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Advertising Theory and Practise Essay


“…ethics and social responsibility can be seen as the moral obligation of the advertisers not to violate our basic economic assumptions, even when there is no legal obligation” (Arens, Weigold and Arens, 2011, p. 76)

There exists a tendency in the contemporary world to blame advertising for many social evils ranging from low public manners to eating disorders.

Yet, advertising is a paradox, which can petty and potent, trite and threatening, witty and mortifying depending on how it is perceived by the target audience. To be fair to advertisers, some of the blame borders on exaggeration, while some is justifiable by the mere content of the ads.

The focus of this essay is the case filed against McDonald’s Aust. Ltd by a disgruntled adult who argued that their ‘happy meal: mighty me, mighty us’ advertisement featuring children was misguiding to both children and adults.

Specifically, the complainant stated that the advertisement encouraged children and their parents to buy the advertised product on the pretext that the meal would help consumers become ‘a neighbourhood hero’. The complainant further stated that that kind of an ad was bribing ‘children and potentially adults’, into buying the product.

Although the review board ruled that McDonald’s Aust. Ltd did not break any laws guiding the advertising industry in Australia, it is clear that the petitioner’s concern were genuine. After all, matters of ethics and moral responsibility are different from legal matters in the advertising industry.

As Arens et al. (2011) rightfully argue, advertising has its good and bad effects on the society. However, the advertisers can moderate or completely wipe out the bad effects by upholding identified ethical and moral principles.

Specifically, advertisers need to be truthful towards their audience, in addition, to upholding the dignity of the human person when designing the advertisements. Finally, the advertisers need to do their work with the knowledge that they have some responsibilities towards the societies they live in.

But what exactly is advertising ethics all about? According to Arens et al. (2011, p. 10), “ethical advertisers… tell their story truthfully and creatively.” This suggests that in order for advertising to be ethical, the advertiser needs to truthfully inform or persuade their target consumers to take action. Consequently, the advertiser must avoid any deception when encoding, or communicating the advertisement.

Ethical considerations that arise in the McDonald’s Aust. Ltd case study pertains to whether the advertiser had the right to advertise to the children and their parents in the manner that he did.

Moreover, the petitioner was concerned that the some kind of deception was used to make children (and their parents) belief that consuming the product would make them some sort of a hero. Fortunately, for the advertiser, the ruling determined that no offense had been committed as far as Australia advertising laws were concerned (Advertising Standards Bureau, 2011).

The ruling does not however mean that all advertisements are ethical. In McDonald’s Aust. Ltd case study, the petitioner was concerned that with obesity becoming a health concern in Australia, advertisements that promote a particular (seemingly unhealthy way of eating) could only exacerbate the problem.

The petitioner’s worries are best captured by O’Sullivan (2005, p. 374), who argues that the protection of children by adults “conceals an impulse to protect ourselves as adults against the pester power of the evil child, obese with junk food, wild-eyed with video-game violence, rabid for the latest playground craze”.

This is interpreted to mean that protecting a child shields the adult from the pestering of a child who has been convinced by the advertisement, and the demands that result from the conviction that an advertised product is indeed the right one for use.

As Koslow and Costley (2010, p. 222) notes however, “Consumers’ responses to the same advertisement frequently appear to differ in culturally consistent ways.” This in turn makes attaining consensus about the ethical status of a specific advertisement hard. People from different cultures may consider the ad either ethical or unethical depending on their respective cultural socialization.

According to Arens et al. (2011), ethical advertising requires the advertiser and his or her peers to weigh a given situation, and do what they believe is honourable and moral in the specific situation. Social responsibility on the other hand calls for the advertiser to conduct him or herself in a manner that best suits the welfare of communities and people targeted by the advertisement (Arens et al. 2011, p. 76).

But why is upholding ethics and social responsibility such a constant issue in the advertisements debate? Well, Harker (2004) suggests that the visible nature of advertisements make then unavoidable to most people. As such, ads have become a social institution, which people must live with. Apart from their role in the promotion of goods and services, the communication in advertisements has deeper impact on the society.

Specifically, Pollay (1988, p. 7) observes that some observers judge advertising as a tool that has “helped turn nations of religious villagers of modest means and ambitions into envious materialists, eroding social cohesion in the process.” In line with this kind of thinking, one can also argue that some advertisements can shape people’s sense of contentment, while others can entrench stereotypes in the audiences’ minds.

The petitioner in the McDonald’s Aust Ltd case alluded to this fact when she said that the advertisement was suggesting that consuming the advertised foods would make the consumers the neighbourhood hero.

Admitting that advertisement affects the audience’s perception of reality, Potter (2005) observes that advertisers use persuasive communication to deliver their agenda to the targeted masses.

