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Ethics in advertising decisionmaking: implications for reducing the incidence of deceptive advertising.

Advertising exerts a significant impact on consumers' lives (Pollay 1986). On the positive side, advertising has discouraged participation in harmful behaviors (such as drunk driving and drug use), encouraged participation in socially beneficial behaviors (such as conservation and physical fitness), and provided detailed information which consumers need to accurately conduct product evaluations. On the negative side, advertising has misled and deceived consumers resulting in misinformed and inappropriate (and, in the case of health and environmental products, potentially dangerous) product selections.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has primary responsibility for review, regulation, and, when appropriate, elimination of deceptive advertising. However, in response to significant reductions in staffing, the FTC has allocated its resources to areas and claims felt to have the greatest detrimental impact on the consumer.(1) Individual states have attempted to fill the regulatory void left by the FTC but a lack of resources also hinders these efforts. As a consequence, less significant but still deceptive advertising may go unregulated. These latter types of deceptive practices may include

* advertising puffery (when believed by consumers), typically defined as the use of exaggeration, superlatives, or hyperbole (Cunningham and Cunningham 1977; Kamins and Marks 1987).

* general, rather than detailed, descriptions of product features that lead consumers to draw incorrect inferences about product benefits and performance (Alwitt and Mitchell 1985; Harris et al. 1989).

* qualifiers and vague quantifiers. An advertiser might state, "Why do many doctors recommend our aspirin? It may be because of our special formulation." This technique is used in the hope that the consumer will interpret the copy to mean "Most doctors recommend our aspirin because of our special formulation."

* small (and, in the case of television, fleeting) qualifiers and disclaimers which generally fail to provide the consumer with important product-related information (Foxman, Muehling, and Moore 1988).

Because current regulatory control is insufficient to reduce or eliminate deceptive advertising practices, the task is to identify other methods for reducing the incidence of deceptive advertising practices. Discussions of alternate approaches for reducing the incidence of deceptive advertising are typically framed in terms of economic or political theory: for example, relative appeal of regulatory versus free market solutions (Bloom 1989). As might be expected given the divergence of opinion reflected in these perspectives, no consensus for the "best" approach exists.

This research examines the problem from a different perspective. One means for altering an individual's behavior is to first identify the factors which exert the greatest influence on decisionmaking and then develop programs, communications, or activities that specifically target, or at minimum recognize the existence of, these factors (Ajzen 1985; Albert, Aschenbrenner, and Schmalhofer 1988; Fishbein and Ajzen 1975). In other words, once the dominant influences on decisionmaking are identified it is then possible to develop programs that (1) establish or reinforce those influences which lead to decisions in the consumer interest and (2) reduce or eliminate those influences which lead to decisions counter to the consumer interest.

Research suggests a number of competing external and internal factors may influence how advertising professionals evaluate alternate decisions related to advertising content and policy (Akaah and Riordan 1989; Strong and Meyer 1992). External influence factors include legal considerations such as laws and regulations, business/performance results (e.g., anticipated business or economic outcomes of the decision), general industry considerations (e.g., standards and professional codes of conduct), corporate considerations (e.g., rules, regulations, and expectations), and interpersonal considerations such as the anticipated response of peers, supervisors, clients, and other significant individuals. Internal influence factors include personal experiences, values, level of moral or ethical development, and internalized social norms. In spite of variance across researchers as to how these factors are labeled and incorporated into conceptual models of business-related decisionmaking, four independent factors have been identified as exerting a relatively greater influence on how an individual frames and reaches a decision. These are personal values/ethical orientation, the opinion and anticipated response of management/peers, legal constraints/considerations, and business/economic considerations (Aupperle, Carroll, and Hatfield 1985; Carroll 1979; Ferrell and Gresham 1985; Hunt and Vitell 1986; Strong and Meyer 1992; Trevino 1986).

The development of tailored remedies and actions requires identification of the factor or factors which exert relatively greater influence on decisionmaking about advertising content and policy. If advertising professionals' decisions are most influenced by ethical considerations, that is, if they consider the public good, the absolute "rightness" of their decisions, and the consequences of their actions on their target consumers, then deceptive advertising might be considered "lapses of judgment." In this case, because an ethical orientation exists and is generally influential, remedial actions designed to reduce the incidence of deceptive advertising might build upon this orientation, encouraging advertising professionals to more consistently consider ethical factors to avoid such lapses. On the other hand, if agency personnel are not ethically oriented, but instead are primarily guided by what is technically allowable (the literal letter of the law) then the elimination of deceptive advertising requires a different set of solutions. Here, an ethical foundation would have to be developed and incorporated into the decision-making process and/or the nature of regulatory control would need to be altered.

