A Brief Overview of Why You May not be Able to Resist Advertising with Children and Puppies

Ethical Markets Trendspotting

The Current State of Ethical Advertising 

by Maria O. Pinochet, Ethical Markets Research Advisory Board

Historically, the role of advertising has been to communicate the offer of a service or product in order to inform audiences about the details of place and price. In turn, the viewers, listeners and readers who need the product or service are motivated to act on the offer. By eliciting this consumer behavior, advertising has accomplished its goal of driving selective demand for a particular brand, product or service.

Today, with the rise of competition from national and international brands causing market saturation, and with the proliferation of communication channels that compete for the attention of each audience, advertising has become more than a message about the details of the offer. The role of advertising has expanded from (just) a means to get attention to an attempt to shape and manage perceptions.

Nowhere is this more apparent or more disputed than in the new practice of neuromarketing, where the intent is to bypass your brain’s evaluation process and go straight to its decision-making centers. In the practice of neuromarketing, a person’s brain activity is measured for thinking (cognitive), feeling (affective) and physical (physiological) responses while that person is exposed to advertising stimuli. The collected data are then evaluated by researchers and used by marketing professionals to design advertising messages that elicit the desired response. The deliberate attempt to reach the subconscious mind to motivate action by bypassing the brain’s rational processes is considered by many to be manipulative and, therefore, unethical.

What forces have influenced this latest incarnation to manipulate consumer behavior? Why have many advertising messages become separate and distinctly independent marketing messages, messages that are not at all holistic components of the brand? 

The increasing number of informational messages we are exposed to on a daily basis has been a main driver of the change.  Agencies that track exposure to advertising messages report numbers that vary from hundreds of messages a day to thousands a day, depending both on what types of advertising is counted – billboards, television, print and/or Web ads – and on who is tracked – the average adult American or the American professional. Regardless of the specific numbers, the fact remains that every consumer comes into daily contact with a plethora of competing advertising messages.

The fact that this overabundance of market information causes advertising messages to compete constantly for audience attention is a key factor that leads advertisers to change the ways they approach consumers. Another leading causal factor for change, according to advertising professionals, is the declining attention span of audiences. The length of a person’s attention span depends on what a person is focused on and on what their level of interest is in a certain topic. Therefore, the normal period of focused attention fluctuates somewhere between seconds and minutes. In fact, studies, polls and data-gathering agencies report a downward trend for all types of attention spans – whether the activity is listening to a lecture, viewing a slide presentation, reading (this article!) or Web browsing.

With these declining attention spans, and in an effort to maintain the effectiveness of the advertising, many advertisers have chosen to create messages that appeal to simple human emotions such as fear and greed. They argue that, by sheer time constraint, advertising cannot develop a strong cognitive/rational argument and must, instead, present a “slice of life”; therefore, the message cannot be anything but an unbalanced representation.

Indeed, many companies take a bite of the green “slice of life,” but their green messaging turns out to be little more than a “sound bite” for consumer consumption. In such cases, a company’s public relations department has most likely crafted the green messaging in an effort to align with positive consumer opinions about how important it is for companies to behave in a socially responsive way, not only within the ecosystem that sustains their product and service but also toward the communities they serve. However, upon further inquiry, one often finds no company involvement in green initiatives beyond the public relations as demonstrated by the number of sustainability officers emerging from marketing departments. Again, in such cases, the green “sound bite” is indeed just a “slice of life,” a green washing that has no more value than the delivery of its feel-good message.

Some feel that this reliance on primal emotions has made advertising, in general, unethical. They say such messages have no transparency, lack depth and clarity and are thus completely disassociated from the brand, product and service values.

Have you given in to time and emotion in your messaging?  How can you once again match your message to your brand?

When emotional appeal is used in advertising, it is much too easy for audiences with different value orientations to perceive messages as more or less skewed or unethical.  When that happens, your advertising message may become subject to a higher level of controversy and may even be considered a misrepresentation of stakeholder interest.

Ethical Markets Media, LLC, conceived of a way to recognize companies that have as their core value the objective to better inform buyers and to serve all stakeholders. Companies that contribute positively to the advertising community with their inspirational messaging are nominated and considered for the EthicMark®, one of the highest honors in advertising. Founded by Hazel Henderson of Ethical Markets Media in 2008, the EthicMark® is awarded by the World Business Academy for advertising “that uplifts the human spirit and society.”

Hazel Henderson, Ethical Markets Media, and the World Business Academy are raising awareness about the positive contributions of ethical advertising. What are you and your organization doing to raise the bar and write the next chapter in the history of advertising?


About Maria Olga Pinochet

Maria Olga Pinochet is President and Founder at Kore Access, Incorporated, a marketing consulting and communications firm dedicated to sustainability leadership. Maria currently serves on the executive council for the Northeast Florida Green Chamber and is advisor to several local civic and NFP groups. Maria has worked for Ethical Markets Media as a Senior Advisor Global Strategy since 2010, and helps to market the Green Transition Scoreboard® with Hazel Henderson.


Neuromarketing Petition

If you think, as does Ethical Markets Media, LLC, that this deliberate attempt to influence buyers in a manner that inhibits their evaluation processes is indeed manipulative and unethical, please sign the petition to stop the practice of neuromarketing.