As marketing and advertising professionals, we understand the power advertising wields amongst the consuming public. While we understand its power, advertising continues to add wrinkles within our social fabric.
A while ago, we advocated that AdLand should adopt the same philosophy as doctors; that our primary objective should be to do no harm. Advertising's purpose is to inform, remind, and persuade, and within those boundaries, any message that can cause harm defeats the purpose.
Unfortunately, there are professionals out there who would not agree with us. We can understand, for if those people are pure market thinkers, then their point would be that if the advertising was harmful consumers should do their due diligence. Then the market would decide that the advertising was harmful and the brand behind the harmful advertising would lose business.
Now we have a case study to examine both arguments. Research done by Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, and cited by the Washington Post, suggests that diet drug advertising actually influences people to make worse decisions for their health. Are the decisions based solely on the advertising? No. In fact, the research examines an interesting piece of consumer behavior. The research suggests that since people see that there is a solution to their health problems (like the diet pills), they opt to let their moral guard down and give in to their indulgences.
When we were reading this report, the derivative trading popped into our minds because, in the financial study, the code of "moral hazard" was removed, and these traders acted without a care in the world.
Similarly, people watching the diet ads see that no matter how bad their diet and exercise habits are, a quick solution is available.
This leads us to several questions. First, like the follow-up article we posed to our "do no harm" article, is it advertising's responsibility to look out for the consumer? Should the consumer have the intellect to acknowledge that exercise; a healthy, balanced diet; and self-control are really the main keys to losing weight and keeping it off? Second, if the consumer doesn't care to research, or knows the information yet refuses to follow it, is it AdLand's fault for putting out an "alternative?"
Of course, AdLand Outsiders immediately leapt at this opportunity to cast shame on advertisers. But as consumers get "smarter," the media leaves no room for the consumer to be held accountable.
We are biased. We have a background in health and wellness and are pursuing a certification in personal training, so some of the facts come as "no-brainers" to us, when in reality they could be surprising information to some people.
We still find it hard to believe that in this digital age, people fail to look things up for themselves. Perhaps we're further in our bubble than we thought.
In conclusion, is this type of advertising harmful? Indications would say yes. Does that mean advertisers must stop because people fail to take the initiative to learn the facts? That question is harder to answer.
Dwayne W. Waite Jr. is partner and principal at JDW: The Charlotte Agency, a marketing and advertising shop in Charlotte, NC. He enjoys consumer behavior, economics, and football.