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There has always been a fine line in being ethical when advertising. In the quest to sell and beat the competition, it is easy for advertisers to pass from telling the truth to making exaggerated, or even entirely false claims. Further unethical behaviors, such as bait-and-switch offers, have existed since the advent of advertising. Even in the traditional (by that I mean “paper”) media, the difference between advertising and actual, non-endorsed content has become obscured.

Jessica Gottlieb describes herself as “an empowered consumer and a mom blogger in Los Angeles.” She recalls that “when the LA Times sold its front cover to NBC with an ad that was easy to mistake for news, [she and her husband] started thinking about cancelling [their] subscription.” To demonstrate her discontent, she even made a video that documented the scandal for the world to see.

In fact, this isn’t the only time Gottlieb has used technology to combat what she believes is unethical. In 2009, she started the #motrinmom hashtag, protesting against a Johnson & Johnson campaign for Motrin which advocated “baby wearing.” Specifically, the advertisement included a 20-something voice reading the following text:

“Wearing your baby seems to be in fashion. I mean, in theory it’s a great idea. There’s the front baby carrier, sling, schwing, wrap, pouch. And who knows what else they’ve come up with. Wear your baby on your side, your front, go hands free. Supposedly, it’s a real bonding experience. They say that babies carried close to the body tend to cry less than others. But what about me? Do moms that wear their babies cry more than those who don’t. I sure do! These things put a ton of strain on your back, your neck, your shoulders. Did I mention your back? I mean, I’ll put up with the pain because it’s a good kind of pain; it’s for my kid. Plus, it totally makes me look like an official mom. And so if I look tired and crazy, people will understand why.”

As the New York Times reported, consumers, including Gottlieb, were “offended by the suggestion that they carry their babies to be 'fashionable'" Via Twitter, YouTube and other online media, Gottlieb and her followers began boycotting the advertisement and succeeded – Johnson & Johnson eventually pulled the advertisements from public circulation.

Gottlieb herself is “not convinced that [the ethical hazards of conventional advertising] are all that different” from online advertising. “It might be easier to confuse advertising and content online than it would be in old media, but as the web evolves, the consumer does too,” she says.

However, one might argue that there are plenty of consumers who have not yet undergone such an evolution and who are subject to the ethical hazards of online advertising. Leanne Hoagland-Smith, a sales coach and author of Be the Red Jacket in a Sea of Gray Suits, recalls:

“From my own personal experience, I responded to an online ad to join a website that would guarantee me traffic, send me leads and made a lot of promises.  I did some research, but at that time I was quite ignorant of some tools that I now use. The claims were fraudulent and today my website gets more traffic than the one I paid $700 for a lifetime membership. Unfortunately, I was naïve and trusting. Their customer service was a run around. Later I was able to track other people who had been duped by this unethical advertiser.”

As a sales coach, Hoagland-Smith has moreover come across “clients who sought the expertise of online marketers for improved search engine optimization and received less than desirable results.” She explains, “the challenge was in the fine print and once again the ignorance of the buyer resulted in thousands of dollars being spent with little to no results.”

Reading the fine print of terms and conditions has been around since the first written contracts were developed. Similarly, the code of ethics put forth by The American Marketing Association (AMA) does not specifically adapt itself to the new digital circumstances with its constantly evolving technologies. According to the AMA’s code of ethics, marketers must:

  1. Do no harm. This means consciously avoiding harmful actions or omissions by embodying high ethical standards and adhering to all applicable laws and regulations in the choices we make.
  2. Foster trust in the marketing system. This means striving for good faith and fair dealing so as to contribute toward the efficacy of the exchange process as well as avoiding deception in product design, pricing, communication and delivery of distribution.
  3. Embrace ethical values. This means building relationships and enhancing consumer confidence in the integrity of marketing by affirming these core values: honesty, responsibility, fairness, respect, transparency and citizenship.

The code goes into detail on each of the ethical values, which are geared towards marketing in general. Similarly, Hoagland-Smith mentions that, “in the USA, there are federal agencies such as FDA that attempt to ensure what is being said is truthful along with state governments through their agencies.”

But are there guidelines, laws or codes that specifically address online advertising? What is it that is new in the digital age? “One of the key differences is the immediacy to share with much larger communities and how that sharing can go viral in a matter of hours,” says Hoagland-Smith. “Someone can quickly Tweet about his or her experience and suddenly the company is engaged in countering a negative PR campaign,” she adds. This is precisely what happened with Gottlieb’s use of Twitter and the #motrinmom hashtag. As Hoagland-Smith notes, “the adage 'buyer beware' still rings as true today as it did 200 years ago. Being educated now is much easier than ever before because of access to information through the Internet.”

Christopher Bauer works with organizations that want to develop and maintain a culture of ethics and values-driven business through his Bauer Ethics Seminars. He adds: “Consumers have a responsibility to be informed simply to be knowledgeable consumers. I don't know that I would call that an ethical responsibility in most cases, however. One exception might be that consumers would be ethically compromised if they used products harmful to others because they did not educate themselves about readily-available, documented risks.”

Kapil Rampal, CEO of Creative Crest, is a veteran in the online industry with 19 years of leadership experience at major online companies. To combat unethical online advertising more effectively, Rampal proposes what he calls “self-regulation”:

“Despite strict laws against spam email it has increased tremendously. Self-regulation such a spam filters, RBLs, IP rating, etc. are much more effective. In online advertising self-regulation can be more powerful than laws.”

So what of the future of ethical online advertising? Rampal calls for “stronger self-regulation by publishers, advertising networks, advertising agencies and advertisers to follow ethical practices. Many publishers associations have banned specific unethical ad formats.” Hoagland-Smith, in turn, affirms that the trend is moving towards mobile advertising. But the format—paper, online, or mobile advertising—appears to be secondary. “Ethical people will behave ethically and unethical people will behave unethically,” says Hoagland-Smith. “My sense [is that] there is greater visibility for those companies that are less ethical. Bad news always travels faster than good news.”

Learn more about Isabel Eva Bohrer at

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