Ethics in Advertising


Advertising is any content on any platform used to promote and/or sell a product or service.

Advertising is inescapable. Ads are virtually everywhere. We encounter them on broadcast and cable television; streaming movies and TV; before films and on the walls in movie theaters; on broadcast, streaming, and satellite radio; and outdoors on billboards, busses, and other sign posts. Ads are all over the digital space presenting themselves to us on websites, in mobile apps, and via email.

At its most basic lever, the ultimate goal of advertising is to persuade. Ads seek to persuade a person or entity to purchase a product or service, participate in an event, or consume media. Here is a video that explains the concept of persuasion and how it applies to advertising.


There is a wide variety of techniques and strategies in use when creating and delivering advertising messages. These approaches range from design choices to methods of reach to behavioral targeting. 

Behavioral Targeting

This kind of advertising uses demographic and behavioral data gathered through a variety of sources including website cookies, mobile apps, search history and even your phone’s GPS to serve ads that are most relevant to you. These ads are served on websites, mobile apps, through email, even on some streaming services like Hulu, Pluto TV, and Spotify using what is called programmatic placement.

The advantage to the advertiser is that ads are only seen by those who are most likely to want to do business with them. So, no ad impression is wasted. It is unlike the shotgun approach of a billboard, newspaper ad, or television commercial, which is put out into the world in hopes it will reach the right people. The advantage to the consumer is we only see and hear ads which are related to our interests, wants, and needs. It makes advertising more personal and more interesting. 

Now, some believe behavioral targeting to be unethical and an invasion of privacy as the process uses the data referenced above. What is important to understand is that no person sees the online behavior of any individual user. The information flows into a computer system like a firehose and ads are bid on and placed by a program. Here’s how it works:



puff·​ery | \ ˈpə-f(ə-)rē  \
exaggerated commendation especially for promotional purposes

qual·​i·​ta·​tive | \ ˈkwä-lə-ˌtā-tiv  \
of, relating to, or involving quality or kind

quan·​ti·​ta·​tive | \ ˈkwän-tə-ˌtā-tiv  \
of, relating to, or expressible in terms of quantity
of, relating to, or involving the measurement of quantity or amount

Of these terms, probably the least familiar and most complex is puffery. Let’s take a look at a detailed explanation of puffery in advertising:


The above terms relate to three kinds of claims made in advertisements. Let’s examine each.

quantitative advertisement makes a claim related to the quantity of a product or service. Numbers are key to a quantitative ad. Here are some examples:

Qualitative advertising makes claims about the quality or good aspects of a product or service. Some examples:

An ad that employs puffery makes a qualitative claim that cannot be substantiated or proven. Key words like better and best used without direct comparison are good indicators of puffery. For example:

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