Before diving into the choppy waters of what constitutes ‘Ethical Advertising’, we need to look at the reasons why companies advertise at all. Broadly speaking these fall into the following categories – they advertise to increase sales; create and maintain a brand identity or image; communicate a change in the existing product line; introduce a [...]

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Selling the truth:How Unilever delivers ethical advertising


Before diving into the choppy waters of what constitutes ‘Ethical Advertising’, we need to look at the reasons why companies advertise at all.

Broadly speaking these fall into the following categories – they advertise to increase sales; create and maintain a brand identity or image; communicate a change in the existing product line; introduce a new product or service; or increase the level of interest in the value of the company or brand.

What Ethical Advertising requires is that any or all of this be accomplished without falsehoods or fake claims and within the limits of moral decency. To do this, a set of well defined principles have been evolved which govern the ways in which sellers communicate with buyers.

Therefore Unethical Advertising is that in which false, misleading or unverifiable claims are made, full disclosure about possible reactions or side effects is not made, the brands rival is degraded or generally compared unfavourably; and product benefits and components are exaggerated.

A Unilever Domex promotion team member educating a consumer on germs in the toilet

Fine art of selling the truth

Globally, Unilever reaches over two billion consumers every day and spends over US$8 billion in media. With a reach and investment such as this, we make it our business to know the rules and regulations of Ethical Advertising inside out; In fact we have been recognised as a pioneer in the ethical selling arena for over a decade now.

I recently had the privilege of addressing a forum on the subject of Unilever’s efforts to lead the way in maintaining Ethical Advertising standards. In my speech I outlined the four clearly defined principles that govern all Unilever’s communication with customers:

• A commitment to building trust through responsible practices and through transparent communication – both directly to consumers and indirectly through other key stakeholders and thought-leaders.
• A responsibility to ensure that products are safe and that clear information on uses and risks is provided
• To fully support a consumer’s right to know what is in a product – transparency in terms of ingredients, nutrition values and the health and beauty properties of products.
• Use of a combination of channels, which include product labels, websites, careline phone numbers and/or consumer leaflets to communicate openly with consumers.

Bigger Picture

At Unilever, advertising not only helps inform people about the benefits of our products and innovations, it is also a way for us to engage with consumers on issues that matter to them. The ‘Dove Campaign for Real Beauty’ which challenges current stereotypes and encourages positive self imagery among women is one of our best examples of this, and one of which we are most proud. Surf Excel’s ‘Dirt is good’ campaign which promotes getting dirty as a natural and positive part of growing up for children is another such example.

Codes and regulations

Apart from our own strict code, Unilever applies the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) code “Advertising and Marketing Communication Practice” as the basis for all communications. The ICC code stipulates that all marketing and advertising must pass the baseline test of being ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’ with all claims backed by a sound scientific basis.

The company has also gone several steps further and is active in the support of the development of international self-regulatory codes for all marketing and advertising. We also work with industry trade bodies, such as the World Federation of Advertisers and the ICC to support the development of general principles in this area and their integration into advertising and marketing self-regulatory codes and systems around the world.

In 2008, with other member companies of the International Food and Beverage Alliance (IFBA), Unilever committed to the World Health Organisation (WHO) that third party auditors would monitor the IFBA members’ marketing and advertising principles.

Pledging positive change

Our ‘Pledge Programmes’ further illustrate our point. Since 2008 Unilever has played a major role in promoting industry-wide voluntary initiatives to advocate responsible marketing of foods and beverages to children below 12 years of age. These initiatives, have now been launched in many countries and regions across the world including Australia; Brazil; Canada; the EU; Gulf States; India; Mexico; New Zealand; the Philippines; Peru; Russia; South Africa; Switzerland; Thailand; Turkey; and the United States.

In addition, Unilever has committed to voluntarily restrict all paid marketing communications directed primarily at children under the age of six years, as well as those for children between 6 and 12 years of age, with the exception of advertising for products that meet Unilever’s nutrition criteria.

The use of cartoon characters and celebrities on packaging, labelling and point-of-sale materials is also limited, and we do not engage in the promotion of brands or products in primary schools, except where specifically requested or sanctioned by the school administration for educational purposes.

Promoting healthy body images

As evidenced by the Dove campaign, Unilever is also strictly against the promotion of unrealistic images of beauty through media and advertising. Thus is 2007, the company adopted a global guideline to prevent the use of ‘size zero’ models or actors to ensure that Unilever’s advertising does not promote ‘unhealthy’ slimness. Again the company has put a very practical measurement in place – all brand directors and agencies are expected to use models and actors with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of between 18.5 and 25 as a guideline. This is in line with the World Health Organisation’s guidance on what level of BMI can be considered healthy.

The truth is in how we feel

Saying that advertising must “tell the truth” may seem like a simple enough instruction but actually the depiction of the truth is not a black and white issue – it is a challenge for companies and advertising agencies and despite all the regulations and good intentions, even today advertisements fail to meet the ethical standard and have to be withdrawn. This, sometimes despite company counsel, ad agency counsel, network approval committees and any number of regulating bodies. How so? Because ultimately an advertisement is subject to that most personal of judgements “how does it make me feel?”, so it can tick all the regulatory boxes, but if it doesnt mesh with consumers then it has failed.

Unilever adheres to the necessary guidelines and retains a strong knowledge of our consumer base that helps us to make the choices that are not only right, but popular too. Our guiding principle is to provide the best; that way falsehood is redundant, and because everything we develop is researched and formulated with the needs of our consumers in mind, we can effectively go to the heart of their point of view and deliver the messages that they find relatable and believable. Messages they can trust.

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