Ethics in Advertising | Examples of Unethical Advertising

 Competition in advertising ethics

1. Competition In Advertising Ethics

An extremely high level of competition in the market has led to umpteen experiments in advertising and advertisers are adopting different measures to attract their target audiences.

To this end, advertisers use a combination of messages such as rational, emotional, ethical, and so on, to positively influence target demographics.

Example: Diet Coke vs. Starbucks

In New York, to pull a fast one on Starbucks, Diet Coke’s advertisers picked the ideal spot: a wall on the same building as Starbucks.

 2. Comparative advertising

In comparative advertising, one party advertises goods or services in comparison with the goods and services of another party.

Comparative advertising may be limited to exaggeration or puffery, wherein sellers make superlative statements of opinion about the features of their products.

Such exaggeration may lead to heightened rivalry (in most cases, the competing firm responds with similar advertisements), high promotion costs, and, possibly, expensive court proceedings.

 Example: Audi vs. BMW

With the tagline “This is what happens if you don’t have Quattro,” Audi’s advert targets the new BMW M3,with the intent to demonstrate that the Audi RS4 is the better of the two.

Example – BMW vs. Mercedes

BMW took a dig at Mercedes by captioning the
above image as “A Mercedes can also bring driving pleasure,” given how BMW’s own tagline is “Sheer Driving Pleasure.”

Example –  Kingfisher Airlines vs. Jet Airways

Jet Airways, a leading airline in India, announced to their customers that they have changed. Kingfisher Airlines retorted with an ad saying “We made them change.”

3. Profit Motive And Advertising Ethics

Occasionally, companies get carried away by profit and forget their responsibility toward society. To enhance effectiveness, marketers have been coming up with a variety of advertisements. They attempt to give these ads a different touch to make them look appealing. For experimentation and to win the market game, from time to time, marketers make ads that may not be ethical.

Example:  Uber

Uber launched and campaign titled ‘You Drink We Drive’, which showed various popular pubs and bars and categorized them as ‘#UBERAPPROVED PARTNERS’. As per ASCI, this campaign promoted drinking and alcohol, which is not permissible according to their guidelines.

Example: Videocon

In a commercial for Videocon Washing Machine, the company claimed its washing machines as being eco-friendly and being designed to save water and energy, in addition to caring for your clothes. The claim was not substantiated with evidence, and the company withdrew this ad later on.

4. Indian Pharmacy Sector

Every pharmaceutical company is entitled to promote its products and develop brands. However, some pharmaceutical companies have been using their marketing budgets for other forms of sales promotions instead of brand building.

Some such ‘promotional’ activities include unethical practices of offering gifts not related to the medical profession, bribing medical professionals (Doctors) through free lunches, dinners, and so on under the pretext of CMEs and medical conferences.

Government plans mandatory marketing code for pharmaceutical firms

In January 2015, the Department of Pharmaceuticals issued the voluntary Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP). However, this voluntary code was barely impactful.

Therefore, the government subsequently decided to roll out a (mandatory) statutory code of principles to check unethical practices in the pharmaceutical industry, for example, winning prescriptions by doctors to increase revenues.

The government, industry groups, Medical Council of India, and representatives from patient advocacy groups were consulted on the broad guidelines. The move will sensitize pharmaceutical companies

The rules of the code came into effect in January 2015 for a period of six months and were later extended until March 31, 2016. The code is expected to be made applicable on a larger scale in the second half of 2016.

 5. Unethical marketing in the financial sector

A few unethical marketing practices in the financial sector are as follows: Hidden Charges, particularly in credit cards, personal loans, ULIPs, and mutual funds. Confounding product design to show the extra utility and lower product prices to draw customers.

Misrepresentation of facts related to a product by investment advisors or salespersons. Withholding of important product information. Aggressive in-branch handling of customers and promoting to them adjacent products with the main product which may not even be needed by a given customer.


Sales personnel dealing with insurance and other financial services are trained to not entertain customer complaints pertaining to unethical charges levied on customers. Life advisors selling insurance products do not disclose the adverse and tricky aspects of a Unit Linked Insurance Plan.

6. Unethical Advertising In the Retail Sector

Retailers may use certain ethical standards that guide decision-making when confronting questionable situations that may not be covered by the law. Retailers have not developed ethical codes of practice, but they have certain norms, and these norms do not guarantee ethical behaviour.

 Example: Flipkart

In some cases, sellers on Flipkart have sold fake products to customers, who have had to complain against such practices to the company.  To deal with this matter, Flipkart hired mystery shoppers—people paid to act as customers—to buy products from sellers listed on the site and report their experiences of doing so.

Flipkart’s “secret agents” sent photos of the packaging, labels, and products delivered to them, which were processed by the company’s trust and security team. If product, service, or packaging quality was found to be substandard, the company took action against the seller, ranging from enrolling them in mandatory training programmes to delisting in extreme cases.

To resurrect its brand image in the minds of consumers, Flipkart launched an ad campaign titled “Flipkart MatlabBilkulPakka—100% Original Products”. The new campaign, conceptualized by Lowe Lint as Bangalore, was built considering that Indians remain wary of the quality of products sold online.

Ethics In Advertising

Ethical aspects of advertising include various features such as social effects, the creation of desire in consumers, and the effects of advertising on consumer beliefs.

