Consumers' Ethical Judgments of Issue Advertising

Trina Sego, Boise State University
ABSTRACT - Consumers’ perceptions about advertising sponsored by a for-profit company linking that company or its brands to a social issue are explored here. While marketers often engage in issue advertising, critics argue that doing so raises significant ethical questions. The responses of consumers surveyed by telephone suggest that their beliefs about the ethicality of issue advertisements are related to their beliefs about the economic effects of advertising in general and their support for the issue advertised. Beliefs about the ethicality of issue advertisements are also associated with intentions to purchase from the ad sponsor.
[ to cite ]:
Trina Sego (2002) ,"Consumers' Ethical Judgments of Issue Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 80-85.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 80-85

CONSUMERS' ETHICAL JUDGMENTS OF ISSUE ADVERTISING

Trina Sego, Boise State University

ABSTRACT -

Consumers’ perceptions about advertising sponsored by a for-profit company linking that company or its brands to a social issue are explored here. While marketers often engage in issue advertising, critics argue that doing so raises significant ethical questions. The responses of consumers surveyed by telephone suggest that their beliefs about the ethicality of issue advertisements are related to their beliefs about the economic effects of advertising in general and their support for the issue advertised. Beliefs about the ethicality of issue advertisements are also associated with intentions to purchase from the ad sponsor.

INTRODUCTION

Many major corporations, from Home Depot to Benetton to Avon to Mattel, have marketed associations between their company or brand and a social issue. Cone Inc., a consulting firm, reports that half of all companies have programs associated with social issues (Meyer 1999). Corporate contributions to social cause programs are said to exceed $700 million annually (Oldenburg 1999).

While marketers are often encouraged to use their corporate influence for the public good, scholars argue that doing so raises significant political and ethical questions (Cutler and Muehling 1989; Laczniak, Lusch and Murphy 1979). Advertisers who engage in ethically-questonable practices risk losing sales from disenchanted consumers. Researchers have demonstrated that consumers’ ethical evaluations of sexual appeals in advertising (LaTour and Henthorne 1994), political advertisements (Tinkham and Weaver-Lariscy 1994) and sexual embeds in advertisements (Simpson, Brown and Widing 1998) are associated with their global attitudes toward the ads, attitudes toward the brands, and/or purchase intentions. While advertisers might benefit from an examination of consumers’ ethical judgments of issue advertising, little attention has been paid to the subject in academic research.

The purpose of this study is to provide insight into the relationships among consumers’ beliefs about the role of advertising in general, their attitudes toward particular companies and social issues, their beliefs about the ethicality of issue advertisements, and related purchase intentions.

BACKGROUND

Previous research on issue-related advertising tends to classify and describe such advertising, drawing distinctions between, for example, cause-related marketing and issue advocacy (Morton 1998). Varadarajan and Menon (1988) argue that the term "cause-related marketing" applies only to promotions in which a company’s contributions to a designated cause are linked to customers’ engaging in revenue-producing transactions with the company. Distinctions are sometimes made based on how controversial the cause or issue is; Fine (1981) asserts that "issues" are controversial while "causes" are not. However, one person’s issue is another person’s cause. Even a seemingly benign cause has opponents, particularly when that cause threatens to divert attention or funds from other causes. Thus, in this paper, "issue" will be used inclusively, and "issue advertising" will refer to advertising sponsored by a for-profit company that links that company or its brand(s) to a social issue.

Consumers can recall issue advertising and have a generally positive attitude toward it. Ross, Stutts and Patterson (1990-1991) found that approximately half of 225 adults surveyed could recall an issue ad, and about half indicated that they had purchased a product or service because of their desire to support a social issue. In another study, 30 percent of respondents to a national survey agreed that they are sometimes inclined to buy products from a manufacturer simply because it supports charitable organizations (Smith and Alcorn 1991).