This research explores the relative influence of four factors--the anticipated approval of management/peers, legal, business, and ethical considerations--on decisionmaking related to advertising content and policy. First, the research seeks to determine if advertising professionals display consistency across different types of decision-making situations. Current research in this area is ambiguous. Some research has shown that the influence of a specific factor on decision-making may be affected by the dynamics of a specific situation (Trevino 1986) while others posit consistent factor influence, such as ethics, across situations (Kohlberg 1976; Kohlberg and Candee 1984). Determination of the consistency of influence factors is important because it provides an understanding of an individual's underlying orientation. An individual who is influenced by ethical considerations in some situations, but not others, possesses a different altitudinal structure and orientation than an individual who is never influenced by ethical considerations. Because remedies designed to reduce the incidence of deceptive advertising must be tailored to the underlying attitudinal structure (in terms of factor influence) it is necessary to determine the consistency and nature of the structure. Second, the research seeks to determine the specific influence of each factor on decisionmaking. If there is a high level of consistency in terms of the relative and situational influence of each factor, then it is possible to determine the extent to which each factor influences the decision-making process. On the other hand, if factor influence is found to be situation specific, then it becomes necessary to identify the specific circumstances in which each factor is likely to exert relatively greater or lesser influence. The outcomes of the research are used as the basis for recommending activities designed to reduce the incidence of deceptive advertising.



The goal of the sampling plan was to obtain a generalizable sample of advertising professionals. Use of lists of members of advertising professional organizations was rejected because of potential bias and subsequent problems with generalizability. No data are available to determine the percentage of all advertising professionals who are members of such organizations or to identify and compare characteristics of members versus nonmembers. Commercial mailing lists were also rejected. High levels of attrition and job movement in the advertising profession result in list inaccuracy rates as high as 35 percent (Nash 1986; Vitell 1986).

Given limitations of professional membership and commercial lists the following sampling plan was developed. Using an [] name selection procedure, 225 advertising agencies were selected from the Standard Directory of Advertising Agencies (1992), a comprehensive alphabetical listing of all U.S. advertising agencies. For purposes of count and selection, different offices of the same parent company, for example Young & Rubicam/New York and Young & Rubicam/Chicago, were considered to be separate agencies and were each counted during the selection process. Thus, all offices regardless of size had an equal probability of selection. The Standard Directory of Advertising Agencies lists agency officers and, in larger agencies, individual department heads. At each selected agency one individual was identified as the "contact." When a selected agency was large enough to have listed individual department heads the "contact" was selected via rotation across departments across agencies. The contact in large agency n was a senior person in Account Services, the contact in large agency n + 1 was a director or other senior person in Research/Strategic Planning, the contact in large agency n + 2 was the director or other senior person in Media, and the contact in large agency n + 3 was the director or other senior person in Creative Services. After Creative Services the rotation began again with Account Services. When there was more than one potential contact in a department, selection of the contact was made using one or more coin tosses. In those cases where individual department heads were not listed (typically smaller agencies), the contact was the most senior person listed in the Standard Directory of Advertising Agencies, typically the agency president or CEO.

A contact received a cover letter and five copies of the questionnaire. The cover letter explained in broad terms the purpose of the study and asked the contact to complete one copy of the questionnaire and to distribute the other four copies in their department (department head contacts) or the agency as a whole (president/CEO contacts). To broaden the sample base, contacts were instructed to distribute the questionnaires to individuals with a range of age and professional experience. There is obviously some risk to generalizability in this "distributive" approach to sampling as there is no control over who was given questionnaires. However, the distribution of questionnaires to individuals within the agency by the designated contact was done to reach newly hired and lower management professionals who are typically unreachable through more traditional sample selection (i.e., obtaining lists of members of professional organizations, commercial mailing lists, or the Standard Directory of Advertising Agencies).

