Television-Advertising.jpg.pagespeed.ce.G5aPG0zbYXNothing chaps my hide more than realizing I have been lied to in a big way. Even worse yet is when I’ve realized I allowed myself to be duped. Everyone lies to some degree, whether to themselves or others; however, the central purpose here is neither to debate how honest we are or are not or the morality of truth-telling amongst individuals, nor to define the small lies we all tell, but to point out ways in which we are lied to on a grander scale. More specifically by companies through advertising.

My husband is currently taking a college course in advertising and while discussing a particular topic in class, because he was such a sport by listening to discombobulated introspection and participated in some pretty thought provoking discussions while I was finishing up the bachelor’s degree in philosophy, he remembered that one particular subject, related to business advertising, got me more fired up than usual. It is the act of a company and their advertiser fabricating a need they suggest you really ought to be worried about, but not too worried about because they can provide you with a solution—their product. It generates a lot of revenue and is very successful.

I realize that blogs have rules and that typically a blog is no more than a page, maybe a page and a half; unfortunately, the thoughts I have about the ethics in advertising cannot be so condensed (hopefully I haven’t lost you to something more interesting already). Because I tend to be a bit rebellious (as I age this is becoming less, but she still fights for existence) I’m going to post the term paper I wrote about associative advertising to the sexes, which defies the norm in this format due to length.

Please note, the below was written in approximately 2011 and since then Dove has a new ad campaign which appears as though they are attempting to be a socially responsible company by encouraging women to appreciate their bodies as they are.  Please also note, as I wrote the below I was just coming off of a very intense legal program and so my mind was geared towards the legality of things. Good luck.


I will be discussing associative advertising used to market products and boost profits and will specifically present a case study in which women have been shamed and manipulated into believing they should have certain insecurities about their bodies but have a way out of feeling those insecurities—buying a particular product. My position on this subject is that this type of advertising is unethical; however, I will discuss aspects of variables that come into play with advertising in general, such as legality versus the morality of said advertising and seemingly ethical messages used to persuade social thinking. I will first summarize the case study and then discuss the main ethical issue of losing autonomy. While I will focus mainly on the effects on women, I will briefly discuss the tactic used on men as in today’s society both sexes are being targeted.

 Advertising Cures for Unrealized Insecurities

On April 14, 2011, Slate Magazine posted an article “The Cure for Your Fugly Armpits” that shed light upon the advertising tactics of various companies marketing products to women in which they targeted various female body parts, created something the women should be worried about, and then offered them the cure—their product. The most recent case-in-point is Dove, a company widely known for marketing hygienic products such as soaps, moisturizers and deodorant.

Dove’s new ad campaign makes the suggestion to women that their armpits are not smooth enough and the unsmooth underarm is something they should be worried about because “If it’s news to you that this part of your body is not so hot, Dove says you’re in the minority, citing a survey in which 93 percent of women said they ‘think their underarms are unattractive.’” (Copeland, 2011). Dove is not the only culprit of inciting irrational fears to consumers. In fact, it is a historical concept (at least as far back at 1920 according to the article) wherein manufacturers have led women to believe they would be old maids, were not beautiful enough to hang on to a man because they are either too flawed and/or because there is another more beautiful woman, utilizing their product of course, who will steal your man right out from under you, or because your duty to please (i.e. have sex with) your man is or will be hindered because of the flaw they were ultimately selling a cure for.

Often the companies will create an imaginary condition that must raise concern—Listerine for example. Listerine began as a “surgical antiseptic,” but in the ‘20s the company hired a chemist who claimed it could be used as a mouth wash; thus the term halitosis” was born giving rise to the fear of bad breath echoing an official sounding medical-type term that doesn’t really exist. Their ad copy coined the old adage “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” Lysol, on the other hand, an antibacterial spray now used to disinfect the air and various surfaces, was once marketed to women under a totally different usage—birth control and douche. At this point, not only did women have to worry about having flawless skin and faces to secure their beauty, but they also had to worry about germs in their mouth causing “halitosis” which gave off foul odors from the mouth to now having to worry about (1) the responsibility of preventing pregnancy and (2) thinking their intimate parts were hideously smelly, but at severe consequences: “The unfortunate truth was that as a contraceptive, Lysol was ineffective, not to mention dangerous. Improperly diluted, it burned and blistered the vagina, and in some cases even caused death.” (Copeland, 2011)

In today’s society, it’s not just women being targeted with false insecurities and cures for them. The recent Old Spice commercials, for example, suggest that men need worry that their women will run off with a more muscular, attractive, and better smelling man than he and while he will never look like the guy on television the smell of the cologne will sweep her off into exotic fantasies of such a man while remaining faithful to him. Or, let’s not forget, Viagra, which markets itself to older men claiming he must always be ready to have an erection at any given moment and prolong that erection so as to sexually satisfy his female partner because that’s what she really wants—essentially suggesting that he is inadequate without their “cure.”