He compares the power of advertising to the persuasion power contained in institutions such as schools, media, peer groups, media and the government. Potter (2005) however observes that most analysts credit advertisements with too much power. Specifically, he argues that some analysts regard the ad messages as a way of brainwashing the masses, while in essence they should be regarded as a seduction tactic.

Potter (2005) further suggests that the consumer still have the ultimate power of choosing whether to believe the message communicated by the advertiser. Specifically, he asserts, “in the face of advertising, consumers are not helpless drones” (Potter, 2005, p. 2).

On his side, Huey (1999, p.49), observe that the effect of advertisement on people can be either weak or strong depending on the complex interaction between the message recipient, messages, and the media. Specifically, Huey (1999, p. 47-49) posits that the effect of advertising is multi-dimensional, non-linear and felt over time.

Just like Potter (2005), Huey (1999, p. 43) argue that advertising is not “something done to the consumer”; rather, consumers use the messages communicated in advertisements to make choices. This means that the best that advertisers can do is shape consumer behaviour through convincing messages.

The ultimate choice however lies with the consumer who is entitled to choose whether the adverts are credible or not. In the context of the McDonald’s Aust Ltd case for example, the consumer had the ultimate choice to believe or disregard the proposition advanced by the advertiser.

The advertiser’s ethical and social responsibility role however lay in the expectation that the food company had dealt with the nutritional content of the advertised product, especially considering that the target poor nutrition is cited as a major cause of obesity (Costa, 2006, p. 14).

While admitting that the petitioner in the McDonald’s Aust Ltd case had a valid argument, it is worth noting that the ruling categorically dismissed the petition.

The ruling stated that the advertiser had not breached the “Quick service Restaurant (QSR initiative), section 2 of the AANA Advertiser Code of Ethics…, and the AANA Code for Advertising and Marketing Communications to children” (Advertising Standards Bureau, 2011, pp.2-3).

But what could have lead to the petitioner to file the complaint seeing that much of the ruling is pretty much a reflection of the advertisement’s description? More importantly, was the board fully representative of the Australian society to the extent that its decision can be seen as a reflection of the larger Australian culture?

According to Koslow and Costley (2010), one’s culture affects how he or she responds to advertisements. Even when addressing consumers within the same geographical boundaries, advertisers should be aware of the fact that there are different groups of people who subscribe to different cultures.

As Koslow and Costley (2010, p.223) suggest therefore, treating such diverse people as a monolith culture only enhance the chance of people misinterpreting the advertisement message.

The authors caution advertisers against using the over socialized view of culture. Specifically, Koslow and Costley (2010, p.223) warn advertisers against assuming that people in the same country will have homogenous perceptions of an advertisement.

This could be interpreted to mean that the advertisers need to conduct an extensive research in their target market, in order to design messages that accommodate as many diverse groups in a society as possible. Accommodating such groups would help the advertiser with upholding the ethical standards in the larger society.

Admittedly, the petitioner’s fears were not without merit. In the argument, the petitioner took offence “that children and parents are being encouraged to buy Happy Meals so that they can try and be a neighbourhood hero” (Advertisements Standard Bureau, 2011, p.1).

Although this assertion was dismissed by the standards bureau, stating that the advertisement targeted parents and not their children, the petitioner’s was to some degree right in stating that the children too (at least indirectly) were targeted by the advertisement.

The observation by Harker (2004) that advertisements are unavoidable renders the assertion by the petitioner viable especially considering that a child watching television would no doubt have his or her attention captured by the children models used in the commercial.

As Pollay (1988, p. 8) observes, advertisements influence people’s awareness, attitudes, perceptions, feelings, preferences and behaviours. As such, there is a wide range of probable and potential effects that such ads can have on the target and indirect audiences.

The concerns by the petitioner in the McDonald’s Aust Ltd case are best captured in Arens et al. (2011) assertion that child-oriented advertising could lead children to believe in falsehoods passed as truths. It could also make children place improbable expectations on the advertised product.

This means that the advertisers have a moral social responsibility not to use ads that mislead children. The ruling can be interpreted as an authentic reflection of the Australian culture, considering the diversity of members who sit in the review board.

Arens et al. (2011) explains that the moral obligation of the advertiser does not have to be bound by laws. Specifically, the authors observe that advertisers can be unethical or irresponsible without contravening any laws. This then leads to the question; is it possible that McDonald’s Aust. Ltd. acted in an irresponsible or unethical manner?

The answer to this question can only be attained by critically analysing the advertisement under scrutiny. To start with, it is notable that the advertisement’s encouragement to parent to purchase the Happy Meal was intended to attract as many participants to enrol in the ‘Mighty Me, Mighty Us Grants Competition’.

It is also notable that the proceeds from the entries were meant to benefit ‘ill children and their families’ (Advertising Standards Bureau, 2011, p.2). The mere fact that the proceeds were channelled into initiatives intended to improve the community can be interpreted to mean that McDonald’s Aust. Ltd., is socially responsible.