Cone Inc., a Boston consulting firm specializing in "cause branding," regularly tracks attitudes toward issue advertising. According to their most recent results, 83 percent of Americans have a more positive image of companies that support issues they care about. Furthermore, nearly two-thirds of Americans report they would be likely to switch brands (65 percent) or retailers (61 percent) to one associated with a good issue (Cone Inc. 1999).

Some research examines whether and how issue advertising contributes to sales. For example, Barone, Miyazaki and Taylor (2000) found that consumers’ willingness to purchase products as a result of cause-related marketing depends on the extent to which price and performance trade-offs are required. Strahilevitz and Myers (1998) demonstrate that associating products with charities is a more effective strategy for promoting luxury products than for promoting necessities.

Little research has addressed the ethical aspectsof issue advertising or the potential backlash that a marketer might endure if consumers view an issue campaign as ethically questionable. Anecdotal evidence suggests skepticism of issue advertising. The following is a sample of published criticisms of issue campaigns:

It’s one thing to dabble in civic causes to burnish a corporate image. It’s another to risk the appearance that the underlying motive for the activism is profit. And on truly divisive issues, such as the Elian case, an uncompromising stance can put consumers in the uncomfortable role of choosing sides.

Referring to sponsorship by internet service, FreeAtLast.com, of a speech by the uncle of Elian Gonzalez (May and Fitzgerald 2000).

According to Anita Roddick, most cause-related marketing is just 'wank’ and the multinational business community, left unchecked, would run rampage across the globe, pillaging and polluting.What Roddick doesn’t like is the approach of some companies, which seek to 'bolt on’ worthy causes, and make nominal nods in their direction, while making no substantial change in the way they do business, or in their code of ethics.

Referring to comments by Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop (Dignam 2000).

To some, cause-related promotions are downright tacky and can harm a company’s image. And the weaker the link between the cause and the company the greater the chance of looking like you’re cashing in on somebody else’s problems.

Trade article about long- and short-term cause-related campaigns (Arnott 1994).

To traditional marketers, activism has been a prescription for marketing suicide. It runs the risk of generating resentment among consumers who either disagree with the company’s opinions or resent corporate proselytizing.

New York Times article on cause-related marketing (Elliott 1992).

Ethical evaluations of issue advertising may be inextricably linked to support for the issues themselves. Lusch, Laczniak and Murphy (1980) queried members of several professional groups, including ethics scholars and marketing practitioners, about the ethics of using marketing techniques to promote social issues. A screening question asked respondents whether the ethical appropriateness of applying marketing techniques to social issues might be separable from the issues themselves. The further responses of those who agreed with the screening statement suggest that these professionals closely associate the ethics of marketing with the ethics of the social issues being marketed. Marketing techniques applied to issues such as conservation, preventive health and auto safety were perceived to be more ethical than were applications to homosexual rights, to political candidates and their platforms, and to pornographic entertainment.

The Cone tracking study suggests that consumers also prefer marketing associations with specific social issues. Respondents suggested that education, crime and the quality of the environment should be top social concerns for business (Cone, Inc. 1999).

A consumer’s previous experiences with a brand may also influence their attitudes toward issue advertising associated with that brand. Ross, Patterson and Stutts (1992) found that frequent users of the sponsor’s products and respondents who had supported the issue in the past indicated more favorable attitudes toward a specific issue ad.

Aside from consumers’ previous attitudes toward a social issue or a brand, consumers’ beliefs about the role of advertising in general might affect their response to an advertisement that links a brand and an issue. Those who are skeptical of advertising’s economic and social effects may be particularly critical of broad applications of advertising techniques. For example, a consumer who believes that advertising as an institution has negative social consequences is unlikely to support advertisers as stewards of social issues.

HYPOTHESES

Consumers who are critical of advertising in general may be critical of applications of advertising techniques. In the context of issue advertising, the following relationship is hypothesized:

H1: Consumers will consider issue advertising more ethical if they believe that advertising in general has positive social and economic effects.

Previous research suggests that perceptions of the ethicality of issue advertising may be inextricably linked to support for the issues advertised. Thus, the following relationship is hypothesized:

H2: Consumers will consider issue advertising more ethical if they support the issue sponsored in the ad.

