Study finds ethical infractions in advertising in emerging markets in the Middle East

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Associate professor Minette Drumwright studied how lack of ethical laws lead to misleading advertising in the Middle East.
Photo Credit: Coutesy of Minette Drumwright

While expanding economic markets in the Middle East and North Africa attract new businesses, they also become sites of ethical transgressions in advertising, according to a study released by the Moody College of Communication.

Through qualitative research techniques, Minette Drumwright, associate professor in the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations, and Sara Kamal, former advertising graduate student and co-author of the paper, interviewed employees of ad agencies working in the Middle East in order to report their perception of ethical practices.  

The study, published in Consumption Markets & Culture, found that most ethical transgressions were a result of advertising agencies not willingly discussing ethical issues, employees imitating the unethical behavior of their superiors and the ambiguous nature of ethical issues.  

“I think one of the big differences is there’s not the same sort of legal infrastructure that we have in the U.S. and other parts of the world,” Drumwright said. “Oftentimes there aren’t laws that prevent people from doing misleading advertising or if there are laws they aren’t enforced or are so specific that they don’t really deal with the important issues.”

Advertising sophomore Josie MacLean said the primary ethical guideline in advertising is doing what you promise to do, and not abiding by this leads to trust problems.

“Bad ethics lead to people buying products that don’t meet their needs, which can have very serious consequences in the long term for a brand because people will learn that you lie,” MacLean said.

The study concluded large-scale factors such as lack of ethical laws and globalization forces make it difficult to uphold ethical standards in the Middle East and North Africa.

Drumwright said the increased use of social media can be used as a tool to combat ethical infractions in the Middle East by giving consumers a way to speak out about ethical infractions.

Bahar Sahami, an international relations and global studies senior, said globalization has lead to political and cultural shifts throughout countries in the Middle East.

“Globalization’s main positive impact on the Arab Spring countries has come in the form of social media,” Sahami said.

Drumwright hopes her study helps protect consumers from unethical advertising practices and keeps the playing field level among ad agencies.

“We wanted to have a better understanding of how to encourage ethical, responsible decision making and … create a context that encourages ethical behavior,” Drumwright said.