Two hundred and six usable questionnaires were returned from all deliverable questionnaires (n = 980) for an effective return rate of 21 percent. A post hoc examination of agency size indicated that nine agencies had four or less professional employees. This may have slightly contributed to the relatively low response rate. The response rate obtained in this study is comparable, however, with return rates of other similarly focused research conducted among advertising professionals. Hunt and Chonko (1987) and Hunt, Wood, and Chonko (1989) report response rates of 17 percent while other studies report response rates from 20 to 35 percent (Akaah and Riordan 1989; Krugman and Ferrell 1981). Hunt and Chonko (1987) present two potential explanations for the low response rate in ethics-related research: (1) the topic is so sensitive that many may be extremely reluctant to respond to questionnaires that deal, even peripherally, with ethics and (2) ethics may be such little concern to advertising executives that they do not feel the need to respond to questionnaires addressing this topic.


The four-page questionnaire consisted of three sections: introduction, situations, and demographics. The introduction presented the reasons for the study, identified and defined the potential influences on decisionmaking, and specified the respondent's task. Instructions read as follows:

We are interested in what you think about and what you consider when making advertising-related decisions. It is possible that you consider many things when making a decision. We are interested in four specific considerations. These are

* whether or not management and your peers at the agency would approve of your decision

* whether or not the decision is strictly legal

* whether or not you think the decision is morally or ethically right or wrong

* whether or not the decision is good from a business perspective, that is, the decision's ultimate effect on the agency's or client's business.

This page and the following two pages present five different decision-making situations. Following each situation are pairs of considerations. For each pair of considerations place a check by the one member of the pair which would exert the most influence on the ultimate decision you make. There are, of course, no right or wrong answers. Please answer honestly.

The five situations addressed areas identified by advertising professionals as important and difficult decisions (Hunt and Chonko 1987). Situations 2 and 5 relate to business practices. The situations related to advertising content (situation 1--puffery, situation 3--halo effects, and situation 4--implied superiority) reflect types of circumstances that have the potential to lead to deceptive product claims.

Initial versions of the situations were pretested among a convenience sample of 17 advertising professionals located in a major western U.S. city. Pretesting was conducted to ensure clarity, relevance, realism, the absence of internal bias or obvious responses, and to make certain that all four influence factors could apply to a particular situation. As a result of the pretesting minor wording changes were made in the first and fourth situations. The situations appear in Figure 1 in the form and order they were presented on the questionnaire.

Data Collection

Paired-comparison scaling was used to determine the relative influence of each of the four influence factors. Paired-comparison scaling involves (1) identifying a set of objects (in this case the four influence factors), (2) constructing a set of all possible pairs of objects, (3) presenting a respondent with one pair of objects at a time until all possible pairs are presented, and (4) requiring the respondent, after presentation of each pair, to select one of the two objects in the pair according to a predefined criterion. In this research, the criterion on which one member of the pair was selected was "most important in influencing your decision." The design therefore asked respondents to choose between competing influences, accounting for the possibility that the decisions reached by advertising professionals may often be the result of trade-offs among different influences and constraints. The four influence factors resulted in six pairings: legal versus ethics, legal versus business, legal versus management/peers, ethics versus business, ethics versus management/peers, and business versus management/peers.

After each situation all possible pairs of the four influences were presented. Incidental wording customized the pairing to the specific situation. For example, the legal versus ethics pairs in situations 1 and 2 were worded, "whether use of the claim is legal . . . whether use of the claim is ethically fight or wrong" (situation 1), "whether accepting information is legal . . . whether accepting information is ethically right or wrong" (situation 2). The order of pairings and the order of influence factors within a pair were randomized for each situation in order to reduce bias associated with presentation order. After reading each decision-making situation the respondent was reminded to select one member of each pair that would have the most relative influence on the ultimate decision. The questionnaire concluded with demographic questions and instructions for questionnaire return.


Sample Demographics

Table 1 presents sample demographics. Respondents were equally likely to be male (54 percent) or female (46 percent), and all were well-educated with a range of educational backgrounds. Liberal arts, journalism, the fine arts, and business each represented about one-quarter of the sample. Importantly, the sampling plan appears to have achieved its goal of obtaining responses from a broad range of professionals, especially those new to the industry. Respondents were of all ages (range from 20 to 70 years) and represented a broad range of years of professional experience (range from one to 47 years). All agency departments were represented.(2)


Are influences on decisionmaking situation specific?

