Ethics in advertising

Ethics in advertising probably isn’t something you think about very much.

And the truth is, I don’t think there’s an ad man out there who hasn’t been challenged by this topic at one time or another.


Because ethics in advertising is kind of like pollen. Some people are highly allergic to it, and will avoid it entirely… and others don’t even notice it and can walk around smiling and breathing clearly, all day long — regardless of the pollen levels.

Plus, like everything in life, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure — so who’s to say what’s right and what’s wrong?

However, whether you write ads for your own business… or for clients… you should have “some” kind of ethical parameters for what’s acceptable and what’s not.

I’ve been at this for over 13 years now, and while I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I consider myself to be a fair person, with good ethics.

And when I say ethics — I’m not talking about “work ethic,” I’m talking about basic moral and human ethics that give you guidelines on what’s right and what’s wrong… what’s good and just… and what’s bad and unjust.

So let’s talk about some of the most basica ethical parameters you probably want to have, O.K.?

Great, let’s get started then.

Look, it’s no mystery — the primary issue you have with ethics in advertising, is the claims you’re making.

And the issue is, was, and will always be… are the claims you’re making, accurate?

Are they truly representative of what your product or service is actually capable of doing? And which of your buyers will get to experience these claims?

(And by the way — this is NOT legal advice, but practical thoughts based on my experience with this topic.)

For me, although I am aggressive in creative selling strategies… I tend to be more conservative when it comes to ethics. And that’s simply because I like sleeping in my own bed at night, not a jail cell.

I’d rather err on the side of conservatism with my claims, because then… not only am I playing it “safe”… but the customer gets to have an “over-delivering” experience, which builds good will, and makes sure they’ll come back for more.

And that’s good for business.

However, because many claims are subjective — like, how something tastes, for instance… it’s not always so cut and dried.

Which is why you need to have some baseline standards. For me, I have a couple of simple guidelines:

1. If the product or service isn’t “good” — and by good, I mean… “I feel good about representing the product or the person” — then I walk away.

This is actually a great barometer to use, because it gives you lots of flexibility. You may think, for example, that something I am repulsed by… is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

And there’s nothing wrong with this. Some people like chocolate, others like vanilla — to each his own, right?

2. Would I feel good about my family reading what I wrote, and then ordering the product.

Again, this too, is subjective. But for me, it’s a great reality check, because if I’d be disappointed sharing what I created, with my family… then I shouldn’t be doing it.

But the biggest problems I see, are when you’re selling something with no down-side.

For example, let’s take a look at health and fitness.

Barring any medical problems, there isn’t a person in the world who is going to ever experience anything “bad” from working out or taking multi-vitamins or doing some kind of fitness training. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to experience anything BUT goodness from each these things.

So would it be wrong in this case… if you made hyped up claims?

Would it be wrong if you said, “You will get in the best shape of your life… you will feel at LEAST 15 to 20 years younger than your current age… and your confidence will immediately soar through the roof!”

I mean… even if these claims are exaggerated… by getting people to become more active, you can literally be saving lives here. So isn’t the burden on you, to sell that service, regardless of what you have to say?

Sure. And this is where the issue of ethics comes in. At what point are your claims so far-fetched that they are beyond what’s reasonable and what you can expect?

And how do you balance this with your beliefs about how important your products or services are?

Which is exactly why this is such a difficult topic, at times.

In life, doing the right thing is easy. Doing the right thing all the time, however… isn’t very easy, at all.

Before we go, let me tell you one HUGE universal observation I’ve made, since I started trying to understand what makes people tick. I mention this in my book, so some of this may sound familiar to you.

This was back when I was around 17 or 18 years old… and I began first, by observing people, and then by listening really closely to what they were saying and how they were acting. And then, noticing the consistencies and inconsistencies between these two items — what people say and what people actually do.

And here it is: A few minutes ago, I mentioned “work ethic.”

It’s been my observation, that there’s a direct relationship between work ethics and moral ethics.

Now this doesn’t mean everyone with a good work ethic is honest… and everyone with a poor work ethic is dishonest. And it doesn’t mean if you work harder than the next guy, you’re more honest than the next guy.

What it means is… you will rarely see someone with a consistently strong work ethic, being dishonest. And at the same time, most of the people who are consistently dishonest, tend to have poor work ethics.

And that’s because doing the right thing isn’t always easy. You generally have to work a little harder to do the right thing.

Now go sell something, Craig Garber

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listening to: Who’s Been Talking – Allman Brothers Band (Live at the Beacon, 03-12-2009)



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