Ethical Models


Excerpted from Hovland & Wolburg, Advertising and Consumer Culture, in press.


Deontologists hold that certain underlying principles are right or wrong regardless of the circumstances. For that reason, deontology is considered a “rule-based” approach to ethics. To be a moral person, one must not only bring about good results but use the proper means and act with good intentions. The best known deontologist is 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who argued that people can develop moral principles through reasoning alone. Following his logic, one could reason that behaviors such as telling a lie are wrong regardless of the outcome, even if the lie was told in order to protect someone’s safely. Thus, it is possible to develop infallible, universal laws or categorical imperatives regarding lying and other behaviors. For example, lying is always wrong, killing is always wrong, etc. Within the framework of deontology, one must respect all humans and not treat them as a means to an end (Gower 2008).

               Deontology is both appealing and comforting because it offers rules that hold across all situations. It gives us confidence that we can always know what is right by following the rules. However, its apparent strength is also its weakness, for it has been criticized for its rigidity and its inability to operate equitably across situations. One such example is advertising to children. Although the use of advergaming and other forms of new technology has focused increased attention on children’s advertising, it is an issue with a long history. In the early 1990s, a contentious issue was whether to communicate directly with children or with the parents (Paine 1993). With young children, it made sense to direct the messages to parents for toys, games, snack food, etc. since parents are the purchasers of the products. However, advertisers knew that they achieved better results by communicating with children, partly because they are less able to exercise critical thinking skills than adults and also because they want products regardless of whether they are affordable or suitable for them. When children put pressure on parents to buy advertised products, parents are subsequently forced to decide whether or not to give in to the child’s wishes, which can strain the relationship if the purchase is not one that they want to make.

A 2008 article in Best Life Magazine about the marketing of products to children acknowledges the public perception of unethical promotional efforts and encourages parents to fight back. The caption for the article “Monsters Inc.” says it all: “How to thwart the $17 billion marketing effort to steal your kids’ dreams, infiltrate their friendships, plaster their PJs with logos, hijack their imagination, fragment their attention spans, make them obese, and drive a wedge into their relationship with you” (Scott 2008/2009, 128).

Following the deontological perspective, communicating directly with children is potentially exploitative; therefore, it is wrong in any form. Though there is very strong support for placing significant restrictions on children’s advertising, most people would agree that some form of advertising may acceptable within certain limits, particularly for older children and for products that could be beneficial such as healthy food options and exercise. Forming a categorical imperative that maintains that all advertising to children is wrong would leave no room to accommodate any exceptions to the rule.

Even more challenging is an attempt to create a universal law governing children’s advertising that can accommodate different standards for different countries. For example, French advertising regulations are more restrictive than American standards, as we learned in Chapter 5, and by law, children in French ads cannot be the principal actors for products they do not personally use or buy (Taylor and Cunningham 2007). For a number of years Michelin used a televised campaign in the United States that could not air in France, the company’s home country, in which infants floated on tires in rainy and snowy conditions. The campaign with smiling babies was a favorite of many viewers, but the underlying message played upon parents’ fears for their children’s safety. Though the campaign was legal in the United States, it could not air in France because the use of infants to sell Michelins would violate French law in the belief that “the fragile bond between child and parent is preyed upon in order to sell everything from life insurance to tires” (Taylor and Cunningham 2007, 272). Although American standards place restrictions on children’s advertising, it is acceptable to use children as actors in commercials for products they do not use.

Following a deontological perspective, there can be no accommodation for different standards across countries because a universal law must prevail, presumably the French law in this case because it would offer greater protection for children. Similarly, comparative advertising (e.g., advertising that touts the superiority of the advertised product over that of a competing brand) is a legal practice in the United States but is illegal in some countries in the world and inappropriate, though legal, in others. The deontological approach would argue that if it is wrong in one country, it must be wrong worldwide.

Moral Relativism

Moral relativism is a perspective that offers a way to achieve some accommodation of cultural differences, for it holds that ethical practices apply standards relative to social, cultural, historical or personal values. Following this perspective, it is unacceptable for an outsider to judge the moral or ethical acts of another person or group. Moral relativists who take the most extreme position hold that no universal standards exist. There are no absolute rights and wrongs, only different situations.

Because moral relativism accepts cultural differences, it allows us a way out of the rigid absolutism of deontology, which was problematic for issues such as children’s advertising, comparative advertising, regulatory differences across cultures, and certain business practices. For example, bribery is not only considered unethical in the United States but illegal; however, it is a way of life in many other countries. Given the unequal power relationships between the United States and most other countries, imposing an American standard upon the world is likely to be perceived as an arrogant act of cultural imperialism. Following moral relativism, it is acceptable for each country to follow its own standard.

