Ethics in advertising

When is advertising bad?

More than ever, brands are trying to outdo one another for consumers’ attention. In the heat of the moment, ethics in advertising can sometimes slip off the radar. Already this year, big brands have had harsh backlash for adverts the public thought weren’t right or fair.  But what does ‘ethical advertising’ mean? And can you make ads that are good – for people to watch, for your business and morally?

What is ethical advertising?

Ethics can be a bit vague and ambiguous, but it basically means making sure your campaign is fair, honest and responsible. It’s what feels right. More often than not, it involves considering who might be offended by the ad and why. To a certain degree, a brand’s ethics needs to reflect their target market’s ethics.

Why is it important?

Some argue that effective ads will always offend people who like to be offended and that attempting to be ethical is merely stifling the brand’s creativity. On the other hand, consider the implications of an offensive advert. You might lose customers for being tasteless, or boycotted for producing something the general public feels strongly against. That’s exactly what happened when Pizza Hut posted a Facebook ad with #HungerStrike.

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People worldwide vowed to boycott Pizza Hut for mocking Palestinian hunger strikers.

If nothing else, releasing an advert and then having to take it down and apologise makes the brand look a bit ridiculous. Remember the infamous Pepsi advert from earlier this year?

Hailed as ‘the worst advert of all time’, Pepsi came across as trivialising social justice demonstrations. While Pepsi’s intentions were for an on-trend ad, instead they had to pull it after just a few hours because of complaints about being insensitive to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The ethical implications for Pepsi implying that a can of their drink could solve social unrest were huge and insulted a number of people worldwide.

What should you avoid?

The list is long, but as a general starting point, consider how you’d feel if you saw the ad for the first time and hadn’t been involved in producing it. Generally, people don’t like feeling that a brand is manipulating their emotions to sell their product. McDonald’s latest advert tried to connect with their audience with a storyline about a boy who’d lost his father. But they got a backlash for exploiting a child’s bereavement to sell burgers. Pulling on heartstrings isn’t illegal, but there’s a line to be mindful of.

Is it your territory?

Sometimes, ads that make you cry or feel sad are accepted because of the brand or product they’re promoting. In 2014, Sainsbury’s ran a controversial Christmas campaign that retold the story of the WW1 football game in the trenches. Even with the Royal British Legion tie-in, the public were divided. Many thought a supermarket had no business claiming the story to make profit. In the same way, perhaps that McDonald’s ad would have been more accepted if it had been for a brand like Childline.

Can an advert be ethical and successful?

In short, yes. In fact, an ethical advert should be more successful. Why? Because at the end of the day, consumers are people. People like nice companies and to feel good about what they spend their money on, or the brands they use. You wouldn’t want to be known for buddying up with a morally corrupt person, so why is it any different for a company-customer relationship? Instead of creating an ad that stands out from the crowd for the wrong reasons, create an advert that stands out for connecting and communicating with the consumer in a positive way.

When we plan campaign strategies or create ads, we make certain we understand your audience before we produce anything. By getting to know your customers, you can talk to them about your brand or product on their terms, in their language and by using techniques that work for and appeal to them. It doesn’t just avoid upsetting people – it makes real business sense. Unethical advertising is just a symptom of a bigger problem for your brand – you don’t know who you’re talking to or why.

Can we help you understand your audience better? Or do you need help using your insight to inform an advertising or marketing campaign? Give us a call on 01527 573 770. Or email

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