An Examination of the Ethical Issues Surrounding Modern Day Advertising

Topics: Advertisement

Originating many years back and still too prevalent today, the way women are portrayed in advertising is not only despicable, but simultaneously creates an unrealistic benchmark in society in which many women hold themselves too.

In the fourth edition of Killing Us Softly, Jean Kilbourne, world-renowned author, filmmaker, and speaker, takes a look at an array of advertisements throughout the years and vividly explains their many negative aspects such as how they portray women as objects we use, establish impossible and rather absurd examples of what true beauty and health is affecting numerous women around the world, and how exemplifying women like this can lead to violence by men, general sexism, and even eating disorders (and in extreme cases, death or suicide).

Kilbourne mentions that over the years of making these films, although the advertisements have become worse, there are many people who now side with her, and the number is only increasing. What countless people fail to see is that advertising in this way is unethical, as it does not align with any of the general, ethical principles.

There are multiple stakeholders involved in this situation, such as the advertising agencies themselves, men who are being influenced from these ads, women, society, businesses and corporations who wish to advertise their product in an unethical way, and young girls who are now questioning why they do not look like the photo-shopped women in advertisements. The primary stakeholders, or ones who will be focused in on for the purpose of proving why these ads are unethical are men, advertising agencies, and business and corporations.

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The central technical problem shown through Killing Us Softly 4 is the image of women. Through different advertisements for different companies, different products, etc., they are shown as objects, sex symbols, being too skinny, if they are black their skin is lightened, and this affects not only them, but what and how society thinks of women.

The problem is, is that this industry is very large and these advertisements appear everywhere – billboards, on TV, bus stations, train stations, on buses and trains themselves, food, schools, sports arenas, etc. Because they are portraying women in a bad light, they are selling more than just what they advertise, such as concepts, ideas of what women should be/act like, what it means to be normal in today’s society, what love is, and much more.

For example, there was an advertisement for beer in which the ad had a photo of a woman with big teeth and glasses saying the drinker won’t have beer goggles and hook up with someone like this, due to the fact that the beer has a low alcohol percentage. Not only is this downright mean to the woman in ad, but what do young girls, older women, and men think of when they see an ad like this? Maybe the beer would sell, but the consequences have to be considered.

To figure out the ethical problems of the high-speed trading case, we must look at the this from three main perspectives. According to Honest Work by Joanne B. Ciulla, Clancy Martin, and Robert Solomon, there a few ethical issues tied to the central technical problem of the women in advertising case. The first viewpoint is through the eyes of the men.

The ads they see objectify women – whether she becomes a Michelob bottle of beer, a Heineken beer keg, a video game, or a car (all things men like), they are subconsciously seeing women as objects/as a means to an end, which as Kilbourne explains, leads to violence and other radical things – when women are dehumanized in this world, violence is inevitable.

Other ads solely show women’s breasts, a photo-shopped picture of a woman to make her look “more beautiful” (such as the Dove advertisement), or her skinned lightened if she is too dark, such as the photo of Beyoncé. Even though men may not realize, they are subconsciously being influenced about the “real” women they are with, and then judge other women based off those false advertisements.

These men fail to see the Deontological/Kantian viewpoint stating that “The idea is roughly that we must treat people as valuable in themselves, never merely as means to some end of ours. We are never to use people – including low-level, readily replaceable employees…” (Ciulla, Martin, Solomon XXVIII). It becomes evident that from these false advertisements, men can and will use women in their life as their means to an end.

The next point of view that this situation can be looked at from is through the eyes of advertisement agencies/editors who construct the “perfect, beautiful” yet artificial and photo- shopped women. They are trying to make the best advertisement possible whether it be on behalf of a business, magazine, etc., and therefore try to make the perfect human being.

Toward the beginning of Killing Us Softly 4, an editor explains that it could take a whopping 20-30 rounds of retouching before the photo of the woman is complete. Related to this, it was shown in the film that one woman’s “body” on an ad was really a composition of body parts from four different women. For example, Jessica Alba in one photoshoot was made skinnier even though she already is skinny, and Kelly Clarkson’s body in an advertisement for a weight loss product was really slimmed down by Photoshop, not the product.

This false advertising negatively affects young girls in our society these days, as they try their best to measure up to the impossible. These agencies and editors are being unethical due to the beliefs in Virtue Ethics: “…it [virtue ethics] demands that we concentrate on being good as persons. Be honest, just, kind, and honorable, for instance” (Ciulla, Martin, Solomon XXVIII) – these folks are the complete opposite of honest, just, kind, and honorable, in fact. They are dishonest because they create a false notion of what a girl should look like – flawless skin without things such as pimples, a skinny waist, etc.

Every man and woman have imperfections, and it is time the media stops avoiding that fact: no person in their lifetime will ever have a “perfect” body. The last viewpoint is through the eyes and minds of businesses and corporations. They are acting unethical due to how they advertise and sell their products, or how they tell the ad agencies to market a product. They increase suffering amongst women due to how they advertise products, yet they have a duty in this society.

For example, a Lee Jeans ad slogan stated that a man lied if he said the first thing he noticed was your personality, and a Ralph Lauren ad made the model’s head look bigger than her pelvis which is impossible. Diet products are dangerous, yet advertised all the time and marketed mostly to women. What these companies will not tell you is not only could these diet pills/programs not work (which they do not), but they could kill people, and 95% of these dieters regain what they lost in 5 years and can even gain more in the future.

What they are doing does not align with Consequentialism/the Utilitarian point of view in that they don’t “choose the act from among your options which is best from the twin points of view of increasing human happiness and reducing human suffering…” and “businesses operating in a welfare capitalist system will also contribute to the overall well-being of society” (Ciulla, Martin, Solomon XXV – XXVII). Businesses have a duty and are not adhering to it.

Overall, there are a few things I recommend to help fix the unethical issues in advertising. First, concerning the objectification of women in advertising when advertising a product (usually for men), I would include both a man and a woman in the commercial, not solely the woman and product that men like. This could subconsciously make men see both that we are all equal and women are not objects. Second, when it comes to constructing the perfect human in advertisements, do not – simply use a regular, real woman for the advertisement.

People have different perceptions of beauty, and most are able to see that a perfect, flawless woman on an ad is fake. Lastly, businesses who advertise in unethical ways should change their whole model completely to not include women. For example, a company who is advertising a pair of jeans could show men and women in those jeans being active, having fun, laughing, etc. instead of alluding to a woman’s bottom.

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An Examination of the Ethical Issues Surrounding Modern Day Advertising. (2023, Mar 14). Retrieved from

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