Beyond the twin sins perpetuated by advertising – selling people things they don’t need and making them pay with money they don’t have – there is a more sinister side to the concept. A case in point is the drug Vioxx, which attracted several consumer lawsuits after being pitched for sale by Olympic gold medallist figure-skater Dorothy Hamill. In this case, so many thousands of patients’ lives are endangered due to selective disclosure of all the side-effects and risk factors of the drug. When consumers are misled into believing that the claims made by an advertisement are correct, when in reality they are not, the situation constitutes a ‘harm’ directed toward consumers. People act upon their assumptions and beliefs; and hence a misled consumer “may be tempted to buy the advertised product. More consumers are likely to buy the advertised product as a result of the ad claim because they believe it to be true”. (Mujtaba, 2005, p.61)
An area of concern regarding ethical marketing practices is the presently fashionable marketing technique that tries to attract target consumers in such a manner that they do not even realize they’re dealing with an advertisement. And quite rightly, this has attracted the ire of media watchdogs such as Commercial Alert. As marketing messages get embedded and ingrained into “new, apparently casual conversation and unbranded commercial websites, new legal and ethical questions about when marketing should be labelled as such are emerging fast” (Marks, 2005, p.31). This recent development poses a risk for gullible internet users, for whom the credibility of a claim made online is difficult to assess. In spite of a few regulatory efforts on part of the governing authorities, the situation remains tense. Recently advocacy group Commercial Alert “called on 305 book editors not to review what it said was an ad, not a young-adult novel”. (Marks, 2005) This episode is the most recent of many marketing tactics that has brought forth disclosure questions – especially for global marketing brands such as P&G – as it indicates an increasing willingness on part of marketers to try non-traditional and non-ethical tactics (Marks, 2005, p.31). This also makes it clear that the beyond catering to the basic needs of citizens, advertisements attempt to create a longing for fashionable consumption that borders on greed and luxury.
Clearly, claiming a product or a service to be essential to life when it is not (sometimes it can even be harmful) is attempting to deceive gullible consumers. Researcher Aaker was the first to formulate the now-common view that advertisements can also mislead the consumer. According to him, deception is said to exist when “the output of the perceptual process (a) differs from the reality of the situation and (b) affects the buying behaviour to the detriment of the consumer”. (Nagar, 2009, p.106)
Many companies interweave social issues with their advertisement campaigns to show they care about issues and causes dear to the general public, from illnesses such as AIDS to the environment to funding educational institutions. No one expects brands to go un-noticed in these campaigns, but too much “brand bull-horning” has left the public with sentiments of suspicion and disillusionment. They have come to the conclusion that it’s more about selling the product than about working for the cause. This is a blatant violation of public trust. It is also a cheap way of gaining publicity for their products. Such marketing strategies are despicable and need to be curbed by the authorities concerned.