20 Unethical Advertising Examples 2024

There’s a world of difference between talking up your product or service and being deceptive or offensive. Customers don’t want to be lied to or sold to using unscrupulous or devious tactics.

Doing so would amount to unethical advertising. Despite the dire consequences that could result from unethically marketing the products, many brands still venture into that terrain from time to time.

Consumers need to be vigilant to ensure that brands don’t get away with trying to make a quick buck at their expense and brands need to strive to promote their offerings truthfully and ethically.

In this post, we are going to walk you through some unethical advertising examples to get you a better sense of what bad and unethical marketing tactics look like.

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Unethical Advertising Examples

1. Use of misleading images

If there’s anything that grinds people’s gears, it’s buying something because of the way it looks in an ad only for the actual item to bear very little resemblance to what was advertised.

As a marketer or business owner, it is your responsibility to ensure that what you promise matches what you deliver. Using images that don’t truly represent your product is considered unethical advertising and it can get your brand in a lot of trouble.

In 2009, ASA, the British advertising regulatory body banned an Olay ad for Definity eye cream for using misleading images. Olay promised that the cream removes eye lines and makes users look younger as evidenced by the wrinkle-free 60-year-old model in the ad.

But it turns out that Olay retouched the ads to digitally remove the spots and wrinkles on the model’s face to gauge the impression that the result was achieved using the product.

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2. Sharing false information

Trying to convince buyers to choose your product by writing compelling or captivating copy is one thing, but lying to them is another thing entirely. The former is acceptable, while the latter is heavily frowned upon.

When you knowingly or unknowingly make false claims that lead people to buy your products, it can lead to backlash and even open you to litigation.

A good example of this unethical advertising practice is Volkwagen’s campaign that promotes environmentally friendly “Clean Diesel ” vehicles that had low-carbon emissions.

After selling over half a million of these vehicles, it was revealed that Volkswagen had been cheating on its emission tests in the U.S. for seven years.

The cars it sold emitted pollutants that were over 40 times higher than the allowable limit. As such, the company was sued and is facing fines and payouts of up to $61 billion.

3. Selling products using deceptive pricing

Marketing a product at a price that’s more affordable than it really is without making people aware of any hidden fees or terms and conditions that may affect the final cost is a bad advertising tactic. You are luring customers into the door using trickery.

At the end of the day, they will either walk away feeling like you have wasted their time or they will be forced to buy the product anyway because they already put their eggs in that basket. Either way, your customers will be very unhappy because you fooled them.

Airlines are notorious for false advertising of low prices to entice travelers, but some of them manage to keep things on the ethical side by disclosing that there are additional fees involved to finalize the booking.

When Jetstar and Virgin Airlines decided to forgo this disclosure, they were fined $745,000 for false advertising of low prices in their misleading ads.

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4. Use of bait and switch

Image Source: Pexels

Bait and switch ads are another unethical advertising example. They involve promoting an item that the advertiser does not have or intend to sell at an unbelievably low price just to get people to come to their store.

But when customers arrive and enquire about the product, the salesperson tells them that they are too late because they just sold the last piece of the item they wanted. But then they are offered a supposedly better deal on a different item that’s much more expensive than the product that was advertised.

The salesman then tries to convince customers that the new item is far better and more long-lasting than the cheaper one they wanted, so they will be saving a lot of money if they buy it.

Bait and switch is an unscrupulous practice that uses deception to generate attention and sales. Using this advertising tactic is illegal in many states and it could lead to lawsuits, but unethical advertisers still use the fraudulent tactic because it can be tough to prove.

5. Making exaggerated claims

Every brand wants their products to sell and so they will try to make their ads and copy as persuasive as possible. But while doing that, you still have to stay within the realm of the factual.

Exaggerating the effects or benefits of your product might seem harmless, but it’s considered an example of unethical advertising because it holds a degree of untruth.

In Colgate’s ad for its Max White One Optic toothpaste, the brand claimed that the product will make your teeth “smooth, clean, and shiny instantly”.

Although there was scientific evidence to show that the toothpaste could help clean and whiten your teeth, it couldn’t do it instantly as exaggerated.

As a result, the ASA ordered that the exaggeration be removed from all promotional material for the product.

6. Portraying women as sex objects/symbols

You have probably heard the saying “sex sells”. There’s no doubt about that because sex is one of the most taboo, yet most fascinating and widely talked about subjects in our society.

Sex is the low-hanging fruit that the advertising industry reaches for when it can’t be troubled to come up with an original idea. The problem with selling sex is that there’s a thin line between what’s acceptable and what’s offensive and unethical.

For example, in an attempt to promote the new remote play feature for PS4 on the PlayStation Xperia Z and Vita smartphones, the company’s ad basically turned into an intro for a pornographic movie.

It unabashedly sexualized and objectified the commercial’s sole character, a female doctor by describing the PlayStation game and remote play feature using sexually charged language. The ad received a lot of backlash, forcing Sony to remove it from its official YouTube channel.

