Advertising plays a very important role in society, particularly in industrialized countries that have well developed mass communications infrastructures. There are three categories of issues concerning advertising and society. Two of them represent the aggregate effects of advertising on society’s value and lifestyles and on society’s economic well being. The third focuses on the nature and content of advertising. It involves issues of ethics, manipulation, and taste, advertising to children, cigarette and environmental, or green, marketing, and health claims in food marketing.
There has been considerable interest in the question of advertising and ethics in the past decade because of many questionable business and government practices which have been brought to public attention generally. Whether it is ethical to participate in advertising cigarettes in view of new medical findings on the link between cigarette smoking and cancer is an example. It is clear that advertising ethics and other social and economic issues of advertising are heavily inter twined. Consider the argument that advertising manipulates consumers. First, there is concern that advertiser; using subconscious motives uncovered by motivational research can manipulate an unwilling consumer.
Although it is now recognized by professionals that the power of motivation and research is limited, some ethical questions about its use still remain. Second, there is a concern with the use of emotional appeals. The key issue is the definition of a product. Is a product an entity with one or more primary functions or does it involve any dimension relevant to the consumer when she or he makes a purchase decision? Finally, there is the more general concern with the power represented by the volume of advertising and the skill of the people to create it. Some advertising is criticized on the basis of taste – that it uses appeals that are offensive, that the content is annoying or that it is simply too intrusive. Some critics object to use of sex appeals, especially when children may be exposed to advertising. An FTC proposal to ban all television advertising to preschool children and all sugar product advertising to older children was seriously and vigorously debated.
There are restraints on some advertising now. Certain services like legal and medical services are restricted in the way they can be advertised. In most states, the prices of prescription drugs can not be advertised. There are restraints with respect to certain media. Liquor and cigarettes cannot be advertised on television. It is intrusive to review these situations and to consider whether the reasons for the restrictions are defensible and whether they have had undesirable, unanticipated consequences.
It might be possible for the government to restrict advertising levels in certain industries. Restrictions could take the form of mandatory controls on the rates at which firms could increase their advertising budgets. It could even include a provision for firms to decrease their level of advertising.
There have been proposals made to place a tax on advertising or to reduce the tax deduction allowed for advertising over a certain amount. It presumably would not affect the small competitor who would not be advertising at the affected level.