For each pair of decision-making influences a coefficient alpha (Cronbach 1951) was calculated. Coefficient alpha, as used in this research, indicates the extent to which respondents were consistent in their selection of one member of an influence pair versus the other across the five situations. The greater the coefficient alpha for any pair of influence factors the greater the consistency in selection. For example, a high coefficient alpha for the legal versus ethics pair would indicate respondents displayed a high degree of consistency in selecting the same influence (i.e., legal or ethics) in all five decision-making situations. All coefficient alphas were acceptably high (Nunnally 1978). Coefficient alphas for the six pairs were legal versus ethics, .75; legal versus business, .62; legal versus management/peers, .64; ethics versus business, .66; ethics versus management/peers, .69; and business versus management/peers, .64. Thus, influence does not appear to be situation specific. Regardless of specific characteristics of the situation, respondents displayed high levels of consistency in selecting a specific influence factor within a specific pair.

Advertising Professionals' Demographics (n = 206)

Characteristic Percent of Sample


Male 54
Female 46

Age (years)

20-24 5
25-34 38
35-44 34
45-54 16
55+ 7


High School 3
College (BS/BA) 78
Masters 12
Advanced 7

Education Major

Liberal Arts 23
Arts/Fine Arts 22
Journalism 22
Business 22
Multiple/Other 11

Agency Function

Account Management 45
Creative 23
Media 22
Research 6
Multiple/Other 4

Experience (years)

1-4 13
5-9 22
10-14 24
15-19 16
20+ 25

Dominant Influence on Decisionmaking (n = 206)

Dominant Influence Percent of Sample

LEGAL 47.6

Is there a dominant influence on decisionmaking?

Given high levels of consistency in the selection of one factor in a pair versus another, each individual's choices for all five decision-making situations were converted to a quasi-interval scale through the application of Thurstone's law of comparative judgment (Thurstone 1927; Peterson 1982). Thurstone's law of comparative judgment requires that one first express preference as a proportion, for example, the percentage of times legal is selected over ethics. This proportion is then converted to a Z value and summed for each influence factor, resulting in the scaling of each factor on a quasi-interval scale. For each respondent, the influence factor with the highest scale score was determined to be that respondent's dominant influence on decisionmaking. When no single factor emerged as the highest the respondent was assigned to a MIXED INFLUENCE group. (For purposes of nomenclature, influence factors are presented in lowercase. Dominant influences and names of dominant influence groups are in uppercase letters.)

The distribution of advertising professionals across decision-making influence groups is shown in Table 2. The vast majority of advertising professionals (90.3 percent) displayed a pattern of response in which one of the four factors emerged as the dominant influence on decisionmaking related to advertising content and policy.

Which factor exerts the dominant influence during decisionmaking?

As seen in Table 2, the largest group of respondents, nearly half (48 percent), said that their decisions were primarily influenced by what is legal. Ethics appeared to exert a relatively lesser role in decisionmaking. It was the dominant influence among 28 percent of advertising professionals. Relatively few respondents (15 percent) said that they were primarily influenced by the decision's ultimate impact on the agency's or the client's business. The opinions of peers and management at the agency were a dominant influence for almost no respondents (less than one percent).

While most professionals display a pattern of response in which one influence factor emerges as dominant, it is still possible that one or more of the remaining factors may exert an important secondary influence. To more fully understand the interrelationships of factors exerting an influence, a decision-making matrix for each group of advertising professionals was constructed. The data in any particular cell in a matrix report the percentage of times the column factor was selected over the row factor.

The top portion of Table 3 displays the pattern of response for the largest group of professionals, those who are primarily influenced by legal criteria. As can be seen by the percentages in the legal column, legal considerations are given precedence over business, ethics, and management/peers more than 80 percent of the time. Both ethics and business considerations appear to exert relatively comparable, although distant and secondary influence. There is no significant preference of business versus ethics as an influence on decision-making (45 percent versus 55 percent), and both business and ethics exert substantially more influence than that of management/peers.

The center portion of Table 3 displays the pattern of response for the second largest group of advertising professionals, the ETHICS group. As can be seen by the percentages in the ethics column, ethical considerations appear to be the sole influence or considerations for these individuals. Ethical considerations are given precedence over the remaining considerations more than 85 percent of the time. Although exerting comparably less influence, a secondary consideration for this group appears to be legal considerations. When presented with paired influences of legal and business, legal is selected over business in the vast majority of cases (79 percent).

