A Look Into the Secret World of Unethical Advertising

Unethical advertising is everywhere. It can be found on TV, in magazines, on billboards, all over your favorite websites, and throughout social media. Even with the advent of adblockers, we are still unable to fully escape from the clutches of the advertising industry.

But have you ever stopped to think about how ethical that advertisement you’re looking at really is? Maybe, maybe not.

This is exactly why unethical advertisers can get away with so much. They rely on the fact that most people don’t know how to spot an unethical ad when they see one. But we hope to help change that today.

In this blog post, we’re going to take a deep dive into the secret world of unethical advertising. By the end of this post, you’ll know exactly what to look for next time you see an ad, and how to protect yourself from being taken advantage of by these businesses. Let’s get started first with the definition of unethical advertising.

“Unethical advertising is the misrepresentation of a product/service in some way or the use of subliminal messaging to fit a hidden agenda. This form of advertising uses deceptive ways to manipulate or convince the consumer to buy the product or service.” – keenability.com

Unethical advertising not only has the potential to mislead consumers into spending money on products they do not truly need, but it can also adversely impact their quality of life because of the false promises made within. This is why it is always in the consumer’s best interest to thoroughly research any advertised product before pulling the trigger and buying it.

Unethical advertising techniques have the potential to cause wide-reaching harm throughout our society. This is because when performed at scale, these techniques have the power to influence the beliefs, and thus, behaviors, of large segments of the population.

Below we’ll provide a list of the most common unethical advertising techniques so that you can learn to identify them and protect yourself.

Such unethical techniques include but certainly are not limited to:

  1. Images that misdirect the message of the advertisement
  2. Exaggerations or twisting facts
  3. Smearing of competitors
  4. Hidden fees
  5. Unverified claims that often have no data to back them up
  6. Scare tactics
  7. Advertising to minors (which is illegal in many countries)
  8. Using sexual content that can be damaging to a young audience
  9. Discrimination/stereotyping
  10. Body shaming
  11. Bribing researchers

For further reading, here is a more comprehensive list of unethical advertising techniques.

To sum it up, unethical advertising techniques are labeled as such because they typically exploit vulnerable people, target certain identities, and mislead consumers about products or services.

Unethical advertisers are desperate and cunning enough that they won’t hesitate to stoop to the lowest of levels. By being conscious of signs of unethical advertising practices, you can protect yourself from organizations that may attempt to exploit or mislead you into buying something.

The easiest way to do this is by being mindful of how an advertisement makes you feel – if it’s angry, alone, disliked, sad, afraid, or embarrassed, then it’s worth a second look.

“Only 17% of consumers believe personalized ads are ethical.”RSA, a fraud prevention and security company

Highly targeted, personalized ads make up an increasingly large portion of the marketing landscape, yet, most advertisers haven’t done enough to alleviate consumer concerns about privacy and ethics. This is something that must change if the industry is going to continue to grow and thrive.

It’s important for companies to not just protect their customers from bad actors, but also, ironically, their very own unethical practices. This is why consumers should have access to clear information about what data is being collected, who it is shared with, and how it will be used. Companies should also make sure their advertising efforts meet the standards of accuracy and transparency expected by today’s consumers.

Because data is constantly being collected and utilized in a variety of ways without their explicit consent, many people have grown weary of digital-based marketing tactics that manipulate or target them.

To help rebuild this trust, it should go without saying that businesses must be transparent and honest with their practices while always keeping their customers’ best interests in mind.

“You shouldn’t engage in unethical advertising because you will lose the trust of your current and potential customers while affecting your employees’ experience too. Doing it just because it works and/or ‘everyone else does it’ doesn’t make it okay either.” – Wesley Jackson

False advertising is unethical, harmful, and illegal. So, why do companies continue to risk damaging this relationship by engaging in deceptive practices?

One word: money.

Many companies are more than happy to play fast and loose with the rules because the penalties for breaking them are mere “slaps on the wrist”.

These punishments typically take the form of monetary fines, which these companies ultimately write off as the “cost of doing business”.

The only way that this will change at the current moment is if governments band together and tighten regulations on the advertising industry. Bad actors must be punished more severely, with more than just monetary fines.

Companies can step up and do their part as well, by adopting business models that aren’t built entirely around advertising.

As individuals, we can make the personal choice to not support companies that engage in unethical advertising practices.

The bottom line here is that sustainable success comes only from hard work, honest practices, and long-term relationships with people based on mutual respect and trust. Now, let’s take a deeper look below at what ethical marketing and advertising can look like.

“Ethical marketers sympathize with emotions, while unethical ones exploit them.” – Brafton, the Creative Content Marketing Agency

Ethical marketing seeks to form connections with a brand’s audience by understanding and addressing the emotions of its consumers. It encourages trust, respect, and loyalty within the relationship between the customer and the company.

