People often criticize advertisers for selling people things they don’t need. I completely agree that most advertisements do sell people things that they do not need, however I don’t believe that this is unethical or wrong. Chris Moore of Ogilvy and Mather says that calling this idea unethical, “presupposes that we shouldn't have the things we don't need but want anyway.” No one needs modern art to fill their walls; no one needs a bottle of water when their office lunchroom has a drinking fountain, no one needs a car that parallel parks itself— unless you are me and parallel parking is a matter of public safety. We don’t need these things but we still buy them. What advertising does is build a relationship between the consumers and the products that they want; this is why a good company must strive to be ethical in its consumer’s eyes. Consumers will not give their money to a company who violates their own personal set of ethics.
Advertisers seek to build a relationship with their consumers, because many of their products are unneeded. To establish a relationship with someone requires ethical behavior, however advertisements should be seen as the “first date” with a new product. Advertisements are often the first impression someone has of a product or company, though you wouldn’t flat-out lie to someone on a first date and tell them you drive a Ferrari, but you might also keep the fact that your feet smell from them. Is this ethical? Yes, but only if the company assumes that eventually the consumer will develop a better relationship with the product once they purchase it. Eventually the truth will come out, and if the advertiser does their job correctly they wont emphasize a product attribute that is blatantly untrue or false. Doing so would ruin their relationship with the consumer and lead to lost revenue.
There is a new trend in the fast food industry to bring attention to their angus beef products. According to this blog, Angus beef is not much different than the beef they already used. In fact angus cattle are the most common type of cattle raised in the united states. Is this ethical? McDonalds and other fast food chains aren't participating in what would be considered false advertisement, the product they advertise is exactly what they are selling, people just precieve it to be better because it's not just plain old beef. [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oE2aV19u12Y] Normally I would say that this type of tactic is unethical, but I believe in order to really determine if an action is unethical you must also look at the company's relationship with its consumer. McDonalds is so heavily regulated that it has to post nutrition facts in all restaurants, if customers choose not to use them it's their own fault. Sure the burgers cost more, but the also come with additional ingredients not included on their standard patties which does set them apart and allow them to be considered a premium burger, after all it is “a little bit fancy” to put BBQ sauce and Swiss cheese on a McDonalds burger.
At the end of the day the McDonalds makes no claims that it is a healthy choice, and their customers know that, and government regulations in this case have forced full disclosure by McDonalds. If this offends health nuts, it shouldn't matter because they aren't going to be consumers of McDonalds products. The consumer believing that a Mushroom and Swiss Angus Burger is healthier than a Big Mac is similar to my first date scenario —if Joe Suave tells you he runs three times a day but weighs 300 pounds, he may run three times, but not very far— the facts are right there in front of them, if they chose to ignore them it's their own fault.
I believe that it is important to create a code of ethics for a business, but that code of ethics can varry from company to company. This makes it that much more important to establish a standard of practice so that everyone is on the same page when making business decisions. If Kashi or Whole Foods may not act the same way as McDonalds does, does that make McDonalds unethical? No. It just means the core values written in their code of ethics may be different. It is also a reason why a companies code of ethics should change and be rewritten as their relationship with the consumer changes because consumer morals and values will change over time. If a large amount of patrons oppose an action made by a company, in order to stay profitable that company should react and make a change to their practices which begins at their code of ethics.
Just like a relationship; when your wife starts a diet, don't bring her chocolates. She doesn't want them, and you’ll end up on the couch. If she loves chocolates keep bringing them and you'll be with her for 40 years. Doing what's right for your target market is what I base my business ethics on.