The bottom of Table 3 displays the pattern of response for those primarily influenced by the "bottom line," the decision's effect on the agency's or client's business. The internal pattern of response for these professionals is slightly different from that of the prior two groups. The percentages in the business column show that business considerations do exert more influence than the other three factors. However, the levels at which this dominant influence is given primary consideration are not as high as the dominant influence in the other two groups. Moreover, there is no clear preference among the remaining three factors. Selection of one item in the paired comparisons of the remaining three factors is close to chance (legal versus ethics, 51 percent to 49 percent; legal versus management/peers, 56 percent to 44 percent; ethics versus management/peers, 53 percent to 47 percent).

Influence Factors Selected: LEGAL, ETHICS, and BUSINESS Dominant Influence

Influence Management/
Group Factor Legal Ethics Business Peers


LEGAL Legal -- 17 18 11
(n = 98) Ethics 83 -- 45 20
 Business 82 55 -- 22
 Peers 89 80 78 --

ETHICS Legal -- 85 21 17
(n = 57) Ethics 15 -- 13 5
 Business 79 87 -- 30
 Peers 83 95 70 --

BUSINESS Legal -- 49 69 44
(n = 30) Ethics 51 -- 73 47
 Business 31 27 -- 7
 Peers 56 53 93 --

a For each dominant influence group, numbers are the percentage of times the
column factor was selected over the row factor.

Are dominant influences on decisionmaking related to personal or professional demographics?

Tests were conducted to determine the relationships between demographic characteristics and influence group assignment.(3) The sample for these analyses consisted of the 185 professionals assigned to the LEGAL, ETHICS, and BUSINESS dominant influence groups. The analyses excluded the MIXED INFLUENCE (n = 21) as it lacked a dominant influence and MANAGEMENT/PEERS group due to its low frequency (n = 1). Depending upon the scale underlying a specific variable either analysis of variance or chi-squared was employed. Chi-squared tests of gender, level of education, and educational emphasis were all statistically nonsignificant across the three influence groups (gender--[[Chi].sup.2] = 0.03, df = 2, p = .98; level of education--[[Chi].sup.2] = 6.88, df = 6, p = .33; educational major--[[Chi].sup.2] = 3.63, df = 8, p = .89). The ANOVA showed each of two highly inter-correlated variables, age and years of experience (r = .91), were statistically different across the influence groups (age, F (2, 181) = 6.25, p = .002; years of experience, F (2, 182) = 4.54, p = .01). Respondents in the BUSINESS group tended to be younger (mean = 35.3 years) and have the least professional experience (mean = 11.9 years). Respondents in the LEGAL group were slightly older (mean = 36.5 years) with slightly more experience (mean = 13.0 years), while respondents in the ETHICS group were the oldest (mean = 41.5 years) with the most professional experience (mean = 16.9 years).


Study limitations need to be noted prior to discussion of implications. First, while comparable to other studies conducted among advertising and business professionals, the response rate in the present study was low in absolute terms. Second, because study participants were not identified by name there was no opportunity for follow-up mailings or for a determination of possible response versus nonresponse bias. There is no reason to suspect, however, that any response bias did occur. Third, the present research is limited in terms of the number and breadth of the decision-making situations presented. For these reasons, the results should be interpreted cautiously.

Advertising professionals are constantly faced with situations in which decisions must be made. Perhaps in an effort to reduce the complexity of the decision-making process and to cope with the vast number of decisions which must be made on a daily basis, individuals appear to adopt a mode of decisionmaking in which decisions across a broad range of situations, including but not limited to creative decisions, are primarily influenced by a single dominant consideration. This outcome, reliance on a single influence or consideration across decision-making situations, is consistent with research that has demonstrated that individuals develop rules of thumb or heuristics to guide decisionmaking (Ferrell and Gresham 1985). A second outcome of the research, an observed relationship between the dominant influence factor and age/professional experience, is consistent with research conducted among business professionals (Borkowski and Ugras 1992; Harris 1990; Ruegger and King 1992). These two findings serve as the basis for proposing actions related to professional training and agency management designed to reduce the incidence of deceptive advertising. The underlying rationale for these actions reflects the belief that increasing the influence of ethics in the decision-making process is one means for increasing the likelihood of an individual selecting a socially responsible course of action such as the rejection of deceptive advertising claims. Additionally, reflecting the dominant influence of legal considerations, several changes in advertising regulation are proposed.