Previous research suggests that corporate credibility enhances persuasion (e.g., Lafferty and Goldsmith 1999). Anecdotal evidence suggests that consumers may perceive issue advertising sponsored by the company to be superficial or they may be skeptical of the company’s motives; such skepticism may increase when the sponsor is not perceived as credible. Thus, the following relationship is hypothesized:

H3: Consumers will consider issue advertising more ethical if they perceive the corporate sponsor as credible.

When consumers like a company, they may be more receptive to issue advertising sponsored by that company. When a consumer likes a company, a halo effect may lead that consumer to perceive actions by that company as ethical. Thus, the following relationship is hypothesized:

H4: Consumers will consider issue advertising more ethical if they like the company sponsoring the advertising.

Previous research has demonstrated that consumers’ ethical evaluations of advertisements are often associated with their purchase intentions. In the context of issue advertising, the following relationship is hypothesized:

H5: Consumers will report greater intentions to purchase from the sponsor of an issue advertisement if they believe the issue advertisement is ethical.

METHOD

Respondents were selected via random digit dialing from among adult residents of the metropolitan area of medium-sized Southern city. Three hundred and fifty adults were contacted by trained student interviewers and interviewed by phone.

The interview began with a series of Likert-type items related to beliefs about advertising in general (5=strongly agree, 1=strongly disagree). The survey presented seven items from the Bauer and Greyser (1968) attitude-toward-advertising scale as adapted by Andrews (1989). Additional related items, constructed by the author, were also included (e.g., "Advertising is an important source of information").

The advertising beliefs items were analyzed via principal components analysis. Two factors emerged, suggesting that consumers distinguish between economic and social beliefs about advertising. Items with the highest loadings were averaged to construct indices representing the two dimensions. Beliefs about the economic effects of advertising were assessed via three items: "In general, advertising results in lower prices," "Advertising helps raise our standard of living" and "Advertising results in better products for the public" (alpha=.68). Beliefs about the social effects of advertising were assessed via four items: "In general, advertisements present a true picture of the product being advertised," "Most advertising insults the intelligence of the average consumer," "Advertising often persuades people to buy things they shouldn’t buy" and "Advertising sometimes has negative social consequences" (the latter three items were reverse coded; alpha=.51).

Each respondent was asked to indicate attitudes toward one of four companies: a consumer products company known for soft beverages, a consumer products company known for cigarettes, a business and consumer products company known for computers, and an oil company. Ninety-six percent of respondents indicated that they were familiar with the company they were asked about.

Perceptions of company credibility was assessed via three Likert-type items: "[Company] is a credible company," "[Company] is a trustworthy company," and "[Company] is a respectable company" (alpha=.86). Liking for the company was measured via two items: "I like [company]" and [Company] is a good company" (alpha=.87). Respondents were asked a single question about whether they would buy from the company: "I would consider buying from [company]."

Respondents were then asked to consider that the particular company sponsored advertising for one of two social issues: condom use to prevent HIV or water quality assurance. Condom use to prevent HIV was selected because it is a timely and well-known social issue. Water quality assurance was selected as an environmental issue that was receiving local attention in the area in which this study was conducted.

TABLE 1

MEANS (AND STANDARD DEVIATIONS) FOR ADVERTISING BELIEFS ITEMS

Respondents were instructed to indicate their level of agreement with a series of statements "regarding an advertisement sponsored by [company] which advocates [issue]." Three questions assessed whether respondents felt that such issue advertising is ethical: "It would be ethical for [company] to try to persuade people regarding [issue]," "It would be ethical for [company] to provide information to the public regarding [issue]," and [Company] should have the legal freedom to advocate their position on [issue]" (alpha=.77).

Respondents were asked a single question about whether they would consider buying from the company given that the company sponsored advertising related to the specific issue: "Given that [company] has sponsored advertising regarding [issue], I would consider buying from [company]."