Unethical marketing involves the manipulation of those same emotions to exploit people’s impulses without consideration for the long-term effects on their wellbeing. It strives only to benefit one side of the relationship (the company) while potentially or even actively causing harm to the other (the customer). This difference between ethical and unethical practices is extremely important

Most Americans agree that advertising to children is unethical and should be banned.

The above can be gleaned from the Advertising to Kids Survey from the National Financial Educators Council (NFEC).

This research is telling – while many American households understand the importance of teaching children to be mindful of what they consume, it is becoming increasingly challenging in today’s media-saturated society.

This is why greater measures must be taken to protect young viewers from the manipulative power of advertisements and this protection must start within the home. There’s no way around it – parents must do a better job of keeping electronics out of the hands of their children.

At the corporate level, the protection of innocent minds should supersede any profits that may be obtained from advertising to children.

Fortunately, in recent years there has been more regulation on advertising catered toward children; however, it is largely companies loosely self-policing, not systemic change.

Ultimately, as a society, we are responsible for setting ethical standards and safeguarding our children’s wellbeing. Banning advertisements directed at kids would be a step in the right direction that could eventually lead to true progress.

The advertising industry is slowly getting better.

Although there is still much progress to be made, the advertising industry is gradually improving. Companies are beginning to recognize that marketing can – and should – be done more respectfully and ethically. They are moving away from pandering to stereotypes and instead are creating campaigns that celebrate differences and champion inclusivity.

It’s also important to note that technological advancements are playing an integral role in ushering in a new era of ethical advertising. Artificial intelligence and machine learning have allowed advertisers to target audiences more precisely, eliminating the need for a lot of the manipulative tactics of old.

These technologies have been used by organizations such as Procter & Gamble (P&G) to create products with smarter messaging and more resonant content. This has led to better customer experiences, greater trust in brands, and ultimately higher sales numbers – a win-win scenario for both companies and customers alike.

While there is certainly room for continued improvement, as well as privacy concerns, the advances being made by these companies operating within the advertising industry should be celebrated. One such example of ethical advertising can be found below.

The Bodyright campaign by TBWA New Zealand pushes back against the retouching of photos.

The Bodyright campaign by TBWA New Zealand aims to put a stop to the “photoshopping” trend, specifying that every image should truthfully reflect what we all look like without edits.

The Bodyright campaign promotes a message of body positivity, inspiring people of all ages to embrace their natural beauty unapologetically while encouraging one another towards healthy acceptance and self-love.

This checks all the boxes of an ethical advertising campaign.

More importantly, it has even sparked an important conversation around the ethical boundaries for retouching images in the advertising industry.

The Bodyright campaign can be considered part of a great, more meaningful social movement that values honesty and realism over unrealistic beauty standards set by society.

The UN is going after unethical advertising.

The United Nations is taking a strong stance against unethical advertising – in this case, by going after baby formula marketing in particular.

The UN’s announcement followed on the heels of a 2022 report from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which shows that while global breastfeeding rates have only marginally increased over the past twenty years, sales of baby milk formula have more than doubled in nearly the same timeframe.

However, this same report, unfortunately, illustrates how the WHO’s/UNICEF’s efforts through the international code of marketing of breast-milk substitutes have largely been in vain.

Harsher sanctions must be imposed on companies that don’t comply with these guidelines, whether it be in traditional or digital forms of advertising.

We’re talking about suspension of marketing privileges and more, not just hefty fines. A move such as this would be a huge, positive step forward in bolstering consumer protection across different markets around the world.

“…the future of advertising, whatever the technology, will be to associate each brand with one word. This is one-word equity. It’s the modern equivalent of having the best site on the high street, except the location is in the mind.” – Maurice Saatchi, Co-Founder of Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency

The world of advertising isn’t as simple or innocent as we would like to believe. There is a dark side to marketing that most people are increasingly unaware of.

While it may be effective in getting someone to purchase something they wouldn’t have otherwise, it’s important to note that this form of marketing comes at a cost.

Namely, the trust and respect of your current and potential customers. Not to mention, it takes a toll on your employees’ morale too.

So, next time you’re tempted to engage in some shady business practices, remember that there’s more at stake than just making a quick buck.

At the end of the day, ethical marketing must become an integral part of any organization’s business strategy. Not only is this beneficial for current customers, but it also builds trust which can attract new ones over time as well. Taking a proactive stance on ethical advertising will benefit companies, consumers, and much more importantly, the world community at large.

If you want to dive deeper into the dark underbelly of unethical advertising, then watch or listen to Wesley’s monologue episode, Unethical Advertising: How It Dehumanizes Us, where he reveals what it was like working on the inside of this industry for over five years.

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