Advertising harmful products

One ethical issue in the realm of advertising is the concept of advertising potentially harmful products. The most controversial product in this category is tobacco, particularly cigarettes. Alcohol products and over-the-counter or prescription drugs are also prevalent in the world of marketing, each one with distinct histories and restrictions of their own.

Tobacco advertising has changed drastically over the years, mainly in terms of an increase in regulation. Cigarette commercials were prohibited from airing on television long ago. Ads that are still able to run elsewhere are not allowed to “glorify” the act of smoking, and they cannot use images or tactics that obviously target children as an audience. They are also legally required to display the Surgeon General’s warnings about the dangers of smoking. But regardless of these rules, tobacco companies still manage to successfully advertise their products, whether ethically or otherwise.

Advertisers still argue that their ads for these products do not influence people to start using their product; rather they only boost the sales of their specific brand name in a market that already exists and remains relatively constant. In other words, “our ads do not make people start smoking, they just make current smokers think of Marlboro when they go to buy their cigarettes!” However, studies have proven that is not the case and advertisements do, in fact, play a role in influencing young people to start consuming these products. A prime example of this is the Joe Camel advertising campaign, which was secretly aimed at kids in Camel’s effort to get young people to start smoking.

Only recently (as a result of several legal battles) did cigarette companies become more sensitive to the young audience and, as a result, pulled their ads from magazines with a considerable number of young readers. This is a step in the right direction, but advertisers still manage to increase the consumption of these harmful products by getting their products out there. Studies show that children are heavily influenced by television, especially considering the fact that TV is a child’s first exposure to consumer society. Although kids may not see cigarette ads on TV, they do see people smoking in TV shows or movies, and this may encourage them to participate in such activity.

This is a touchy subject because, as advertisers may argue, a cigarette is a legal product and tobacco companies therefore have a right to advertise it. The issue is where we draw the line between ethical and unethical advertisements. Tobacco companies should be very careful as to where they post their ads and what type of audience they are targeting (i.e. only educated adults), and their ads should contain full disclosure about the dangers of their product. That being said, as long as cigarettes exist there will be ads for them; we, as an audience, must simply be cautious as to how we let these advertisements influence our decisions.

Source: Straubhaar, J., & LaRose, R. (2010). Media now: Understanding media, culture, and technology (6th ed., “2010 Update”). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.


About mcoogan

Junior at FSU. Majoring in Media/Communication Studies and Editing & Writing for Media . Minoring in Film Studies and Environmental Studies.

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