Ethics in Advertising?

American media has long been accused of a bias in heavily representing only certain sides of human nature. In the past few decades they have even become notorious for their skewed portrayals of the human form. The purpose of this paper is to explore whether the American media portrays the human form in an ethical manner through their advertisements.

Throughout this paper I will endeavor to uncover how the capitalistic system of American enterprise has helped to perpetuate the biased body image, how biased body image produces harmful effects in both physical and mental health, and finally, how we as a society can endeavor to change the dangerous trends that the media’s portrayal of biased body images has helped to create.

Bias, in the realm of this paper, will refer to the media’s repeated use of one body type for both men and women in the media. It will also reference themedia’s use of very little diversity regarding gender, race, ethnicity, and age, as well as, the use of “undesirable” body types as negative reinforcement (Ensler, 2004).

One of the most important features of ethicality in any profession is a fair and balanced look at an issue. Dogmatism, the stubborn ascertain of opinion or beliefs, leads to a skewed perspective in any situation (Weston, 2002). This paper asserts that the American media’s portrayal of body image is consistently dogmatic.

This paper will also present the idea that the American media could represent a greater scope of American society by showing a more diverse population of ethnicities, ages, and body sizes. This more rationalistic approach could be a greater boon to the advertising industry than the alienating tactics they are presently using (Edut, 2003).

Advertising is America’s ninth largest industry; every year, its profits soar into the hundreds of millions of dollars (ASA, 2005). It is also, rather surprisingly, one of the most ungoverned.

There are between 30 and 50 different advertising agencies with published codes of ethics in America (ASA, 2005). They include the American Marketing Association (AMA, 2005), American Advertising Federation (AAF, 2005), American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA, 2005), and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI, 2005).

This is quite different from nearly every other highly developed country in the world. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, etc…all have a unified code of ethics that governs their advertising industry (ASA, 2005). This is due in large part to their governments funding large parts of their countries advertisements. Our own government funds public service announcements, but stays away from the more general melee of commercials.

Advertisements have made their way into almost every facet of our lives. We can go very few places where we are not bombarded with advertisements of every sort. Even our homes are open to them.

The average American watches 3000 advertisements every day. This means, that by the time they are 21 years of age, they will have seen in excess of one million advertisements. American media, our magazines, movies, television programs, etc…are now not only invading nearly every facet of our lives, but they are sweeping into the rest of the world as well (Edut, 2003).

What kind of legacy are they taking with them? What ethical dilemma does this present to our culture? What dilemmas do they take with them into all the other world cultures they are invading? And perhaps, most importantly, who cares?

In truth, there are no simple answers here. However, the ethicality of presenting a dogmatic view of Western-European beauty to the world at large is disturbing at best. This paper contends that the portrayal of a biased body image advocated by the American media is detrimental to the world’s diverse populations, as well as our own, due to the lack of diversity seen in it.

So, in short, if this dogmatism is affecting all of us (and this paper intends to show how the media is affecting our sense of self) then we should all care about this issue. Even if our moral compass does not point toward the good of others, it will certainly direct us to what is good for ourselves. If bias is detrimental to the self, then shouldn’t even the most selfish of humans have a concern over its blatant use?

I would now like to introduce an auto-ethnography into the murky world of biased body images. I am heavily involved in the theatre community on my university’s campus. While doing a production of Equus, I was confronted by my and my friends’ perceptions of body image.

In the play a boy of seventeen has blinded six horses and it is a psychiatrist’s task to find out why. In the cast, there are, of course, six people dressed in skin tight unitards as well as abstract horse heads which enable them to portray the horses that the main characters discuss in such detail.

Five of the horses in our cast were portrayed by women. They were all lovely; they were all at or below their “appropriate” body weights. And yet, each and every one of them was reticent about showing their bodies. Whether it was one specific “problem” area or their entire form, they each had an issue with themselves.

I, of course, was curious and asked them about this. Two replied it was an old fear due to their families’ preconceived attitudes about weight and what carrying around any extra meant. The others responded that they did not feel “adequate” because the public would not be used to seeing an actress with bodily flaws.

