It has been both an honor and a pleasure to have both regulated and represented the advertising industry during my professional career as a government lawyer and then advertising trade association CEO. I have come to understand the importance of advertising to the economy and to consumer purchase decisions. And, I have come to believe that enhanced advertising ethics is essential to building consumer trust and brand loyalty in the new global and digital economy.

The advertising industry must take a proactive stance on ethics. To build consumer trust advertisements must be truthful, fair and tasteful. Children and other vulnerable groups must be advertised to with special care, as should alcoholic beverages, tobacco and other adult products. Also, to build trust, advertisements should be free of statements or illustrations that are offensive to good taste or public decency. Practicing these high ethics will attract consumers to the advertised product or service.

We must understand that Advertising, because of the opportunities presented by online communications and program shifting technologies, has changed more in the past five years than since the introduction of television in the 1950’s. Today, account planners and creative departments are grappling with the challenge of connecting with consumers on their terms.

Consumers, as never before, are in charge of the commercial information they want and when they get it. They can skip TV ads, get content online without the ads found in print publications, and ignore much online advertising.

Yet, the good news is that consumers want – and are constantly seeking – commercial information they trust; for example, per ComScore, as of June 2008, Google was averaging more than 7 billion searches a month. This puts a premium on companies and advertising that consumers trust and believe in.

Consumers, now have the power to share information with other consumers about the products – and ads – they like and dislike. New Web sites have sprung up in areas, such as green claims, where consumers actually rate the honesty of advertisements, and consumers share daily their advertising likes and dislikes on YouTube, MySpace and Face Book. This reinforces the trust – or distrust – consumers build up toward specific companies’ products and advertising.

In our new Global-Digital world, I believe ethics to be at the heart of advertising. We know from research conducted by Bozell Worldwide (1996) that consumers ranked “ethics and values” as the number-one factor in assessing whether or not a company can be called a “corporate good citizen.” This conclusion was reinforced by secondary and primary research conducted during the Spring Semester 2009 by student teams in the Missouri School of Journalism’s Capstone program. In that research, “honest advertising” was the top ranked aspect consumers felt would make a company ethical.

Wally Snyder: Advertising Ethics

To further put an emphasis on ethics in advertising, research reported by the Wall Street Journal showed that consumers are willing to pay more for an ethically produced product. (“Corporate Reputation: Does Being Ethical Pay?” – May 12, 2008.) This conclusion was also supported by the Capstone student research where most of the interviewed consumers claimed they would be more likely to buy products featured in ads if the company was ethical.

Advertising should be the ethical banner pulling consumers to companies’ products and services. Unfortunately, advertising is not perceived as being highly ethical by the public. In the Capstone student research a majority of the consumers surveyed did not trust advertising or believe it to be honest. Most marketers interviewed expressed the current state of ethics in the advertising industry as “it could use more improvement.” And, advertising majors surveyed rated the ethics of advertising with only a mean response of 5.86 on a scale of 1 to 10.

So, now more than ever the advertising industry has the opportunity to enhance the image of a company and of its products. Yet, in my opinion, not enough time is spent on the consideration of ethics in the marketing mix. We know how important the four P’s (product, price, promotion, and place) are in the process. We need to add ethical considerations. This will not only advance the company, but the image of the advertising industry.

We can begin by giving special ethical consideration to products and marketing with which consumers have special concerns. This includes green claims, financial advertising; prescription drug advertising, children’s advertising, and online behavioral targeting. We must avoid ads with demeaning or degrading content.

Also, the advertising industry can engage in processes directed toward enhancing ethical advertising. This includes internal, private discussions during the creation of ad content, first between members of the agency’s creative teams, and with the client, when appropriate. An important ethical principle for advertising is that members of the creative team be given permission to express their ethical concerns.

The industry also should come together to discuss and craft principles for ethical advertising. On October 14, 2009, the Missouri School of Journalism and the Reynolds Journalism Institute will host an interactive panel of advertising industry leaders and educators to begin the discussion. Bringing industry and thought leaders together from around the world will provide the opportunity to share concerns and solutions. Above all, it will raise the level of importance of advertising ethics as a solution to reaching consumers in the new Global-Digital economy.

Quotes from Wally Snyder’s blogs on advertising ethics

Advertising Ethics: An Introduction “It is up to the company and its ad agency to internally articulate and practice advertising ethics for its brands… Advertising ethics in my view also includes truthfulness and fairness, which includes the nature of the audience and the nature of the product.”  

Attention, But at What Cost? 

“This is an assumption that is often heard in the industry: “It’s good to get the customer’s attention even if it makes them mad.” But how can we conclude that a potential customer angered by advertising will purchase the brand?”

DTC (Direct-to-Customer) Advertising Can Rebuild Consumer Trust Through Third Party Self-Regulation 

“I urge that the industry rebuild public trust through the highest ethical advertising – not through reactive public relations campaigns,
but proactive interaction between client and agency so as to present truthful and highly ethical medical information to consumers who count on it.”

Green Claims: A great Opportunity to Connect – or Not – With Consumers

“A new pejorative term has been coined to label false and unethical environmental advertising as 'greenwashing.' Companies are also taken to task for 'masking' claims in situations where they may have a truthful environmental claim for one product, but the company has a negative environmental record.” 

The Ethics of Behavioral Targeting

“What is the right way for businesses to treat consumers? Is it right for marketers to give total control to consumers of the collection and sharing of their information? Or is it right for a business to be able to provide consumers with more relevant, targeted information about products and services?”