Professional Training and Agency Management

The youngest and least experienced advertising professionals are those most likely to be "bottom line" oriented, primarily influenced by the decision's impact on the agency's or client's business. While this research does not provide a basis for determining why this is the case, prior research which has shown this same phenomenon among business professionals has identified several causes: academic training which stressed "the good of business" over "the social good," perceived pressure to compromise personal values in order to be successful in the organization, and/or basic insecurities related to being new to a job and company (Harris 1990; Posner and Schmidt 1984). These reasons, in the context of the findings from this research, suggest several actions for increasing the influence of ethics on these individuals' decisionmaking.

The finding that the youngest, least experienced professionals are the most influenced by business considerations is not unexpected. Many have argued that the orientation of business and professional schools (i.e., social responsibility of business is to increase profits) and emphasis on utility in decisionmaking fosters this view (Lutz and Lux 1988; Reilly and Jyj 1990). Recognizing this orientation, there has been an increase in the emphasis of ethics in business school curricula (Dunfee and Robertson 1988; Piper 1989; Sims and Sims 1991). The underlying rationale for these changes is that increased ethical understanding is a prerequisite to honest, socially responsible, business decisionmaking. The composition of the sample in this research indicates that curricular changes emphasizing the role and importance of ethics in decisionmaking need to move beyond the business school. Less than one-quarter of this sample had a business major; most were schooled in liberal/fine arts and journalism. Moreover, relatively few possessed advanced degrees. Ethics instruction in the liberal arts, especially on the undergraduate level, appears warranted and needed. Because these individuals rely upon a single influence factor across situations, this instruction does not necessarily have to be advertising specific. A significant, long-term reduction in the incidence of deceptive advertising (as well as socially detrimental decisionmaking in general) can be accomplished if curricular changes which emphasize the need for ethical considerations in an individual's decision-making process are successfully integrated across courses in the arts and journalism. Dunfee and Robertson (1988) and Mahoney (1990) note that the integration of ethics instruction is the preferred approach, as opposed to isolated, individual, and often elective courses near the end of the student's formal education.

The specific goals of undergraduate ethics instruction have been articulated by Callahan (1980) and Bishop (1991). Callahan suggests that, at minimum, undergraduate ethics instruction should "make it clear that there are ethical problems in personal and civic life, that how they are understood and responded to can make a difference to that life, and that there are better and worse ways to deal with them" (1980, 62). Bishop (1991) recommends a goal suggested by this research: ethics instruction should help students differentiate between acting legally and acting ethically. Research has shown that this type of ethics instruction can positively affect the way in which students evaluate and respond to ethical situations (Kavathatzopoulos 1993; Weber 1990).

Providing potential advertising professionals with ethics instruction is only the first step toward eliminating the perceived acceptability of deceptive advertising practices. Weber (1990), in a review of the effects of academic ethics instruction, notes that changes in perceptions and attitudes appear to be short-lived. Ethical orientation diminishes as one enters the workplace. For this reason, once individuals enter an advertising agency they must be explicitly shown that incorporation of ethics into their advertising-related decisions is a valued and encouraged behavior. This might be accomplished through the inclusion of ethical criteria in performance appraisals; periodic agency meetings to discuss the moral and ethical dimensions of business; hiring ethically oriented individuals as determined through references, responses to interview questions, etc.;(4) formal and explicit agency code of ethics; and systematic, continuing agency ethical audits (Brenner 1992; Laczniak and Murphy 1991). The reinforcement of ethical behaviors and the discouragement of unethical behaviors, by industry groups such as the Association of National Advertisers, would also contribute to the development of an ethical working climate.

Beyond these agency actions, this research indicates that an in-agency continuation and application of academic ethics instruction can be carried out by those in a position most likely to affect new advertising professionals. The oldest and most experienced advertising professionals state that they are primarily guided by ethical considerations. Moreover, given age and experience, these are the individuals who are most likely in positions of top management. Given their roles within the agency these individuals are in a position to set the tone for agency decisionmaking; that is, to inspire agency personnel to emulate their own emphasis on ethics in decisionmaking. This approach to agency management also has the potential to affect the decisionmaking of middle management, those most influenced by legal considerations. Thus, if agency management is to affect the perceptions of individuals new to the business and in levels of middle management, those in the highest positions of management must set an active example and make explicit their views on the role of ethics in decisionmaking within the agency. This pro-ethical approach to agency management has been discussed by Sims (1992), who states that chief executives should encourage ethical considerations in behavior and decisionmaking from the top down, showing that they support and are willing to reinforce ethical practices. A reduction in the incidence of deceptive advertising should occur when top agency management not only rejects the use of potentially deceptive claims but rewards those who show the initiative and desire to similarly reject the use of these claims.