A few major complaints about advertising include the following

  1.  Overemphasis on materialism
  2.  Increased control
  3.  Perpetuation of stereotypes
  4.  Unfair focus on children
  5.  Offensive nature of ads
  6.  Unethical advertisement of hazardous products

A few ethical concerns in advertising are as follows:

1. Deceptive Advertising

This involves using false or misleading statements for product promotion, for example, misrepresentation of a product, which may negatively affect many stakeholders, especially consumers.

Examples – Volkswagen

lawsuit was filed against Volkswagen, alleging that the car company deceived customers by an advertising campaign promoting its “Clean Diesel” vehicles.

In 2015, it was found that VW had been cheating on emissions tests of its diesel cars in the US for the past seven years.

It was alleged that Volkswagen deceived consumers by selling or leasing over 550,000 diesel cars on the basis of false claims that the cars were low-emission and environmentally friendly.

Examples Dettol

Reckitt Benckiser Healthcare India advertised Dettol by claiming Only Dettol gives 10 times more protection against germs”. This claim was found to be misleading because it was based on a comparison of the company’s soap, which contains germicidal additives, to products that do not contain germicidal additives.

 2. Children in advertising

Advertisers target children when promoting products meant for children. However, at times, children are targeted to promote products that are not meant for children based on the knowledge that in the current market, children influence product purchase decisions, for example, by demanding that their parents by a certain product.

3. Socially questionable advertising

Some products are socially questionable and cannot be promoted ethically. Socially questionable advertising includes the stereotyping of women, surrogate advertising, making false claims, and so on.

Types Of Unethical Advertisements

1. Surrogate Advertising

In certain jurisdictions, laws prevent the advertising of products such as cigarettes or alcohol. Surrogate advertising involves finding ways to remind consumers of these products without alluding to them directly.

Example: Bacardi

Bacardi, a renowned name in the alcohol business, advertises its signature rum by sponsoring various events, most notably the annual NH7Weekender music festival and music CDs.

Example – Kingfisher

UB group–owned Kingfisher is a well-known lager beer. The company markets and sells lavish calendars and bottled drinking water to enhance brand recall among consumers.

2. Exaggeration

A few marketers make fallacious claims with regard to product’s quality or popularity. A slogan such as “get coverage everywhere on earth” advertises something that cannot be delivered feasibly.

Example – Airtel

Airtel’s claims of, “Airtel 4G is the fastest network ever” and “If your network is faster, we will pay your mobile bills for life ,” in its advertisements are misleading by omission given the lack of suitable disclaimers in print, TV, and billboard advertisements.

Example –  L’Oreal

L’Oreal’s claimed that its product Garnier face wash eliminates 99.9% of “pimple-causing germs,” an ambiguous and unsubstantiated claim.

3. Puffery

This is when advertisers bank on subjective claims rather than objective ones. For instance, claims such as “the best tasting coffee” cannot be confirmed objectively.

Example – Pillsbury

The company’s advertisement for Pillsbury Rava Idli Mix claimed “Payein bilkul ghar jaisa swaad. Yeh hai desh ki 10 mein se 9 mahilaon ka kehna”, and the claim was unsubstantiated.

Example –  Lotus Herbals Limited (Lotus Herbals Youth RX)

The company’s advertisement claimed to provide “firmer and younger skin in just 7 days” and that “In 4 weeks, 96% of users agreed that the effects of ageing were almost gone”.

4. Unverified Claims

Many products promise to deliver results, but such promises are not backed by concrete evidence. For example, shampoo commercials promise stronger, shinier hair, but they fail to tell customers how or why.

Example  – Bajaj Auto

In marketing its scooter ‘Bajaj Saffire’, Bajaj auto claimed the vehicle consistently returns a fuel economy of 50 kmpl. When asked to prove the claim, representatives of Bajaj Auto stated that the claim was valid under standard test conditions.

Example  – Bharti Softbank Ltd (Hike Messenger)

The company’s advertised claims of “Five times faster” and “10 new features” were not backed by evidence.

5. Stereotyping Women

Women have often been projected as sex objects or domestic servants in advertising. Such advertising promotes negative stereotypes and contributes to sexism in the culture.

Example –

Example –  ING Vysya Life Insurance

An ING Vysya Life Insurance advertisement portrayed the girl child as a burden on parents by quoting “Dikhne me toh pyari hai, yeh khushiyan thodi bhari hai” (She’s lovely to look at, but this happiness comes at a price).

Brands attempting to shatter stereotypes


In June 2016, Unilever, the world’s second largest advertiser and owner of the Axe deodorants, stated that it will not use sexist stereotypes in its ads worldwide.  According to Unilever, its new ads will portray the “modern, relevant, genuine world of attraction — the true magic that happens between two equals.”

Lloyd – Unisex Washing Machine

“Show it to her, it’s her department,” quips a man to a salesperson demonstrating a washing machine to him and his wife. In the ad, Lloyd questions whether laundry is exclusively a woman’s responsibility.

Havell’s Fans – Hawa Badlegi

A newly married couple walks into the registrar’s office, where the husband tells the officer that he wants to adopt his wife’s last name.

6. Unhealthy Brand Comparisons

A few advertisers engage in brand comparisons that may confound customers about the right product choice.

Example – Flipkart vs. Snapdeal vs. Olx vs. amazon

7. Total Lies

Some advertisers outright lie in their ads to deceive customers.

Example: Nivea

Nivea claimed about its body lotion that “regular use significantly reduces body size.” A US court ruled Nivea to pay $900,000 as a settlement for the misleading ads and to cease production of the “Bio-slim Complex” product.