The ethical nature of the advertisement can be judge by determining if indeed the content was misleading or deceptive in any way. According to Stern (1994, p.12), the deceptive possibility in an advertisements pose an ethical dilemma, especially when determining the outcome of an advertiser’s persuasive efforts. Judging whether the content in the ad was deceptive or misleading is however not an easy task.

As Stern (1994, p. 12) observes, one would need to understand how the conveyed message interacts with the medium used. In this case, understanding how the McDonald’s advertisement interacted with the medium used is important.

Since the advert showed children imagining several things, which included revitalising a playground to remove graffiti, renovating a swimming pool, and building seat at a cricket pitch, it is hard to argue that such a thing cannot happen. This is especially because no one can contend what is in another person’s imagination. To this end, one can argue that the ad did not go against any ethical standards.

The petitioner’s argument however was more specific; he or she stated that the ad “bribed into eating [this type of food] in the hopes of being a ‘hero’” (Advertising Standards Bureau, 2011, p.1).

Reading the description of the advertisement objectively however leaves little doubt that the petitioner’s assertion was an overstatement. However, there still could be a possibility that the advertisement was designed with an aim of manipulating minors.

In such a case, and even though McDonald’s Aust. Ltd. argued that the ad targeted parents and not their children, the advertiser would be guilty of contravening ethical standards. According to Arens et al. (2011) the traditional actions and philosophical rules enables analysts to measure just how far advertisers have strayed from the ethics.

To do such a thing, the analyst must subject the action of the advertiser to the customary standards of a group. In the McDonald’s case, it is evident that consumers expect the content of the ad to be non-deceptive and non-misleading.

According to Arens et al. (2011), advertisers also have a moral obligation not to contravene the consumer’s basic economic assumptions regarding goods and services. A candid example of consumer’s economic assumption includes the belief that the costs of a product are justified by its value. Gauging the McDonald’s ad on this front, one can argue that it does not contravene the economic assumption of consumers.

Specifically, the advertiser in his defence statement explains the advertised product does not promote unhealthy eating or obesity as has been implied by the petitioner. The defendant argued that he not only stayed within the limits of the advertising laws, but also portrayed good values, which included active pursuits such as playing cricket and swimming.

The advertiser further states that he provides a platform where parents can teach their children about the benefits of giving back to the society (Advertising Standards Bureau, 2011, p. 2). These explanations satisfy the consumer’s economic assumptions, which in this case would be that the advertised product is good for their health.

Evidently, laws can only guard the words and actions of the advertisers. Their intentions however can only go as far as their moral obligations let them. It is such conviction that this paper concludes by stating that Arens et al. (2011) were indeed right in their assertion that ethics and social responsibility of the advertiser goes beyond their legal obligations.

This means that beyond meeting the legal requirements required on ads, the advertiser must be keen and willing to portray good values, promote people’s responsibilities in the society, and support social causes as part of their social responsibilities.

After all, the mark of a good product is not only measured by the amount of sales made through advertising campaigns, but also through the impact that the product or service has on the larger society.

Advertisers must also uphold the ethics and social responsibility if they care about their reputation. In the case study used herein, McDonald’s would have to deliver on its promise of helping unhealthy children through the proceeds of the Happy Meal competition.

Failing to deliver on such a promise could leave lasting negative effects on the advertiser’s image. The advertisers must however live with the reality that no single ad can please everyone.

This is especially true considering the cultural diversity present even in the tiniest of markets. As such, advertisers should strive to abide by the ethical standards of the target community, and address the social issues facing their target audiences.


Advertising Standards Bureau. (2011) Case Report. 0046/11, 1-4.

Arens, C., Weigold, M.F., & Arens, W. F. (2011) Contemporary Advertising.13 E edition. New York, McGraw-Hill Publisher.

Costa, J. D. (2006) Ethics and marketing. Marketing, 111(19), 13-14.

Harker, D. (2004) Educating to improve the effectiveness of advertising self-regulating schemes: the case study of Australia. Journal of Current Issues and Research in Advertising, 26 (1), 69-84.

Huey, B. (1999) Advertising’s double helix: a proposed new process model. The Journal of Advertising Research, May-June, 41-51.

Koslow, S. & Costley, C. (2010) How consumer heterogeneity muddles the international advertising debate. International Journal of Advertising, 29(2), 221-244.

O’Sullivan, T. (2005) Advertising and children: what do the kids think? Qualitative Market Research, 8(4), 371-384.

Pollay, R.W. (1988) Keeping advertising from going down in history –unfairly. European Journal of Marketing, 22 (8), 7-16.

Potter, A. (2006) Gabraith’s theory of advertising had us all fooled. Macleans. CA. [online].

Stern, B.B. (1994) A revised communication model for advertising: multiple dimensions of the source, the message and the recipient. Journal of Advertising, XXIII (2), 5-15.

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