Controversial advertising in the UK : its regulation and practitioner ethical decision making

Farrell, Thomas Anthony (2012). Controversial advertising in the UK : its regulation and practitioner ethical decision making. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis explores the phenomena of controversial advertising, its regulation, and the ethical dimensions of its practice in a UK. context. The £19bn advertising industry is a major contributor to the British economy, helping to stimulate consumer demand, market competition and employment (IPA, 2012). Despite these benefits, advertising is often criticised for its negative social consequences. Controversial advertisers utilise content or tactics that breach acceptable standards of society (Harker et al., 2005). Controversial advertising practices include: shocking, offensive or distressing content or tactics (Waller et al., 2005); deceptive or misleading advertising claims (Preston, 1996); or harmful social consequences (Pollay, 1986). The UK advertising industry use self-regulation via voluntary codes of practice to maintain acceptable standards; address stakeholder complaints and forestall government intervention (CAP, 2012). Before advertising is placed, media clearance and pre-vetting procedures are also common. However, despite these controls, over 25,000 complaints are received by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) every year and on average 2,500 campaigns annually are found in breach of the code (ASA, 2012). This raises questions as to the ethics of controversial advertising practice and the effectiveness of its regulation. This research employs exploratory interpretive methods to makes sense of practitioner ethical decision making (EDM) involved in creating, pre-vetting and regulating controversial UK advertising. New findings highlight the importance of proactive clearance rather than post-complaint regulation. The code of advertising represents a fluctuating line to be pushed at, rather than acting as a moral brake on malpractice. Practitioner EDM is built from the collective interactions of actors, not the actions of individual decision makers or organisations, thus advertising practitioners become myopic to their stakeholder responsibilities. The thesis presents a new 360 degree model of the advertising process from creation through to regulation. The research has important implications for academic, marketing and advertising and regulatory practitioners.

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