When is Advertising Unethical?

The average person views up to 10,000 advertisements a day. Whether we realize it or not, ads are everywhere. Advertising agencies and brands have gotten incredibly talented at blending their ads into native content. Magazine ads can look like a photo for an editorial piece and TikToks videos by influencers can be ads. The only reason why a viewer would know these are ads is because the word “advertisement” or “#ad” is written at the bottom or in the text. Are native ads ethical because they’re not obvious that they are ads?

Native Advertising

Brands perform well and benefit from using native advertising. Advertisements have to feel native to the platform they live on. If a brand’s ads are not on the most optimal platform, they might not be getting their return on investment. Native advertising is all about meeting the target audience where they are and blending in with other content. In Gary Vaynerchuck’s book, Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World, Vaynerchuck says that if your content, “provides the same value and emotional benefits people are seeking when they come to the platform in the first place, they will feel it’s native content”. According to the American Marketing Association, native ads are actually embraced by audiences. A report from Reuters in 2018 found that 73% of readers prefer branded content to traditional ads. Although Reuters’ study finds that 86% of readers can tell the difference between editorial and branded content, 14% can’t.

Native Ad on TikTok

So is native advertising unethical? I don’t think so. I think brands are blending in and delivering their ads to audiences in a way that is less disruptive.


The problem with native advertising, or any advertising, is transparency. According to Immanuel Kent, a central figure in modern philosophy, you must ask yourself, “Does my action respect the goals of human beings rather than merely using them for my own purposes”? Are modern advertisers respect the goals and ambitions of their audiences, are just exploiting them for profit?

Free TurboTax landing page

A perfect example of dishonest exploitation for profit is from TurboTax in 2019. According to SearchEngineJournal.com, TurboTax deliberately blocked search engines from showing a page that would allow low-income users to file their taxes for free. ProPublica documented that even if you did finally land on their “Free” page and file your taxes, you would still end up requiring an upgrade before you could actually file!

Though this is not a traditional advertisement, the practice of using false advertising to get customers to engage in your product, and then bait and switch for an upgrade after they’ve completed the hard work, is exploitation and unethical. This makes your brand untrustworthy. And to use robots to noindex the free tax service?! That feels shady to me. If TurboTax were to promote their free filings, they could end up with more paying and upgrading customers. Covering up a free service and tricking your audience into buying your product is not okay.

The biggest problem with today’s advertisements is transparency and honesty. We see it typically with cell phone carriers, cable networks, and cars. We all know that the prices mentioned on ads are typically base prices and you will need to upgrade to actually get the services you want. I think if ads were more upfront about their costs, they might gain more of a following because customers will actually trust their brand.

What are your thoughts about ethical advertising?


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