Advertising and Unintended Consequences

We have all seen ads that immediately catch our attention; some Super Bowl ads fall into this category ( ).  But what happens when an ad may have unintended consequences, when an ad affects consumers which are not their intended target market?  For example, beer and liquor companies claim to target young, legal age drinkers to consume their products.  An unintended consequence of the messages alcohol beverage ads convey to underage youth may be to encourage them to consume alcohol.  Another example is that alcohol beverage ads may unintentionally target other vulnerable population segments, such as alcoholics or other population segments with serious and prevalent drug and alcohol problems (Trevino & Nelson, 1999).[i]

Organizations also need to recognize the possible social cost and other potential influence of their advertising.  By necessity, advertising emphasizes the consumption of specific material goods and may lead consumers to disregard the importance of their more basic needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter.  Advertising by the gambling industry and the consumption of gambling products—such as lottery tickets—is one example of the consumption of a product or service which may lead to the disregard of purchases for more basic needs.  Advertising may even help block an individual’s understanding of more realistic paths to self-fulfillment (Velasquez, 2002).[ii]

While the implications of advertising in the above industries have been well documented, they continue to be important reminders for organizations to have a 360-degree view of the possible unintended consumer segments their promotional activities may influence.  In Proverbs 12:14 (MSG), it states, “Well-spoken words bring satisfaction; well-done work has its own reward,” which provides us with another reminder: organizations should never forget the power of their communication, and by extension, their advertising and promotion, for God intended us to accomplish goals through the wise use of words.

A checklist to examine your organization’s advertising:

  • Does your marketing team brainstorm potential unintended consequences when they plan your organization’s promotion and advertising?
  • How does your company’s advertising respect all the customer segments it serves?
  • If your advertising does have unintended targeting at vulnerable customer segments, how can you correct it?

[i] Trevino, L., & Nelson, K. (1999).  Managing business ethics.  New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc..

[ii] Velasquez, M. (2002).  Business ethics: Concepts and cases (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.



    • George Howell

      John, when I watch commercials and view ads, it’s always interesting to me to think about what are the unintended consequences of this promotion? Thanks for your comment!


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