Ethical advertising – can advertisers be trusted to self-regulate?

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Ever wondered how ethical advertisers can be? Megan takes a look at how advertisers can be trusted to self regulate to protect consumers.


Working in advertising, I’m often posed with the question of how ethical our industry is. My friends and family seem to hate ads, and frequently share their conspiracy theories with me over how Google, Amazon, and social media are using their data to serve them ads and distract from the big issues in society.

In reality, the way advertisers, and media owners, use data is pretty straightforward. That said, there are only so many times I can emphasise that their data is effectively anonymous! However, there are questions about ethics within advertising and how we, as marketers, should be using our powers for good, not evil.

A lot of these come down to the question of free will, and whether we, as human beings, are competent enough to say no to advertising campaigns.


Self regulation - Google to come down hard on financial scammers

In a move that many would argue is late coming, Google have announced that, from the 30th August, any company advertising financial services of products must be registered with the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). The move comes after the FCA issued 1,200 warnings to consumers in 2020 over fake companies advertising online.

While the Advertising Standards Authority already enforce rules for advertisers to represent their products accurately, enforcement can come too late to those who fall victim to these scams. With an estimated total of £1.2bn being stolen through fraud and online scams last year, action such as Google’s protects vulnerable people from falling victim to fraudsters operating under supposedly legitimate companies.

Naturally, fake companies aren’t going to be advertising through ad agencies. Though we, as advertisers, can’t prevent scams from happening, as professionals in the industry it is up to us to support action like Google’s and help pressure governments into enacting similar processes into law. We can also help educate our peers on how advertising works, share our insight on the processes behind online advertising, and provide visibility on how simple it can be to set up an ad campaign.

By self-regulating as an industry (in a place where, arguably, governments could have stepped in), we are also leading to direct savings for both governments and private banks. With fewer claims for compensation coming from victims of scams, Google have ensured that, not only are internet users safer online, but internet fraud’s impact on the wider economy is minimised.


Against advice - The ban on junk food advertising

When I think about my favourite ads, they are almost universally centered around junk food brands. From the hyper-active, Americanised ads promoting sugary sweets (in between Super Soaker water pistols) I drank up while watching CITV as a kid, to the creative ideas Cadbury’s have come up with to promote Dairy Milk, it’s these ads I always fall back on when someone asks me what my favourite adverts are.

In an effort to tackle obesity, the government is set to “to impose a UK-wide pre-9pm ban on TV adverts for food high in sugar, salt and fat”. As far as the advertising world is concerned, junk food will simply not exist before the watershed, and this doesn’t just stop at TV. A 24 hour ban will be coming into play for any online advertising, meaning that paid search, social, or even sponsored Amazon listings will no longer be an option for ‘unhealthy’ food retailers (with the exception of companies with fewer than 250 employees). The only way to advertise online will be organically.

The idea, much with the all-out ban on cigarette advertising that was enacted in 2002, is that by limiting the visibility of unhealthy foods, the demand will reduce and the nation’s children will be healthier and less likely to be obese. But, with huge aisles in supermarkets dedicated to the very items the government is seeing fit to ban advertising, what effect will this really have? As long as the bright colours of the crisps, biscuits, and confectionary aisles exist, children and their parents will still be buying unhealthy foods. So where will the effect of this ban really be felt?

The Guardian estimates that £400 million is spent annually in the UK on advertising junk foods online. This ban translates into lost income for advertising agencies and could lead to redundancies within both the marketing and food and drink industries. Furthermore, the ban could cost TV broadcasters £200 million in lost advertising revenue, meaning a loss of income for the arts industry at a time it desperately needs funding.

In this case, despite lobbying by institutions such as the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, the advertising industry’s concerns have been dismissed. Despite the industry showing that we can and do function ethically (through guidelines and rules on individual platforms and independent organisations being set up to regulate the industry), our concerns are only heard when aligned with the opinions of the general public or government.


Influencing law - calling in advertising experts

Above, I’ve discussed two different scenarios in relation to the ethics surrounding advertising. In one scenario, the industry is leading ahead of government legislation, self-regulating in order to limit those using the powers of advertising for bad. On the other hand, we have a scenario where the government is enacting law to prevent advertising of products they deem unhealthy, against industry pressure.

As advertisers, we need to be trusted to do the right thing. We’ve proven, as an industry, that we can self regulate and protect our audiences from those using advertising for unsavoury means, so we’ve earned our right to be trusted to make decisions that work for our users. As a marketer, writing a blog post on a digital performance agency’s site, you could see me as being ever so slightly biased but, when we look to the experts for advice in other areas of our lives, perhaps we should do the same for advertisers?


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