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  • Michael Weinberg

Let's Talk Ethics: A Look at What an Acceptable Ad Is

An article from The Guardian posted on Tuesday, April 27 says that Facebook Ads allows businesses to target Australian teens as young as 13 who have interests in “smoking, extreme weight loss and gambling,” as well as fast food and online dating services. The article, which presents research by lobby group Reset Australia, says that it costs $3.03 to reach 52,000 teens who have an interest in alcohol, $11.24 for teens interested in gambling and anywhere between about $139 to $211 for teens interested in cigarettes or e-cigarettes. Many mockup ads created by Reset Australia and targeted toward the aforementioned groups were approved by Facebook.


This article brings up a very important topic in advertising and social media marketing: ethics. In other words, just because a business can target a certain group or publish certain content, should it?


Taking a look at the Australian Facebook ad example, most would agree that targeting children, even teens between 13 and 17, is a risky move. Children are thought to have less ability to make informed decisions. An ad may say that vaping makes you cool, and it’s possible that younger teens may buy into that claim despite adverse health effects.


Before your business targets young teens with ads that contain adult services/products, take a look at this data. Out of 400 16- to 17-year olds (see chart below), 77.8% of respondents were at least “somewhat concerned” about how much data was being collected about them on Facebook and Instagram. Most respondents also appeared concerned with social media platforms knowing their interests.




Teens aged 16-17 respond with the level of concern about data collection on Facebook and Instagram. Source: Reset Australia



As you can see, if most of your target audience is averse to even the data collection that informs you on who they are, it may be best to rethink what your ad’s message is.



So, what is an acceptable ad?


A good rule of thumb when creating an ad is that your instinct should tell you it’s an acceptable message. If you have a gut feeling that your business may receive backlash for the ad, reevaluate the message. However, instinct isn’t always reliable. Take the following issues and questions into account when creating your ad.


  1. Make sure your message is accurate. Just like in TV, radio, print and other forms of advertising, your digital and social media ads must not be misleading. It is not only illegal in the US but also unfair to your customers and bad for your brand. Consumers need to trust a brand in order for it to succeed, and trust can be reinforced with accurate online ads. For example, an ad may be misleading if it contains a stock image of a better quality product than the product advertised.

  2. Think about who your target is. Just like targeting children may be considered morally wrong, targeting any group of people can land you in hot water. Plus, it could just be plain wrong. For example, should Viagra be advertised toward younger men when the drug is meant for older men with actual erectile dysfunction?

  3. Is the topic controversial (even a little bit)? I won’t claim that controversial topics are off limits, but it is your responsibility as an advertiser to be aware of what controversies exist surrounding a given topic. For example, certain current controversial topics include freedom of speech, civil rights, climate change, artificial intelligence or health insurance. A quick Google search of the given topic should bring up news and opinions. Some social media and digital platforms do restrict or prohibit certain topics from being advertised. For a list of these prohibited and restricted topics, click to this Marketing Land article. If your ad isn’t prohibited but you’re worried that it might raise controversy, ask friends and coworkers what they think, or run a formal focus group.

  4. Ask yourself how you would react to your ad. Sometimes an ad doesn’t have to be controversial to be unethical. I would argue that an annoying and obnoxious ad is just as morally wrong to publish. Also, as a business owner, you must find the balance between an overexposed ad and what the advertising world calls “effective frequency.” In other words, make sure your target gets enough opportunities to see and act on your ad, but don’t overdo the frequency to the point where your brand image is synonymous with annoying.



Overall, understand that your ad is as much a reflection of your brand as it is a way to get more customers to buy your product. A brand that cares about its customers is one that develops thoughtful advertisements.


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