This seemed to me to be a fallacious argument. Each human has some part of their bodies that is unlike any others. And many actresses, models, or performers in general will admit that their pictures are airbrushed or “touched up” before publication. Even Julia Roberts, one of People Magazines most beautiful women, had a body double for the motion picture Pretty Woman (Ensler, 2004).

50% of females who frequently watch TV describe themselves as too fat, when their weight is normal (Edut, 2003). It is a simple fact of human biology that we require fat to survive and to function optimally. Without a certain amount of body fat, women cannot menstruate, meaning that they will not be able to give birth or to produce milk which will nourish a child (Edut, 2003).

In Fiji, fat was viewed as an asset. It meant that one was prosperous, that one could provide for their families. When American television programming was introduced to Fiji in early 1990’s, fat was a social necessity. Within three years of the American media being introduced, the number of women with eating disorders had increased by an astonishing 5 times. Much of the disordered eating was centered on bulimia, as vomiting was seen as the “faster” way to get rid of the extra weight (Adios Barbie, 2005).

If every human being has a unique body and sense of self, why then were all these women so attuned to the societal standard of “perfection?”

Both the simple and the complex are embroiled within the answer to that. Namely, the media. We are constantly, at almost every moment, bombarded with images of “ideal” bodies. And they are almost exclusively designed to be Western European beauty standards. Even the few African, Asian, or Hispanic persons we see portrayed in the commercial media all have Western European characteristics in their features (Sparks, 2005).

The question then becomes, “How does portraying only one type of beauty become profitable?” To understand this, we must first look at America’s economic system. We are a capitalistic free enterprise country. In free

enterprise, companies who are the most innovative and who create the “best” products will be the most profitable. But our definition of “best” is fluid. “Best” may refer to the quality of the product, or to how well it is received by the public, i.e. how well it sells. While these two are not mutually exclusive, the one does not have to include the other either (Glossary, 2005).

Advertisers will consistently target the groups who have the most expendable income so that they can convince them that the newest product is essential to their status and ease of living (Glossary, 2005). For quite a while the group with the most spending power was the Caucasian, or Western European, demographic, so advertisers vied their wares accordingly. This went on for several decades, so by the time of the 1960’s and 70’s when major movements of civil rights and women’s liberation made their presence known, the American public firmly believed in the ideals of the “white” advertisements they saw on television every night (Edut, 2003).

This increased their status within the American power structure. In short, by catering to the Caucasian, or moneyed, demographic of America at the time when advertising by television was in its infant stages, they normalized and deified the white community and their beauty standards. It is a legacy that is still proving hard to leave behind (Edut, 2003).

One of most insidious ways in which the portrayal of a biased body image affects us is in its effects upon our mental and physical health. The media often portrays heavy or “overweight” people as lazy, stupid, biased, surly, etc… They seem only to focus on the negative aspects of human behavior in regards to larger citizens. This implants the stereotype of large people as disgusting slobs or as persons unwilling to take care of themselves (Lewis, 2003).

America’s attitude towards weight is a rather ironic one. When Congress changed the guidelines concerning weight in the 1990’s, they re-categorized 2/3’s of Americans into the obesity brackets (NAAFA, 1998). If America could be compared to a teenager, then we’re going through that awkward “I hate myself” phase. Which brings me to my next question, “Are biased body images actually detrimental to us as a society?”

If biased images are detrimental to individuals, and it is individuals who make up societies, then yes, the biased images are indeed detrimental to society in general. But the biases that will be discussed here are all equal opportunity biases for they affect both men and women. In recent years there has been a significant increase in disordered eating practices by both sexes (ANRED, 2005).

Continuing along with the America as teenager analogy, many people in this country fall into the trap of disordered eating and distorted body image syndromes while in junior high or middle school. But it can begin even earlier than that. Many women recount being in elementary or primary school when they went on their first diet (Edut, 2003).

These biases also affect both “thin” and “fat” persons. Health problems can be experienced by any and all of those who take drastic measures (fad diets, disordered eating, and smoking) to be thin and stay thin (Thorpe, 2004).

