How to Be Sure That Your Marketing is Ethical?

11 July 2023
Reading: 6 min

All means are good in war, but where is the boundary between the adequacy of original approaches in marketing and blatant violation of all permitted norms? Unethical advertising practices have long been a topic of concern in the marketing industry. While advertising plays a crucial role in promoting products and services, there are instances where companies and marketers engage in unethical tactics to gain an unfair advantage or manipulate consumer behavior. This article delves into the world of unethical advertising, exploring the various strategies and techniques employed by some advertisers that cross ethical boundaries. Don’t forget to use our checklist to make sure that your next campaign can be called ethical.

What kind of advertising can be considered unethical?

Of course, it is difficult to come to a common denominator in the definition of ethics, because this concept may differ among people of different cultures, ages, religious views, etc. As for the advertising industry, if we don’t have to account for all opinions, because there is a generally accepted ICC Advertising and Marketing Communications Code. It is established by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC). It is the “gold standard” of ethical principles in advertising. The ICC Code serves as a cornerstone for many other national codes.

How to Be Sure That Your Marketing is Ethical?

It follows from this code that unethical advertising is advertising with specific characteristics:

  • It encourages some form of discrimination
  • It damages competitors’ products
  • It plays on fears of something, exploits the theme of unhappiness or suffering
  • It contains foul language or inappropriate images
  • Justifies violence or breaking the law
  • Defames objects of art, national currency, or state and religious symbols
  • Violates standards of decency

To return to the topic of differences of opinion, we can look at the results of the Marketing charts survey. US and UK marketers consider marketing that exaggerates or distorts the truth about a product or service to be the most unethical practice. In second place is marketing that targets vulnerable groups. The third place is hiding important information. 

Cases of unethical advertising

To illustrate the issue, let’s look back at a few high-profile cases of big brand ads that were considered by the public to be prime examples of unethical behavior. 


British medication brand Reckitt Benckiser has launched a range of the well-known painkiller Nurofen with products for different types of pain: back pain, period pain, migraines, and tension headaches. All these specialized painkillers were sold at almost twice the price of standard Nurofen. On inspection, it turned out that each of the packs had the same amount of active painkillers in them — there was no difference between them. The company was fined $1,700,000 for misleading claims and ordered to remove the product line.

How to Be Sure That Your Marketing is Ethical?

Calvin Klein

Calvin Klein brand was inspired by the painting The Last Supper and depicted models wearing Calvin Klein jeans sitting in the same poses as the disciples with Jesus in the original painting. The Catholic Church in France filed a lawsuit against the company and won the case. Calvin Klein paid a $1,000,000 fine for offending religious sensibilities.

How to Be Sure That Your Marketing is Ethical?

Mr. Clean

Mr. Clean in 2011 surprised the audience for Mother’s Day with an unethical advert with the text: “Get back to the job that really matters”. In this wording, the advert could be interpreted as a confirmation of the sexist stereotype that the only important job for women is cleaning the house.

How to Be Sure That Your Marketing is Ethical?


Reebok, in its scandalous advert, called for infidelity: “Cheat on your girlfriend, not on your workout”. After this campaign, some of Reebok’s customers boycotted the company for a long time. Such an advert can be called an example of an ambassador defaming the institution of the family. Kinda questionable motivation to do sports.

How to Be Sure That Your Marketing is Ethical?

Checklist on how to be ethical in your marketing approach

To ensure that your brand is not considered unethical in advertising, it is important to avoid the following practices:

1. False or misleading claims

Avoid making false or exaggerated claims about your products or services. Be honest and transparent in your advertising messages, ensuring that they accurately represent what you offer.

2. Deceptive pricing

Do not engage in deceptive pricing practices, such as artificially inflating prices and then offering discounts or misleading customers about the actual cost of your products or services.

3. Exploitation of vulnerable audiences

Avoid targeting vulnerable audiences, such as children or individuals with limited decision-making abilities, with manipulative or deceptive advertising tactics.

4. Stereotyping and discrimination

Do not perpetuate stereotypes or engage in discriminatory practices in your advertising. Ensure that your marketing materials are inclusive and respectful of all individuals and groups.

5. Invasion of privacy

Respect consumer privacy and avoid invasive advertising practices. Obtain proper consent for collecting and using personal data, and handle it securely and responsibly.

6. Unfair competition

Try not to be engaging in unfair competition practices, such as spreading false information about competitors or engaging in unethical tactics to gain an unfair advantage in the market.

7. Exploitation of social issues

Be cautious when addressing social issues in your advertising. Avoid using sensitive topics solely for the purpose of marketing, without genuinely contributing to the cause or providing meaningful solutions. This is the case 

8. Environmental responsibility

Ensure that your advertising aligns with environmental responsibility. Avoid promoting products or engaging in practices that harm the environment or contribute to negative ecological consequences.

9. Intellectual property infringement

Respect the intellectual property rights of others. Do not use copyrighted material without proper permissions or licenses, and give credit where it is due.

10. Lack of transparency

Be transparent in your advertising practices. Clearly disclose any sponsored content, partnerships, or affiliations to maintain trust with your audience.

11. Unacceptable context

Think twice before using potentially shocking or socially condemnable topics in an advert. This can include the use of sex, particularly the use of women as sex objects, and discrimination in any form, or violent scenes.

Final thoughts

Ethical advertising is a moral imperative and a strategic advantage for brands. By prioritizing honesty, transparency, respect, and responsibility in advertising, brands can cultivate a positive image, gain consumer trust, and establish long-term success in the marketplace. And of course, you should not forget about the bonuses you will get in the future — a loyal audience that does not expect a trick from you. Viral content on unethical newsbreaks and topics will bring momentary attention, but an ethical marketing strategy allows you to build a healthy community around your brand. Let us strive to create an advertising landscape that upholds ethical standards and promotes the well-being of both consumers and businesses.

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