Respondents were then asked to indicate their level of agreement with a series of statements regarding the issue itself. Issue support was assessed via two items: "I support [issue]" and "In the future, I intend to support [issue]" (alpha=.90).

As part of a larger study, the interview included additional questions that are not reported here (e.g., items assessing perceived risk related to the issue). Final items addressed respondent demographics, media behavior and civic participation.

RESULTS

Respondent Characteristics

Slightly more than half of respondents (54.5 percent) were female. Among those respondents that indicated their age, 22.1 percent were 18-24 years-old, 31.4 percent were 25-35, 22.7 percent were 36-45, 12.2 percent were 46-55, 4.4 percent were 56-65, and 7.3 percent were 66 or older. Most respondents had at least some college education; nearly 5 percent had not graduated from high school, while 12.1 percent had received a graduate degree. Just over half of respondents (51.6 percent) earned a household income of $30,000 or more.

Beliefs about Advertising

On average, participants gave moderate responses to the beliefs items (see Table 1). The highest levels of agreement were expressed for items suggesting that advertising sometimes encourages people to buy things they shouldn’t buy and that advertising sometimes has negative social consequences. The lowest levels of agreement were expressed for items suggesting that advertising results in lower prices and that advertisements present true pictures of the products advertised.

Direct comparisons between the current findings regarding beliefs about advertising effects and those reported in most recent studies is difficult given that many studies rely on different items or item wording (Study 2 of Pollay and Mittal 1993; Shavitt, Lowrey and Haefner 1998) or item scaling (Andrews 1989; Muehling 1987) and/or they report findings by percentage of top-category responses (Calfee and Ringod 1994). As illustrated in Table 1, participants in the current study appear to be more critical of advertising’s social effects than are respondents to Study 1 of Pollay and Mittal (1993). Study 1 of Pollay and Mittal asked 188 students to respond to similar items as those administered here. Study 2 of the same project queried 195 members of a consumer panel using different items but assessing similar constructs; the consumer panelists responded more critically than the students did.

Beliefs and Intentions related to Companies, Issues and Issue Advertising

Mean responses to beliefs and intentions items related to companies, issues and issue advertising tended to be neutral or somewhat positive (see Table 2). The highest level of agreement was reported for items related to the social issues queried; on average, respondents indicated strong support for the issues examined here.

Tests of Hypotheses

The first through fourth hypotheses posit that consumers’ beliefs about the ethicality of issue advertising will be related to their beliefs about the social and economic effects of advertising in general (hypothesis 1), their support for the specific issues being sponsored (hypothesis 2), the sponsoring company’s credibility (hypothesis 3), and the consumers’ liking for the company (hypothesis 4). These relationships were examined by regressing beliefs about the ethicality of issue advertising on beliefs about the social effects of advertising, beliefs about the economic effects of advertising, support for the issue, perceived credibility of the corporate sponsor, and liking for the corporate sponsor (see Table 3).

TABLE 2

BELIEFS AND INTENTIONS RELATED TO COMPANIES, ISSUES AND ISSUE ADVERTISING

Consumers’ beliefs about the ethicality of the issue advertisement are significantly related to their beliefs about the economic effects of advertising, but not to their beliefs about the social effects of advertising. Thus, the first hypothesis is partially supported. When consumers believe that advertising has positive economic effects, they are more likely to report that issue advertising is ethical.

As predicted, beliefs about the ethicality of the issue advertisement are significantly related to support for the issue, providing support for the second hypothesis. When consumers report that they support a particular issue, they are more likely to report that an advertisement linking that issue to a company is ethical.

Neither company credibility nor liking for a company influenced consumers’ beliefs about the ethicality of the issue advertisement. Thus, the third and fourth hypotheses are not supported. Whether consumers perceived the sponsor of the issue advertisement as credible or whether they liked the sponsor had no relationship to whether they perceived the issue advertisement as ethical.