For example, 1 out of every 5 women smokes today in the United States. Women report that they begin smoking to reduce stress, to help increase the effects of alcohol, and to stay thin, as smoking decreases appetite. Men on the other hand report that they begin smoking to make themselves more alert. Nicotine actually decreases the effects of alcohol in men, and as men are encouraged to be muscular and not “skinny” the need to smoke for weight purposes in moot (Dortch, 1997).

However males are not at all exempt from the problems of a skewed body image. Disordered eating has been seen, historically, as being primarily a female problem. However, recent studies have shown that for every four women with an eating disorder, there is one male who also is affected by disordered eating (ANRED, 2005).

There is also the issue of diet drugs. These diet pills are widely distributed and perfectly legal. In many cases, they have even been approved by the Federal Food and Drug Administration. However, over the past decade, many of these drugs have been pulled from the market and pharmacy shelves due to their harmful side effects (NAAFA, 1998).

In 1997, both Pondimin and Redux, two FDA approved weight loss drugs, are pulled from the market. In 2002, Fen Phen was pulled from the market. All of these diet drugs were found to lead to hypertension and valvular failure as they chemically weakened the heart muscle. Millions of dollars from lawsuits made by those who experienced such problems have been paid out by the drug companies (NAAFA, 1998).

Concordantly, one of the most grievously overlooked problems in the portrayal of a biased body image, is how detrimental being underweight is to one’s health (Thorpe, 2004). Not having enough fat on a human body may lead to feeling chronically fatigued, to developing osteoporosis in their early 20’s, as well as dry skin and brittle nails to swollen joints, heart failure, and brain damage (Thorpe, 2004).

These media enabled biases also affect persons of all races, ages, etc… More and more minorities are accepting the American standard of European beauty. More and more women are buying “anti-aging” cosmetics and undergoing “face lifts” to “fight” aging (Sparks, 2005).

The following statistics refer to only cosmetic plastic surgeries, these are not surgeries performed for patients such as burn victims or those with crippling deformities. These procedures include non-sinus related rhinoplasties, breast reductions or enlargement, or even an Asian woman having her eyes redone so that they no longer look so Oriental. Between 1997 and 2002, the number of purely cosmetic procedures performed on people of color quadrupled to 1.3 million. Total cosmetic procedures increased by more than two million from 2002 to 2003 (Sparks, 2005).

As is evident by now, there are several ethical dilemmas inherent in these situations. They include the health effects on societies, the monetary effects on societies, and the limitation of diversity within societies.

Even if we cast aside our concerns about the health effects these images can propagate, there are still the economic concerns to be addressed. Within free enterprise there is an ideal which lets diversity and innovation be the cornerstones by which advertisements and profits will best be served (Glossary, 2005).

But in the American media’s use of such biased body images, we are not letting diversity be a factor anymore. What are some of the economic benefits of diversity? The most glaring is if 2/3’s of the public were not being alienated by the media’s bias, there would be more revenue spent by the larger people on clothing and other items that are made for them. Such clothing stores as Lane Bryant, The Avenue, Torrid, and FashionBug all cater to size 14 and above women. Because they are “specialty” stores, their prices are higher than other department stores. Yet time and time again, women will shop there and willingly spend more because it is a much more accepting environment (Edut, 2003).

Would a marketplace where all sizes and shapes were represented succeed? The signs point to yes. If women and men are willing to shop in specialty stores which cater to their needs, it stands to reason that they would also shop in department stores which did not discriminate against them. The department store that does not treat large people as inhuman will attract more customers. And because most department stores are chains, they can keep their cost low while mass producing clothing for their new clientele. With competition between these department stores and the specialty stores, diversity can lead to the innovations that will let these shops thrive (Edut, 2003).

These may seem like very simplistic solutions. However, these are only a few ways in which we may address the problems which biased body images create.

As any rationalistic person will tell you, each person has their own neuroses. Many of these are brought on by both nature and nurture. The final question that I present to you is this, “If a person has acquired a negative self body image, how much harder is their task of overcoming it with the constant standard of “ideal” body images in the media?” Unfortunately, at current rates, this a question most of the world will be asking. America’s body image biases are no longer ours alone.


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