible audiences to avoid misunderstandings. Advertising and all the other marketing professionals have an obligation to apply the highest level of personal ethics in creating commercial messages to the consumers. 

By acting ethically, commercial entities can make a distinct difference in the mindset of their customers. Customers will support the companies with ethical practices that ultimately bring in brand loyalists who strongly believe in what the company stands for.  These messages from the organisations are carried out to the masses with advertisements or PR campaigns. Therefore, the most important criteria of the process are to communicate with the customers through justifiable advertising