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Ethically Challenged?

Posted in Advertising

As some of you might have noticed last week, a billboard advertisement in North Carolina appeared to show a scorned woman calling out her spouse for infidelity:

This billboard was followed sometime later by a different message:

Despite what should have been relatively clear evidence that this was intended to be a publicity stunt for Yodaddy’s, significant confusion initially existed among the media and the public as to the original intentions behind the messages.  See, for example, here.  Now this “scorned wife” billboard is not a new idea.  Indeed, snopes.com–a website dedicated to confirming our debunking urban myths–documented a similar, but more elaborate stunt, back in 2006.

Some people brush this off as a “stunt,” but my immediate reaction is that advertising like this raises potentially serious ethical concerns.

Another one of my favorites is the 5-Hour Energy Commercial, claiming to have surveyed 3000 doctors and implying that 73% of them would recommend 5-Hour Energy to their patients.  But, if you pay close attention, you’ll note the deception.  (Others have noted this here and here.)

As lawyers, every state has specific and well-documented professional responsibility rules they are obligated to follow.  Although the rules may vary slightly from state to state, I believe they are all pretty closely based on the American Bar Association’s Model Rules.  I did a Google search for “ethics of advertising,” and was unable to find anything remotely approaching the uniformity or formality governing the legal profession.  I did come across an interesting speech, a rough outline from Carroll College in Montana, and even a decree from the Pontifical Council For Social Communications (i.e. the Vatican).  But I didn’t find any widely-recognized rules that are uniformly recognized and followed in the advertising industry.

Now, the above advertisements are plainly outliers, but they illustrate what I believe is a deeper problem.  It seems to me that too much advertising is now more about buzz and less about useful product information.  What do you think?