Advertising involves the techniques and methods use to bring products and services to public notice. Companies use advertising grow and also maintain their customer base. This in turn leads to an increase in revenue and profit. In advertising a company ethically ought to present the facts about its products and services in a way that’s attractive, compelling and yet truthful. When a company fails to be true in its advertising, it has failed ethically. The consequences of this can be quite severe. Many companies have incurred lawsuits, loss of revenue and a smear on their reputation due to wrong advertising practices. In Business Ethics we examined a few cases of such. Here are some excerpts on Manipulative and Deceptive advertising.
Deceptive advertising can be said to be the marketing of information about a product that is unrealistic. Often, businesses that use deceptive advertising do so making inaccurate claims about the product’s function or scope of capabilities. This type of advertising can lead customers to purchase products that are defective or even dangerous. A number of things to watch out for when spotting deceptive advertising include
- When the price is too good to be true for the product.
- Fake online reviews that are overwhelmingly positive.
- If the business is not officially registered with the proper governmental agencies.
- If the business does not respond to queries and inquiries from customers.
- Vitamin Shoppe: Vitamin shoppe is a company that manufacturers vitamin supplements for men. In 2019, a lawsuit was filed against Vitamin Shoppe because one of their daily supplements for men was found to have had or contained toxic chemicals, such as arsenic, cadmium and lead, which are prohibited by the FDA (TorHoerman Law LLC 2021). This was pointed out as deliberate concealment by the company and a breach of warranty over a defective product. Meanwhile this product was marketed as safe for consumption. The plaintiff who filed the case was diagnosed with multiple medical problems, including kidney damage, that arose due to prolonged intake of the toxic chemicals found in the supplement.
- Zantac: Zantac is the tradename of a popular heartburn medication. This medication is commonly used in the treatment and prevention of ulcers. The drug was first commercially available in 1981 and eventually became the 50th most prescribed drug in the USA. However, in early 2020, it was discovered to contain a cancer-causing chemical, N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA)(TorHoerman Law LLC 2022). The levels of NDMA found in Zantac were 3000-26000 times higher than FDA approved standards, which puts user at a very high risk of cancer. The producers of Zantac are now facing lawsuits from hundreds of thousands of claimants.
According to Dictionary.com, to manipulate is to “to manage or influence skilfully, especially in an unfair manner”. It paints a picture of being taken advantage of.
- Weight Loss Pills: Manipulative language is widely employed in the marketing of weight loss pills, aids and drinks. Popular taglines include
- “Lose weight without exercise or diet”
- “Just take a pill”
- “Lose weight no matter how much you eat”.
According to the FDA, Fat absorption pills (another popular weight loss aid) should only be taken alongside a low calorie and low-fat diet (Wroblewski 2018). Medically speaking, there is no magic way to lose weight without regular exercise and effective dieting. A permanent loss of weight would have to be due to a permanent lifestyle change (Federal Trade Commission 2022).
- Sanitary Products: Some companies have been known to capitalise on health scares to sell their products. This was prevalent during the Swine Flu and SARS pandemic. A company from US, Lysal, speculated that, while not knowing how the swine flu virus spread, proper hygiene will prevent people from contacting the flu (Danciu 2014). Thus, they marketed their antibacterial soap. Meanwhile, this product actually does nothing to defend against the virus, which is only transmitted via tiny droplets in the air sneezed by infected people.
While I believe that all businesses should make a profit, this should not be at the expense of truth and honesty to its customers. Companies should strive for lasting positive societal impact. Developing these values will ensure ethical business practices across the board, advertising inclusive. In the case of advertising, it will involve being truthful and factual about what goods and services are being offered, so that customers can make well informed decisions.
Danciu, Victor. 2014. “Manipulative Marketing: Persuasion and Manipulation of the Consumer through Advertising.” Theoretical and Applied Economics XXI (2):19–34.
Federal Trade Commission. 2022. “The Truth Behind Weight Loss Ads | Consumer Advice.” Retrieved October 20, 2022 (https://consumer.ftc.gov/articles/truth-behind-weight-loss-ads).
TorHoerman Law LLC. 2021. “Contaminated Supplements Lawsuit | Supplements Contain Heavy Metals.” TorHoerman Law LLC. Retrieved October 20, 2022 (https://www.torhoermanlaw.com/chemical-exposure-case-types/contaminated-supplements/).
TorHoerman Law LLC. 2022. “Zantac Lawsuit Update – October 2022 | Zantac Lawyers.” Retrieved October 20, 2022 (https://www.torhoermanlaw.com/zantac-lawsuit/).
Wroblewski, M. T. 2018. “Examples of Manipulative Advertising.” Retrieved October 20, 2022 (https://smallbusiness.chron.com/examples-manipulative-advertising-11668.html).