There is a very fine line between puffed-up claims and outright false, or deceptive, advertising. Though in most countries, advertising law protects consumers from intentionally confusing, misleading or untrue statements, there are many ways to skirt the regulations. While not illegal, many advertising practices would certainly qualify as unethical: hidden fees for products and services – prices marked with an asterisk are usually a good indicator that you will not be getting the exact advertised item at the listed price; misleading claims, that are not outright lies; ambiguous photography – such as realtors or hotel management using angles and tricks of the light to make rooms appear larger.
Worse than that, though, are marketing campaigns that fail to mention the dangers of addiction, or that attempt to normalize risky behaviours. In North America, prescription drug advertising must include warnings about any side effects or potential for addiction. Most alcohol promotions also ask the consumer to use good judgement, drink responsibly, and to not drink and drive. Some casino and lottery commercials remind the viewer that the odds are not in their favour and to exercise caution when gambling. But what if the leading coffee shops had to include warnings in their marketing material about the dangers of caffeine consumption? What if fast food restaurants had to disclose that their products can be highly addictive and contribute to obesity and poor health?
Commercial advertising is often harmful and though some say that advertising is merely reflecting us back to ourselves and giving us what we want, it does not really give us the intangible goods such as love, community, self-esteem, and friendship, that it uses to sell us tangible, material ones (TR Piety, 2001). And when the advertiser cannot, with 100% certainty, predict who will be viewing their commercials – or worse yet, when minors are specifically targeted by deceptive advertising – our youth are receiving mixed messages. They might be told outright to “just say no” to drugs, but are still bombarded by cigarette, alcohol and prescription drug advertising depicting attractive people living glamourous lives.
We are being sold commodities as surrogates to fill the perceived voids in our lives which encourages an addict mentality. Both the psychology of commercial advertising and marketing and the psychology of addiction appear to be characterized by denial, escapism, narcissism, isolation, insatiability, impatience, and diminished sensitivity; and while advertising appeals to these impulses, addiction is marked by them. (TR Piety, 2001) And though we know that commercial advertising depicts false situations realistically, it’s hard not to fall victim to the temptation posed by the lifestyle they project.