Despite some obvious advantages of this system, moral relativists have been harshly criticized because the cultural practices they find acceptable within its own culture have been condemned by a majority of people worldwide. These include such events and practices as the Holocaust, Apartheid in South Africa, genocide, slavery, terrorism, and Nazism. Since these reprehensible acts are not absolutely bad from a relativist perspective, there is no way to condemn them. Thus, what we gained in flexibility from this perspective is lost due to its inability to provide some minimal standards. Choosing between deontology and moral relativism is an unsatisfying option that forces us to conclude that neither can effectively accommodate all ethical dilemmas.


A different perspective is Utilitarianism, which focuses upon the moral rightness of the results. A simplified explanation is that actions are good if the consequences are good and bad if the consequences are bad. Actions in and of themselves are neither moral nor immoral—it is the results that count. This allows us an alternative to deontology and moral relativism; however, the main challenge is in knowing which consequences take priority over others.

Utilitarianism also maintains that an ethical act produces the greatest possible good for the most people. According to 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, a good or moral act is one “that results in the greatest happiness for the greatest number” (Gower 2008, 5).  At face value, utilitarianism may seem to be a workable idea; however, determining the greatest happiness for the greatest number is complex. Gower (2008) uses an example with Beech-Nut apple juice that illustrates the problem. In the ‘80s, the Beech-Nut Nutrition Corporation learned that a shipment of apple juice concentrate from a supplier didn’t meet the company’s standards because some cases of the product only contained flavored sugar water instead of pure juice. Failing to meet standards presented a moral dilemma because Beech-Nut marketed its juice as 100 percent pure. Beech Nut returned the unused product but struggled to decide what to do about the used concentrate because an examination of the finished product could not reliably determine which cases contained actual juice and which contained sugar water. From a Utilitarian perspective Beech-Nut had to wrestle with the following dilemma:  “…would destroying all of the apple juice inventory and potentially forcing the company into bankruptcy be the greatest good for the greatest number when there was no suggestion that the product was dangerous or that consumers would even notice it was not 100 percent apple juice? Or would leaving the inventory on the market and remaining financially viable for its shareholders and employees result in the greatest good for the greatest number?” (Gower 2008, 5). Beech Nut ultimately chose to take its chances with the public and leave the product on the market knowing it was not 100 percent pure, a decision which was acceptable by Utilitarian standards but deemed unjust by critics who argued that Beech-Nut sacrificed consumers for the company’s long-term economic viability.

A common problem with the advertising of alcohol and other potentially addictive products is balancing the needs of the general public against those of people who are alcohol dependent. Estimates vary, but approximately 20 percent of drinkers consume 80 percent of the product, according to Miller Brewing Company’s expression of gratitude to the “20 percent of beer drinkers who drink 80 percent of the beer” (Jacobson and Mazur 1995, 165).  These 20 percent are the heaviest drinkers (e.g., alcoholics and binge drinkers), who literally keep the industry afloat. Following the Utilitarian perspective, advertising the product to the general population is acceptable because the majority are neither alcoholics not binge drinkers. However, this ignores the problems that occur when advertising alcohol to a vulnerable group.


Unfortunately, while beer advertising is aimed at a general audience it reaches especially vulnerable audiences—those who are in the throes of alcohol addiction, heavy drinkers, who have the potential to become alcoholics, and those in recovery programs who are actively committed to overcoming alcohol addiction. The traditional marketing notion of maximizing advertising efficiency by targeting those who are likely to consume relatively more of the product has unique implications when the product is addictive, and when the heaviest users include alcoholics…Since there is no indication that alcohol advertising will undergo any further restriction at this time, alcoholics will continue to have to deal with the presence of mass media messages that heavily target them and tap into their vulnerabilities (Wolburg, Hovland, and Hopson 1999, 49-50).



A final ethical dilemma that shows the limitations of Utilitarianism is the depiction of Native Americans as mascots for sports teams. Choosing an identity for a sports team is a very important marketing decision that has many implications for all forms of promotion including advertising. Some non-Native people regard the use of an Indian mascot as a harmless depiction; however, many Native Americans regard it as a blatant form of racism that promotes harmful stereotypes in a highly visible venue. Since American Indians comprise only 1 percent of the United States population, some of whom live on reserves and are isolated from non-Natives, they are unable to provide enough interpersonal contact with non-Natives to counter the stereotypical depictions in the media.