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7. Discriminating against rival products

It’s normal to want to gain an edge over your competitors and proclaim that your product is better than theirs.

However, it’s unethical to drag your rivals’ brand or product through the mud to turn customers against them and get them to choose your products instead.

Despite the unethical nature of this tactic, it is still commonly used in advertising. Sometimes, brands are able to get around this by alluding to a rival product rather than directly naming it.

But sometimes, the strategy can backfire and cause a storm of criticisms to rain down on your brand. Coca-Cola experienced this in 1985 when it released an ad to market New Coke, which it alleged tasted sweeter than Pepsi, its closest competitor.

Coca-Cola marketers also claimed that in a taste test conducted by an independent research company, more people all over the United States preferred the taste of New Coke to Pepsi, but customers weren’t having it.

8. Failing to reveal the side effects of a product

As a manufacturer, no one expects you to say bad things about your product. At the same time, you are not expected to conceal facts about any side effects or negative aspects of your product that could potentially put customers at risk.

Withholding this information is tantamount to lying to customers and is regarded as highly unethical. It can open you up to public outrage and lawsuits when people experience a side effect of your product that you failed to make known to the public.

This bad advertising practice is common in the natural remedies and health industry. Many manufacturers are happy to let customers believe there are no negative effects from their products because they are made using “natural or healthier ingredients”

In the case of Treximet, a medication for migraine manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline, the company received a warning from the FDA for failing to disclose the side effects of the medication in one of its digital ads.

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9. Going against public or national interest

An ad does not exist in a vacuum. It’s a part of the society that birthed it so it needs to be sensitive to the prevailing issues, sentiments, and interests of the general public.

In a bid to be controversial or edgy, many brands end up taking their campaigns too far and crossing lines they should have remained behind.

A good example of this is Bristol Gin’s ad which was released in 2020 during a time when protests, riots, property damage, and looting sprees were sweeping across the United States.

Bristol Gin decided it was wise to position its product as the No 1 choice for rioters because of how highly flammable it is. Unfortunately for the company, people were not amused and it faced a lot of backlash for the inappropriate and insensitive nature of the ad.

Many distributors even canceled their contracts with the company as a result. Later on, the brand formally apologized for its error, but it couldn’t undo the damage that had been done.

10. Exploiting marginalized people or disadvantaged subjects

When done right, appealing to customers’ emotions can make your marketing messages more effective because they will resonate with the audience on a personal and intimate level.

It’s how charities are able to get people to donate to all kinds of causes and provide help to people who are desperately in need of it.

This practice is ethical because it serves noble purposes and does not intend to manipulate emotions or exploit the realities of underprivileged, disadvantaged, or less fortunate people. Instead, it is done in their best interest.

It becomes unethical when disadvantaged people are used for shock value in your advertisement. Or used to evoke feelings of anger or sadness in the audience just to get them to buy a product or service.

This unethical marketing example can be seen in the controversial McDonald’s Dead Dad ad in Britain which exploited the subject of child bereavement just to sell its latest product, Filet-O-Fish. The commercial received so much criticism that the brand had to pull the ad.

11. Using inappropriate or offensive material

Offensive ad as an example of unethical advertising

Ethical advertising doesn’t insult or discriminate against anyone to get its message across.

You need to be conscious of the statement you are directly or inadvertently making with your campaign and you need to be willing to pull the plug and return to the drawing board if your ideas don’t pass the sensitivity test.

You want to stay away from any kind of messaging that could offend or hurt a group of people. Mocking a person or making humiliating statements about some aspect of people’s lives is unacceptable and unethical.

The animal rights group PETA learned this the hard way when they made an insensitive ad body shaming overweight people and encouraging them to lose the fat and save the planet by going vegetarian.

Naturally, people didn’t take kindly to these offensive ads and they lashed out at the organization until the billboards were replaced.

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12. Making demeaning references to sex, age, religion, or race

When conceptualizing a marketing campaign or ad, it’s important to stay clear of sensitive topics like religion, sex, politics, age, and race.

If you must touch on these topics in your ad, you must ensure that you don’t wind up being discriminatory or derogatory towards people in those categories.

Otherwise, you are going to disrespect and offend a large section of your customer base and push them to stop using your product or service. A real-life example of this bad advertising strategy is the Dove Body Wash Ad of 2017.

The ad featured a black woman turning into a white woman after taking off her clothes thanks to the body wash. The ad created a PR nightmare for the skincare brand as it was accused of being racist and encouraging skin whitening by suggesting that darker skin is dirty and undesirable.

Many customers decided to boycott the brand and the hashtag #DoneWithDove continued to trend for weeks after the debacle.

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13. Using scare tactics

Although using fear in your marketing messages can make them more persuasive, it is an unethical tactic.

You shouldn’t create worry in the minds of your target audience or trigger issues they are already sensitive about by making them afraid of the consequences of not buying your product or using your service.

