Ethics in Media – Why You Should Care


Ad Age recently covered a 4A’s event where transparency was the big topic of discussion. Views from various media agency chiefs were so divergent that perhaps the industry is overdue for an ethics and integrity refresher.

As citizens, we all face ethical decisions each and every day, to do and act upon what we should do as opposed to doing what we want to do. Finding a lost wallet full of cash surely tests a person’s scruples. (Finders keepers, right?)

Bottom line: Being ethical requires us to seek the truth and make honest, forthright decisions.

Advertising Ethics
People in advertising spend a lot of time dealing with ethical choices, and unlike the lost wallet scenario, those choices are almost never black and white. They are drawn in subtle shades of gray.

Yet, we don’t always think of the media part of the ad business as being an environment for testing one’s morals. In our minds, the ethical dilemmas are vetted by the brands themselves and the creatives who execute the strategy. While untrue, this is the mindset we often default to. To us, “advertising ethics” conjures up false advertising images of Airborne, the self-proclaimed “cold preventer,” or President Ronald Reagan appearing in ads touting the health benefits of cigarettes. But with the explosion of new technologies changing the marketing and advertising landscape, it’s critical to see how media is and will continue to be at the forefront of the ethics conversation.

  • Advertising and editorial content should be clearly distinguished. While omnipresent in the offline world, the blurring of these two types of content is just as pervasive, if not more so, in the nontraditional and online spaces. Word-of-mouth marketing and blogging about products and services require full transparency. To the consumer, it’s often unclear whether a influencer’s endorsement is personal and uncompensated or paid for by a brand. Platforms that promote sharing (e.g., Facebook and Twitter) do make it harder for brands to monitor disclosure, but that’s not an excuse to stand idly by.
  • The consumer’s privacy must be respected. The more intimately we understand our consumers, the more ways we can find to intercept them efficiently through our media plans.  Online behavioral targeting allows a “window” into  consumers’ Internet use and helps us discover where we might be able to target relevant ads to them. However, consumers have rights, and one of those rights is personal privacy. To uphold this ethical principle, we need to continue to counsel and encourage brand partners to provide disclosure on any ad that is used in behavioral targeting strategies.
  • What’s good for the consumer is good for business. It’s happened before. A brand launches the most creative ad campaign in its history, and then come droves of complaints. Whether it’s the creative itself or the media property on which it’s running, the reality is, our democratic society encourages consumers to voice an opinion and vote with their wallets. As a result, it’s key that we guide our clients and recommend decisions that support the audience we work so hard to build and maintain. They deserve to be heard and respected.

As ad professionals, we’re in the business of communicating with and reaching thousands, if not millions, of people all of the time. That affords us thousands or millions of opportunities to carry out what is right each and every day.

Thankfully, our industry has resources like the Institute for Advertising Ethics (IAE), which through the American Advertising Federation (AAF) provides guidance on ethics in advertising. For more information on the IAE and its mission, visit the AAF’s website.

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Kylee Alter
Kylee Alter