Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Ethical issues in advertising By Burhanuddin Hasan

ADVERTISING has been defined as “any paid form of non-personal presentation and promotion of ideas, goods or services by an identified sponsor”. In other words, advertising is the paid use of the media of mass communication to sell a product, a service or an idea.

As the economic outlook of Asian countries steadily improved, advertising became an indispensable mechanism in accelerating awareness, acceptance and distribution of goods and services. The basic objective of all advertisements is to convey the message to the desired target through some communication carrier. The commercial mass media available to advertisers are newspapers, magazines, radio, television, film, outdoor billboards, etc. Some advertisers produce their own medium such as direct mailing of leaflets and brochures.

With the advent of radio’s commercial service and later television and FM radio channels, advertising companies in Pakistan got a tremendous boost. The messages conveyed through advertising are short and crisp and much more attractive than most of the programmes broadcast by the electronic media, and, therefore, more watchable.

Since advertising has grown into a major source of financial support for TV channels, they are tempted to give as much as one-third of their prime time space to commercials. In fact there are no time limits imposed on advertising in popular programmes and even during news bulletins. The viewers naturally are frustrated with frequent commercial breaks and programmes lose their continuity and charm due to too many interruptions.

Likewise, largely circulated newspapers are giving as much as 50 per cent of their space, particularly on the front and back pages, to advertisements. In their quest for as much advertising revenue as they can muster, they do not even hesitate to print or put on air highly offensive, immoral and indecent ads in clear violation of journalistic ethics which have been wilfully put on the back burner. Viewers round the clock are deluged with the same commercials which are playing an odious role in corrupting the country’s social and moral values and escalating the demand for and prices of consumer goods beyond all reasonable proportions.

The ‘dream merchants’ of advertising are weaving a web of deception and glamour and projecting a mirage of false prosperity and artificially thriving economies in countries like Pakistan, where millions of people are living in abject poverty lacking even the most basic necessities of life. A large number of products advertised are serious health hazards such as junk food, in which children and youth have been made the main targets.

Another very unethical and dangerous form of advertising is the practice of ‘puffery’ which is American slang for the use of “gross hyperbole or subjective claims” in advertisements. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been empowered by the Supreme Court to stop false and deceptive advertising which through “representation, omission or practice … is likely to mislead the consumer and lure him to buy such products which may be harmful to his health”. The FTC has now been empowered to impose fines or altogether ban deceptive advertising. It has also formulated specific regulations to stop false and misleading advertising of products for children’s markets.

These actions have resulted in a considerable reduction in the incidence of gross distortions and misrepresentations. Similarly advertising of such products as cigarettes and certain brands of drugs and hard liquor which can cause terminal diseases have been banned altogether on the electronic media in the United States and the majority of countries of the world.

Pakistan is probably the only country in South Asia where products which are recognised health hazards are being advertised unchecked through puffery and false and misleading claims. There is no agency, official or otherwise, to check and control such harmful advertising, nor are there any pressure groups in society to provide protection to the unsuspecting consumers.

The Pakistan Advertising Association, incorporated under the Companies Ordinance, carries a clause in its Memorandum of Association calling for “protecting the art and trade of advertising and sales promotion from unethical practices and monopolies of foreign and house agencies”. In the present scenario it seems that this clause is not being implemented and is in fact wilfully ignored by the advertising agencies themselves.

There is need for the print and electronic media in Pakistan to join hands in launching a vigorous education programme to protect the country’s consumers from (a) deceptive claims of producers of goods and services and misleading sales promotion by advertisers; (b) excessive spending under the influence of advertising; and (c) the harmful effects of advertising on children.

The government may also consider setting up a watchdog commission like the American FTC to protect consumers from misleading and harmful advertising.

The writer is former director news of PTV.


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