A good example of fear-based advertising is the Listerine ad on halitosis which ran in the 1920s. The ad stated that people who had halitosis would be unloved and unpopular unless they treated the condition with Listerine.

Rather than going the Listerine way, you will be better off highlighting the benefits of your product or encouraging people to seek solutions to their problems.

14. Using sexually suggestive content

Yes, people have sex, but you don’t have to go making sex references in your ads to remind them of that and score cheap points. A lot of people are not comfortable with sex/dirty talk in public spaces so it’s important to keep your ads family-friendly.

Keep in mind that your ad will probably be seen by children too, so having sexually suggestive content in it will it inappropriate for that audience. This tactic might get you a lot of attention, but it can just as easily bring you a ton of backlash.

Burger King faced outrage from the public after it made an ad for its new burger “Super Seven Incher” in 2009. As if the name wasn’t bad enough, the ad image featured a model with her mouth wide open and ready to take in the Super Seven Incher.

What’s more, the model didn’t know her image was going to be used in this manner. Bad work all around!

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15. Plagiarizing marketing campaigns

Image Source: Pexels

Another practice that belongs on the list of unethical advertising examples is plagiarism. Creativity is the lifeblood of advertising, so it’s never okay to steal someone’s ideas and market them as your own.

The most you can do is draw inspiration from another brand’s marketing ad, but you cannot copy it to market your own products or services. Doing so will only paint your company in a bad light.

McDonald’s is one of the brands that have been guilty of plagiarizing ads. The brand recreated a series of images from the viral engagement photos of a writer and photographer couple.

After being called out on social media and beyond, the company removed the ads and issued a formal apology to the couple and their customers.

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16. Distorting facts to mislead buyers

Just because you are not telling outright lies about your product doesn’t mean it’s okay to twist the facts a little to suit the narrative you are trying to sell. It’s still a form of deception and an example of unethical advertising and it should be avoided at all costs.

CocaCola’s VitaminWater got into a lot of trouble for false advertising when it was discovered that the vitamin drinks that it marketed as a healthy alternative to soda actually contained eight teaspoons of sugar per bottle.

The brand distorted and failed to mention this fact by advertising its products with the tagline “vitamins + water = all you need”.

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17. Spamming customers with unsolicited messages

Image Source: Pexels

Product advertising is a continuous activity. You have to keep putting your offerings in front of prospective customers so you can stay at the top of their minds and ensure that they think of you when the time comes for them to make a purchase.

But you need to do this without spamming them with text messages, phone calls, or emails. No customer on earth won’t be annoyed if you keep sending them a barrage of unwanted messages.

Doing so will only earn you negative reviews, forcing customers to block your number, unsubscribe from your email list, or even report your address as spam.

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18. Relying on stereotypes to make your point

In this day and age, it’s important to be mindful of stereotypes in your marketing campaigns. Avoid messages that reinforce harmful or hurtful stereotypes and inequalities.

Just because society hasn’t successfully eradicated a particular stereotype doesn’t mean you have to participate in perpetuating it. Your ads should rise above and strive to be sensitive, inclusive, and a window through which people can see the world around them in a new light.

Mr. Clean generated outrage and criticisms for this kind of unethical advertising in 2011 in its Mother’s day ad that implied that the only important work that women have and should be concerned about is cleaning the house.

19. Shaming your target audience

People don’t react favorably to being insulted so trying to use shame as a marketing tactic will probably not go over well with your audience. You can get your message across and generate buzz around your product without being condescending to your audience or making them feel insulted.

Gillette learned this firsthand after its “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” ad sparked widespread criticism. The ad which was intended to criticize harassment, bullying, and toxic masculinity was seen as degrading, insulting, and full of generalizations.

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20. Making baseless and unproven statements

Unless your goal is to generate customer complaints and lawsuits in the future, you need to exercise care when making any scientific or health-based claims about your product.

Be a responsible manufacturer by ensuring that your claims can be backed up by research and scientific data.

You don’t want to end up like the herbal supplement company Airborne which was forced to pay over $30 million in settlements following a class-action lawsuit for dubious advertising.

In the marketing ads for its product, Airborne claimed that it helped fight harmful germs and bacteria and prevent illnesses like flu or the common cold.

However, there were no science-backed studies to support Airborne’s claims about the effectiveness of its product so a scandal ensued.

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Unethical Advertising Examples – Conclusion

These unethical advertising examples go to show that using dodgy marketing tactics to sell your products is not only wrong, it can also do serious damage to your brand reputation and lead to hefty financial losses.

Today’s customers value transparency very highly, so if you are upfront and straightforward with them, they will reward you with their loyalty.

About Author

Tom loves to write on technology, e-commerce & internet marketing. I started my first e-commerce company in college, designing and selling t-shirts for my campus bar crawl using print-on-demand. Having successfully established multiple 6 & 7-figure e-commerce businesses (in women’s fashion and hiking gear), I think I can share a tip or 2 to help you succeed.