There is no doubt that ethics and moral standards should be critical elements of any organization’s marketing and advertising practices. However, in today’s ruthless and highly competitive business environment, this is no longer the case. A large number of businesses resort to unethical and misleading advertising practices in their thirst for greater profits and more consumers.
While there is no argument with respect to the need and importance of advertising to promote products and services, at the same time, there is a definite need for businesses to ensure that their marketing practices are responsible and safe. The ultimate goal of advertising should be to make consumers aware of new products and services and/or to remind them of existing ones. Advertising is an excellent tool to communicate key product features and benefits. However, when businesses resort to false and misleading advertising that is when this marketing tool becomes unethical and unreliable.
In an article "Public Assessment of TV Advertising: Faint Praise and Harsh Criticism" published in the Journal of Advertising Research, Banwari Mittal highlights the fact that while advertising is an important institution of our times and a promoter of consumer welfare, at the same time some "accuse it of an array of sins ranging from economic waste to purveying of harmful products, from sexism to deceit and manipulation, from triviality to intellectual and moral pollution."
When it comes to unethical and immoral advertising practices, there are several strategies that businesses adopt. These include the presentation of an unrealistic performance package through exaggeration, a confusing presentation of product features and benefits, promises of proof when there are actually none, deliberate omissions of important information and the use of non-existent qualification. Other common deceptive practices include advertising puffery, vague quantifiers, small quantifiers, disclaimers with insufficient or incomplete information, general information missing important details and other similar tactics. In the race to beat the competition, businesses today have forgotten ethical and moral lines and can even resort to lying if the situation so requires.
Examples of False Advertising
This is not to say that all organizations get away with deceptive and misleading advertising practices. Gillette had to pay for its M3Power Razor campaign when it claimed that the razor had the potential to raise or stimulate hair up and away from the skin. This claim was classified as false and misleading and the company was accused of violating consumer-related laws. Not only did Gillette have to delete those claims, it also had to pay a hefty settlement of $7.5 million.
Similarly, Hyundai was accused of using misleading claims in its Elantra 40MPG advertisements where it promoted that consumers could achieve 40 miles per gallon. The numbers in the campaign were used with the intention of creating a perception in the minds of consumers that they will be able to save on fuel and would get more mileage per tank as compared to the competition. These claims were not backed with any proof.
Ferrero had to pay a $3 million settlement (up to $4 per jar to consumers) because it promoted Nutella as a healthy product when in reality, Nutella has as much nutritional quality as a candy bar.
These examples prove that while deceptive advertising may work in the short-term, the cost associated with being caught with such lies is a loss in reputation, brand loyalty and consumer trust. The choice should be clear to organizations, yet every day we continue to see advertisements that are nothing but puffery and lies.