Changes in academic training and agency management have long-term potential to reduce the incidence of deceptive advertising by increasing the influence of ethics on advertising decisionmaking among middle and entry level advertising professionals. However, because these are longer term solutions, continuing protection from deceptive advertising is also required. This is the role of advertising regulation.

Advertising Regulation

The vast majority of advertising professionals appear to be primarily influenced by legal considerations. On the positive side, acknowledgment and adherence to the law are vital if business is to be successfully conducted. Moreover, it is not necessarily wrong or inappropriate to turn first to an analysis of legal considerations when formulating a decision. What is troubling, however, is that legal considerations do not appear to be tempered by ethical considerations. The line of reasoning among most advertising professionals appears to be "If it is legal, it is acceptable" or, as several respondents voluntarily wrote on their questionnaire, "If it is legal why wouldn't we do it?" Lack of ethical influences precludes consideration of the question, "Even if we can do it, should we do it?" The predisposition of these individuals to satisfy the letter of the law suggests several changes in current approaches to advertising regulation.

First, in spite of limited resources, the FTC must take a more proactive role in the regulation of advertising. The FTC's 1983 policy statement focused on three necessary elements for an ad to be deemed deceptive: (1) there must be a representation, omission, or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer, (2) it must be material, that is, potentially directly or indirectly impacting purchase behavior, and (3) the ad must be evaluated from the perspective of the consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances (FTC 1983; Laczniak and Grossbart 1990). These general principles appear to be a sufficient regulatory basis for challenging the vast majority of claims that have the potential to deceive (Kinnear and Root 1988). However, the FTC under the Reagan and Bush administrations repeatedly voiced an intention to "go slowly" on consumer protection (Bloom 1989). Richards, in this regard, notes that "the new majority on the Commission under the thumb of a Reagan appointee, Chairman James C. Miller III, stepped even further back toward caveat emptor" (1990, 15). As a consequence, advertisers have had considerable latitude in presentation of advertising claims. Recent FTC actions in the areas of health, food, and environmental advertising suggest that the FTC is moving away from this perspective. A reduction in the incidence of deceptive advertising requires that this trend continues.

A willingness on the part of the FTC to more aggressively protect the consumer interest requires more than just implementing current regulations. An FTC challenge to an advertising claim is the result of a disparity between what the advertiser and FTC view as satisfaction of the "letter of the law." As such, while such challenges typically serve to protect the consumer interest they are unfortunately after the fact and do not prevent initial damage. Thus, given the mindset of advertisers to only satisfy the "letter of the law" the incidence of deceptive advertising may be reduced if the FTC issues a set of detailed, formal standards and guidelines for the identification of advertising deception. Owen and Plyler (1991) argue that the use of objective, publicly known standards and guidelines for interpreting advertisements and identifying advertising deception, as well as explicit communication of FTC rationale in consent agreements, would reduce the number of potentially deceptive advertising claims by assisting advertisers in understanding the legal, rather than interpretive, boundaries of deception. The format of a broad guideline could follow the format the FTC has established for situation-specific guides to advertising of individual product categories such as jewelry, credit, and consumer loans. These guides followed FTC decisions in related, individual cases in which the Commission addressed questions of deception, unfairness, or substantiation. The principles developed in the exemplar cases were summarized to provide guidance to advertisers as to the likely enforcement position of the Commission with respect to current practices in that specific domain of advertising (see FTC 1991).

The FTC can also help to reduce the incidence of deceptive advertising by noting advertisers' perspective (compliance with the letter of the law) as they formulate rules and guidelines for specific types of advertising claims. Rules and guidelines must be written so that there is an absence of ambiguity as to what constitutes a deceptive claim for that domain-specific area of advertising. In this regard, environmental claims provide an example of the FTC's failure to present unambiguous guidelines and thereby prevent advertising deception. The FTC guideline for use of the claim "degradable," for example, requires that the product break down in a "reasonably short period of time" (FTC 1992). The term "reasonably short period of time," however, is not quantified and is therefore ambiguous. Such ambiguity permits potentially deceptive advertising to be presented by advertisers who believe they are complying with the letter of the law.


The consumer interest is served when advertising is not deceptive. Because current regulation is unable to prevent many forms of deceptive advertising practices and eliminates other forms of deception only after the fact, this study examined the influences on decision-making about advertising content and policy in order to determine ways to reduce the incidence of advertising deception before it is presented to the public.