What’s This All About?

All of the above are perfect examples of what John Waide considers “associative advertising” wherein a particular company persuades the general public, regardless of whether it is their target market, into believing that if they purchase product “X” they will smell better, look better, be popular, sexy, etc. This tactic works by showing the viewer images unrelated to the product itself which allows the viewers’ unconscious mind to “associate” the product with that image—the beach and a Corona beer, for example. The viewer will unconsciously perceive that drinking a Corona beer will be as relaxing as sitting on a warm, sunny beach without the advertiser making any concrete claim to it.

In the case of marketing particular beauty and/or hygienic products to women the immorality of the advertisements comes from a company looking to increase its sales with little care for their consumer, such as potential physical and/or emotional harms. In return the consumer gets to feel insecure about their body and appearance and eventually, if not immediately, lose their autonomy when peer pressure to look or smell (or not smell) a certain way sets in.  Associative advertising is not strictly inclusive of marketing a product—it can be an effective tool to “market” an idea, such as not drinking and driving, not texting while driving and smoking cigarettes as being extremely bad for the smoker and everyone around them by associating images of death and/or destruction. What makes this effective is that it propagandizes people to make social change (e.g. people sneer and make offensive comments to others because the behavior or look is no longer socially accepted).

The criteria for associative advertising is set out in such a way that “the advertiser wants people to buy….largely independent of any sincere desire to improve or enrich the lives” of said people, “identifies some…deep-seated non-market good for which the people in the target market feel a strong desire,” such as “friendship, acceptance and esteem of others,” for which the “desire for the non-market good is intensified by calling into question one’s acceptability,” like hygienic practices, and often the consumer receives only “partial satisfaction to the non-market desire.” The case study in which women were utilizing Lysol that in the end physically harmed their intimate parts and was not effective as a birth control method, despite the advertiser’s claims, is a perfect example of a company having no compassion for its consumer and, unfortunately, “it is quite common for advertisers in the U.S.A. to concentrate their attention on selling something that is harmful…” (Waide, 1987)

Legal vs. Ethical

The mere fact that a company, such as Lysol, sold a product under a false premise (i.e. that it was an effective contraceptive and douche) should be appalling enough. Major pharmaceutical companies push drugs by inciting fear into the public, making them insecure about a minute anomaly and vague symptoms which then get people to pester their doctors (or doctor shop) until they get the new drug, for which, as it turns out, the “magic” pill caused more harm than it did good and in some cases even caused death; hence numerous class action lawsuits. However, one man’s morality is not another’s and in this country what some (or even all) consider unethical or immoral may not necessarily be illegal, nor would we necessarily want it to be.

Advertising is a form of speech and each company has a legal right to inform potential and/or existing consumers about their product. If we believe the government is not in the business of “protecting us from ourselves,” which is essentially handing over our autonomy to it, we cannot make associative advertising illegal, despite the immorality of it. We can, however, hold companies legally responsible to be more honest in their advertising by invoking basic contract law in that if a company makes a claim that product “X” will do “Y” and doesn’t then they have breached their implied contract by not delivering a “good according to the stated terms.” (Machan, 1987) Unfortunately, companies have good attorneys in their pockets and can find a way around this by making implicit suggestions rather than an outright statement or promise of said good, thus I don’t think combating the advertisers via contract law is sufficient.


One should wonder if today’s definition of beauty, idea of how life should be lived in general, and hygienic concerns (i.e. whether we think certain things stink because we are conditioned to believe so) are all the product of a long campaign of associative advertising. If we consider the high rates of plastic surgery going on (ranging from simple Botox injections to major surgical lifts and tucks) I would have to venture a guess that it is—that it is defining who and what we think we are which is not autonomous at all because it is the advertisers making those definitions for us and it is no easy task to become a social outcast by choosing not to adopt the concepts as advertised to us. And, because associative advertising is dictating definitions of who we ought to be with their products or ideas, along with changing socially accepted ideology, we have little to no choice which makes the practice unethical despite the legality.

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About Jan Rain

See the About page. View all posts by Jan Rain

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