The View From Taft

Who has not seen and heard advertisements of crispy, juicy, fried chicken that is soggy or as dry as a bone IRL (“in real life”)? Or pictures on the box of a product that looks different from the actual product?
What about advertisements that contain phrases using the weasel verb “help” – “helps fight,” “helps prevent,” “helps stop,” “helps you feel,” “helps overcome,” “helps you look”?
And then we have advertisements that exaggerate claims about a product’s or service’s benefits that are unsupported by evidence: a pain reliever that provides “extra pain relief” or is “50% stronger than aspirin” or that “upsets the stomach less frequently” or is “superior to any other nonprescription painkiller on the market.”
Perhaps worst are advertisements that use psychological appeal (for example, appeal to power, prestige, personal enjoyment, masculinity, femininity, curiosity, acceptance, approval, self-esteem, and self-preservation) to stimulate emotional needs. The most pervasive is the use of sexual pitches, often at the expense of one gender. These advertisements present a serious moral concern because they influence the emotions and the subconscious of the viewers.
Corporations cannot hold on to the traditional view of increasing value solely of shareholders. Consumers and corporations need to partner with each other to combat the ill-effects of unethical advertising. After all, corporations are expected to optimize profit. Optimized profit is the result when workers receive just wages and incentives; stockholders receive reasonable dividends; management receives remuneration and profit participation; consumers receive fair deals and prices; government receives correct taxes; the environment receives proper care to ensure that future generations will also benefit from it; and the community benefits tangibly from hosting the organization. Whatever is left as net profit is realized optimum profit.
Filipinos are generally reluctant to report incidents of being victimized by unethical advertising. We tend to avoid the hassle of reporting, showing proof, and fighting for our consumer rights. But we need to change our attitude and air our grievances conveniently and effectively. We need to go beyond the Milton Friedman mind-set of expecting corporations solely to act responsibly.
During my recent four-day vacation in Singapore, the MRT trains helped me get around the city-state easily. While taking the escalator toward the lower platforms of a train station, I stumbled upon an advertisement on the wall regarding Stay True, which caught my attention.
Stay True is an initiative of OCBC Bank, Singapore’s oldest established local bank. It is an online venue for Singapore-based consumers who have been lied to, duped by unclear communication, cheated by false claims, fooled by misleading promotions, and/or shocked by hidden restrictions to air their grievances and to post evidence of such malpractices. By using Stay True, a consumer can report an unethical advertisement from a particular industry, select a type of misleading advertisement, and state how he or she feels about it. Stay True encourages consumers in Singapore to join the conversation to make advertising truthful again.
Since its inception in January 2018, this platform has recorded 904 digital conversations, which are tracked using keywords.
These are some of the things consumers are saying: “Bought a slimming package to ‘lose 10kg in 3 months.’ Only my wallet got lighter.” “Got attracted by an IT Fair promotion, went down and found out it was for display units only.” “Saw an ad stating airfares from just $1. Went online to check, no such thing.” “Signed up for a credit card with attractive rebates, got ugly restrictions instead.”
Based on the same digital conversations, companies in Singapore with the least misleading ads include nongovernment organizations, hotels and restaurants, and retailers. On the other hand, industries with the most misleading ads include financial services, home services, and beauty products and services.
As of July 2018, those who reacted had the following sentiments about the advertisements: 159 of them were annoyed, 75 were angry, 40 were confused, 25 were sad, and 14 were speechless. The message of Stay True is clear: misleading advertising should not be the norm.
Even without government support, corporations should take the initiative to partner with consumers and the greater community they serve. They should continuously promote ethical advertising and practice self-regulation.
We consumers, on the other hand, should actively and objectively report through the appropriate social medium our views on the acceptability of various advertisements. We should voice our support of acceptable standards that advertisers need to meet or even exceed. Enough is enough. We cannot allow the proliferation of unethical advertising to dupe us into parting with our hard-earned money.
With such a consumer-corporation partnership, we consumers can avail ourselves of the best products and services we truly deserve. Corporations, on the other hand, can realize sustainable profits.
Unethical advertisements come from false prophets who have fooled followers. Ethical advertisements rake in true profits from loyal followers.
Alexander C. Trajano is a Lecturer at the Management and Organization Department of the Ramon V. Del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University. He teaches Corporate Social Responsibility and Corporate Governance.