The most dominant depictions of American Indians  are “a villainous warlike group that lurked in the darkness thirsting for the blood of innocent settlers or the calm, wise, dignified elder sitting on the mesa dispensing his wisdom in poetic aphorisms” (Deloria 2003, 23). Neither depiction is realistic, although the savage is the better fit for athletic teams that want an identity tied to aggression. Following the Utilitarian model, the wishes of the majority (sports fans, most of whom are non-Native people) will almost certainly take precedence over those of the minority (Native Americans) because it provides satisfaction for the greatest number of people. However, applying that rule without taking into account unequal power relationships and differences in group size can lead to an outcome that is arguably unjust.

The different ethical perspectives we have examined so far reflect genuine efforts to find guiding moral principles; yet, absolute rule (deontology) doesn’t allow for exceptions to the rule, having no rules (moral relativism) means that anything goes, and attempts at finding a middle ground (utilitarianism) can’t effectively overcome problems of privileging those in power when they are the majority. Therefore, the search continues.

Care-based Theories

The prevailing ethical frameworks approach ethics from a justice-based perspective, all of which have their strengths and weaknesses. Care-based theories of ethics, which were developed by feminists in the second half of the 20th century, offer another alternative and provide a counterpoint to several assumptions. Justice-based perspectives assume that people are independent of one another, that moral reason is rational—not emotional—and that abstract moral principles can be applied impartially to humans, who are in theory equal and autonomous.  In contrast, care-based theorists assume that humans are interdependent and need others for survival (Tronto 1993), that moral reason involves the interplay between emotion and reason (Noddings 2003; Held 1993), and that moral solutions must work for people within the context in which they live (Slattery et al. in press). Consequently, finding a workable, ethical solution to problems from a care-based perspective requires recognizing the interdependence among people, finding solutions that emerge from both emotion and reason, and considering the context in which the problem occurs and safeguarding certain interests, if necessary.

Justice-based theories often treat concepts such as power as a zero-sum game, which assumes a finite amount of power between people that makes some winners and others losers. Within that framework, one group can obtain greater power only at the expense of the other because there is only so much power to go around. Care-based theorists are likely look for solutions outside of that framework. They would seek an understanding of how power originates and how both groups can be empowered without privileging one at the expense of another. Further, they would seek to identify potential vulnerabilities within groups and to understand how the groups relate to each other. Those who are particularly vulnerable would require extra consideration.

Care based-theorists seek solutions to ethical challenges on a case-by-case basis. To do otherwise means applying a blunt instrument across all situations. They recognize that their approach requires stepping out of a comfort zone of “infallible” rules, but because it is grounded in human relationships, their approach is more likely to find solutions based on fairness.

If we rethink the previous examples with children’s advertising, lack of disclosure over product quality, advertising of alcohol, and depictions of Native Americans as sports mascots, we can see that justice-based and care-based approaches would follow different paths. Instead of seeking a categorical imperative regarding children’s advertising, care-based theorists would look at the situation within a given context and seek an understanding of whether all situations jeopardize the relationship between parents and children or whether it applies to just some situations. They would work toward finding an acceptable solution to all stakeholders (children, parents, advertisers, and media companies that carry advertising), which is likely to be more labor intensive process but one that could ultimately provide a better solution than an absolute rule with all its inherent limitations.

Like the children’s advertising example that pits parents against children and the alcohol example that pits vulnerable audiences against the majority, Beech Nut’s approach assumes an adversarial relationship between consumers and stockholders, just the mascot issue assumes an adversarial relationship between non-Native fans of the team and Native people. A care-based approach would not assume a zero-sum game with adversarial roles as a given, and would try to find a workable solution for all. It would also require extra consideration of any group that might appear to be vulnerable to the outcome. Because the justice-based approach is so ingrained in the culture, we may think that its assumptions are the starting point when in fact they may not be.

The disadvantage of the care-based approach to ethics is that it is a more recent theory by two centuries of thinking and is still evolving. There are fewer case studies to serve as models, and moral decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis by investigating the context in which the issue arises. It may be both a time-intensive and labor-intensive process, but one that could potentially lead to a more satisfying outcome.

What we can conclude from our consideration of justice- and care-based ethical perspectives is that as a culture, our thinking is still evolving for developing a moral framework that works well for all situations. Although most advertisers agree that they should be committed to ethical as well as legal behavior in the marketplace, there is no easy framework for them to draw the line between ethical and unethical behavior. This will require individuals within the industry to continue to wrestle with the problem of how to promote goods and services to consumers in ways that respect them as individuals without exploiting them in the name of profit.