The fifth hypothesis suggests that consumers’ beliefs about the ethicality of the issue advertisement will influence their intentions to purchase from the ad’s sponsor. Respondents had been asked 1) whether they would consider buying from the company ("BUY1"); and 2) given that the company sponsored the issue ad, whether they would consider buying from the company ("BUY2"). To examine this hypothesized relationship, responses to BUY2 were regressed on BUY1 and beliefs about the ethicality of the issue ad (see Table 4).

As predicted, beliefs about the ethicality of the issue advertisement were significantly related to intentions to purchase from the issue ad sponsor. Consumers’ purchase intentions as reported independently of issue advertising (i.e., assessed prior to the interview questions about social issues or issue advertising) also had a significant positive relationship to intentions to purchase from the company given that it sponsored an issue advertisement.

DISCUSSION

Consumers’ support for a specific issue is significantly related to perceived ethicality of advertisements supporting the issue sponsored by a for-profit company. Perceived ethicality then influences intentions to purchase from the issue ad sponsor.

Neither company credibility nor consumers’ liking for a company related to perceived ethicality of issue advertising by that company. While one might assume that only issue ads sponsored by credible or popular companies would be well-received (i.e., perceived as sincere, generous and ethical), the results of this study suggest that a sponsor’s reputation or popularity are unrelated to beliefs that issue ads are ethical. Thus, when consumers consider the ethicality of issue ads, they appear to focus on the issues rather than the sponsors.

Previous research suggests that consumers’ perceptions of the ethicality of advertisements are related purchase intentions. The results of this study further extend this general finding to the context of issue advertising. In this study, consumers’ beliefs about the ethicality of an issue advertisement were significantly related to whether they would buy from the ad’s sponsor.

Consumers’ beliefs about advertising in general were significantly related to their beliefs about the ethicality of issue advertisements. However, beliefs about advertising’s economic effects were significantly related, while beliefs about advertising’s social effects were not. Previous research indicates that beliefs about advertising’s economic effects are important predictors of global attitudes toward advertising in general (Pollay and Mittal 1993). Perhaps social beliefs are not as predictive of general attitudes because some consumers do not feel that the negative social consequences affect them personally (i.e., a third-person effect). Alternatively, consumers may feel that negative social effects of advertising (e.g., occasionally buying a product that one doesn’t need) are less enduring or less important than its economic effects (e.g., having better products to choose from). Future research is needed to explore the relationships between dimensions of advertising beliefs and how these beliefs ae reconciled to form a general attitude.

TABLE 3

PREDICTORS OF BELIEFS ABOUT ETHICALITY OF ISSUE ADVERTISING

TABLE 4

PREDICTORS OF PURCHASE INTENTIONS ASSOCIATED WITH ISSUE ADVERTISING

Reliability estimates for the belief indices reported here (economic beliefs, alpha=.68; social beliefs, alpha=.51) are somewhat low compared to the average reliability coefficient for beliefs measures reported in basic marketing and psychological research (i.e., .70, Peterson 1994). Thus, measurement error may have reduced the significance of findings identified here. Nunnally (1978) suggests that when exploratory research reveals significant relationships despite modest reliabilities, further research might be justified to develop better measures.

While the advertising beliefs items assessed here (derived from Bauer and Greyser 1968) have been widely applied in advertising research (e.g., Obermiller and Spangenberg 1998), Pollay and Mittal (1993) argue that such measures do not tap all of the relevant dimensions of beliefs about advertising. Among other dimensions, further research might continue to explore beliefs about advertising’s entertainment value and advertising’s materialistic emphasis.

Since data for this study was collected via a telephone survey, the causality of relationships reported here cannot be determined. Both the independent and the dependent variables were self-reported in a single survey. Question sequencing may have led respondents, thus increasing the potential for demand effects.

Nevertheless, the results of this study provide important evidence regarding the relationships among consumers’ beliefs about the role of advertising in general, their attitudes toward particular companies and social issues, and their attitudes toward issue advertisements. The results of this study suggest that advertisers should be cautious about engaging in issue advertising; in particular, they should be selective about the issues they link to their companies through advertising.

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