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For some in advertising, ethics is strictly a matter of law-or more precisely, what the law will allow an advertiser to say or show about a product or service. For others, ethics is covered in industry codes such as those created by the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

The limitation of both views is that the laws regulating advertising were written in response to specific egregious practices, and the industry codes are most often read—and perhaps best understood—by those who write them. Even though the codes deal with truthfulness and the responsibilities of advertising professionals, they are often ignored, remembered only after an ethical error has been made

Doing ethics

Ethics is a process of moral reasoning and of making rational choices between what is morally justifiable and what is not. Rational is a key word because ethicists have believed since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers that people should be able to give rational explanations in support of their decisions.

Take for example the well-known case in which marbles were put into a bowl of Campbell's vegetable soup to make the vegetables more clearly visible in a photograph. Was the decision to alter the appearance of the soup justifiable on the grounds that failing to do so would result in a less appetizing image of the product? Did the agency decision-makers owe more to their client than to the consumer? Who was deceived about the true nature of the soup? Who benefited from the tampering with the soup? Who was harmed? These are the kinds of questions that typically characterize an ethical dilemma; ethics is not so much about right vs. wrong as it is about conflicting values and choices.

An ethical dilemma facing an advertising professional may require a rational choice between serving the legitimate interests of the clients and those of the agency. Or it may require the individual to weigh the legitimate appeal to a target audience against obligations to the public at large.

A system of ethical decision-making would require advertising practitioners to consider the obligations they have to themselves, their clients, their agency, their company, their colleagues and their society. It could help them anticipate the consequences of their decisions more accurately.

When people see ethics not so much as a series of rules differentiating right from wrong but as an intellectual process, then "doing ethics" means thinking about what we do. It can be a useful way to balance competing rights and even to help choose between unavoidable wrongs.

Questionable choices

Criticism of ethics in advertising is most heavily focused on political advertising. One frequently cited example is the 1964 "Daisy" commercial run by President Lyndon B. Johnson's campaign. The ad featured the image of a mushroom cloud rising behind a little girl picking daisies. Its goal was to raise doubts about Republican candidate Barry Goldwater's fitness for office in a nuclear age, but it certainly exemplifies the observation that one man's truth may be another's distortion.

A similar and more recent example was the 1988 "Willie Horton" spot created by aides to the Republican presidential nominee George H. Bush to help him defeat the Democratic candidate, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. At the time, Mr. Dukakis was ahead in the polls. The Horton spot was designed to remind viewers of an ex-convict who had raped a woman while he was on furlough from a Massachusetts prison. After the commercial aired, the poll numbers changed dramatically in Mr. Bush's favor, and the commercial was seen as a key factor in Mr. Dukakis' defeat.

The advertising industry has not ignored the ethical problems posed by political commercials. In 1984, the Four A's presented a code of ethics for political advertising to the U.S. Senate. The code called for ad agencies that had not signed or did not observe the Code of Fair Campaign Practices to be excluded from representing candidates. It urged ad agencies not to knowingly misrepresent the views or stated records of any candidates or prepare any material that unfairly or prejudicially exploited the race, creed or national origins of any candidate. But not all complied, and the process was discontinued.

Throughout the past two decades, industry leaders have argued for codes of ethics for political advertising, and the media have instituted "ad watch" practices to identify and perhaps diminish the number of questionably ethical ads and commercials.

While political advertising may seem to commit the most highly visible sins, it is not alone in drawing the fire of ad industry critics and the media. For example, the advertising of toys and sugary foods to children was a major focus of debate among toy and cereal companies, children's advocacy groups and the attorneys at the Federal Trade Commission during the 1970s.

In 1990, Volvo Cars of North America released a TV commercial and a print ad touting Volvo's safety with a rigged demonstration showing a "monster" truck crushing all the cars in a line except the Volvo. In November 1990, the Texas attorney general brought suit against Volvo calling the ad a "hoax and a sham" because the Volvo vehicle shown had been reinforced with steel roof supports while the competitors' cars had been weakened.

In the 1990s, criticism focused on the advertising of prescription drugs directly to consumers via TV spots and print ads. Typically, these ads urged consumers to ask their physicians for the latest drug for allergy symptoms, depression or impotence.

Ultimately, learning to incorporate ethical processes into the everyday life of ad professionals can be seen as the way to give the industry a reputation for a more empathetic and compassionate view of others, as well as to promote more truthful advertising and more rational and principled action.

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