Most advertising professionals appear to be primarily influenced by legal considerations, as opposed to ethics, when making decisions related to advertising content and policy. Increasing ethical considerations in the decision-making process is one means for reducing the incidence of deceptive advertising. Methods for increasing ethical considerations include greater incorporation of ethics instruction in the undergraduate curriculum, formal and explicit agency commitment to (and rewards for) ethical decisionmaking, the active role of trade groups in the support of ethical behavior, and more proactive ethical leadership from agency top management. These changes can have long-term potential for reducing deceptive advertising practices.(5)

Short-term solutions for reducing the incidence of deceptive advertising require regulatory actions. The author recommends continued movement away from the caveat emptor perspective of the 1980s, the issuance of detailed, formal standards for the identification of deceptive advertising, and a reduced ambiguity in guidelines for the presentation of specific types of claims.

1 Financial World, in its interview of federal agencies, notes that FTC staffing has ranged from a high of 1,700 during the 1970s to a low of 884 in the late 1980s. In 1993 staffing was approximately 950. As a result of reduction in staffing and other resource support "the zeal which it (FTC) approached regulation dimmed, and it passed on dealing with a number of issues that were thought to have limited economic impact" ("Federal Trade Commission" 1993, 43).

2 It is important that all agency departments, not just creatives, are represented. Increasing use of the "core team" approach to client service and rise in the use of account planners has resulted in a sharing of creative decisions across agency departments. While creatives are still responsible for the creation and execution of the advertising, personnel from all agency departments are becoming increasingly involved in the evaluation of the creative product prior to client presentation, approval, and production.

3 Two demographic questions asked on the questionnaire were not reported. These questions asked the respondent to indicate the number of individuals supervised and to indicate whether or not the respondent was directly involved in agency management. Given unusual patterns of response to these questions (specifically, much higher than anticipated levels of supervision and involvement in agency management) interviews were held with local advertising practitioners to determine potential explanations. Based on these interviews it was determined that there is a range of interpretation for both these variables as expressed in the questionnaire. For example, two individuals with exactly the same role, placement, and job function in the agency could interpret their roles in agency management differently. As a consequence, these questions were eliminated from analysis.

4 The prior three suggestions were provided by an anonymous reviewer.

5 One reviewer correctly pointed out that "the premise of the paper is that if advertising practitioners had higher ethical values there would be less deceptive advertising." The reviewer then disagreed with this premise. "This assumes that they (practitioners) know when an ad has the potential to deceive. I would suggest that many deceptive ads are produced by people who honestly do not believe the ads are likely to mislead consumers--there is no intent to deceive." The author disagrees and points to the common but potentially deceptive practices described earlier and the glut of recent advertising which attempted to capitalize on consumers' health and environmental concerns. This issue, however, cannot be resolved through personal opinion or post hoc analysis of advertising claims. Empirical research designed to address this important issue is clearly warranted.


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Decision-Making Situations

1 You are asked by the client for your recommendation as to whether or not to put an "exaggerated" claim in a piece of advertising. The client wants to say that the product will "clean in one application." It is possible that the product will perform as described, but such performance is not likely under most circumstances. You must decide whether or not to recommend use of the claim.

2 A friend calls and says that he has some "inside" information which can help you in an important new business pitch. The information will not be made available to any of your competitors. You are not sure where the information came from and your friend will not say. You must decide whether or not to accept the information.

3 Your client says that she wants the advertising to say that the product is "new and improved." The product, a shampoo, has been improved chemically (higher grade chemicals are now being used) but these changes are very unlikely to make the product perform any better than the original version. You must decide whether or not to recommend making the claim.

4 A creative team wants to make the claim "nothing is better than our product." This claim is technically true as your product and all others are at parity. You know, however, that consumers will interpret this claim to mean that the product is, in fact, better. You must decide whether or not to recommend making the claim.

5 In rereading the summary of client billing from three years ago you realize that the client was overcharged for expenses related to a commercial shoot. It is highly unlikely that the client will ever discover these overcharges on his own. You must decide whether or not to communicate this information to the client.

Joel J. Davis is Associate Professor, School of Communication, College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts, San Diego State University, San Diego, CA.
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Author:Davis, Joel J.
Publication:Journal of Consumer Affairs
Date:Dec 22, 1994
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