What Is Ethical Advertising and Does it Work?

What Is Ethical Advertising and Does it Work?

Ethical advertising is about more than telling the truth. It’s a multifaceted approach to winning—and keeping—customers that prioritises integrity, transparency and societal impact. At every stage of the relationship.

And yes, it’s just as effective as traditional marketing. Done well, it’s even better. Sceptical? Let me prove it to you.

What does ethical advertising mean?

Ethical advertising is based on advertising practices that are radically transparent, inclusive and fair. 

It also accounts for the societal impact of the way a product or service is promoted. That means it’s environmentally, socially and economically responsible. 

Ethical advertising asks two questions: “What is right for the consumer?” and “What is right for the broader environment in which the advertisement will run?

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Ethical Checklist

13-Point Checklist: Boost Your Conversion Rate By Building Trust

Learn how to boost your funnel conversion rates and sales by building trust through transparency, honesty, and sustainable practices. Download your free, ultra-practical checklist now.


What is the most fundamental ethical issue in advertising?

The advertising industry faces several important ethical issues: environmental impacts, gender and minority group inclusivity, privacy and use of personal information, targeting vulnerable populations, and more. 

But what is the most fundamental issue? 

In my experience, misleading claims are the most deep-rooted and pervasive ethical problem in advertising. These claims span the whole spectrum, from mild mistruths to full-fat lies. 

And while false or misleading statements and deceptive practices are illegal in most countries—in the US, the Federal Trade Commission enforces local advertising laws—companies often operate in the grey area between transparency and fabrication. And industry self-regulatory programmes can have limited impact. 

In particular, advertisers have a tendency to exaggerate benefits and underplay risks. 

What is moral appeal in advertising?

Moral appeal in advertising seeks to elicit a consumer's sense of right and wrong. While it is a powerful strategy, it’s not suitable for all products or services. 

Moral appeal is very prevalent in the charitable space. Companies pursuing a social cause and politicians often use it. 

Moral appeal is not the same as ethical advertising. Moral appeal is a strategy. Ethical advertising refers to an overall approach to creating and delivering ads. 

Does ethical advertising work? 

Ethical advertising is effective. And because it creates a high level of trust it is often more effective than advertising that doesn’t take an explicitly ethical stance. 

Socially responsible advertising often naturally aligns with factors that improve sales outcomes. For example, eco-friendly web design that reduces data loads also improves site speed and user experience, in turn boosting conversion rates. 

What research has been done on ethical advertising?

There is substantial research showing the effectiveness of ethical advertising. A meta-analysis published in 2023 demonstrated that consumers respond positively to brands they perceive as ethical (Geeta and others, 2023).

Similarly, research by consultancy firm Edelman found that “ethical drivers such as integrity, dependability and purpose drive 76 percent of the trust capital of business.” Trust has been called the “new digital currency” by sales research company Mercuri International. 

Another study found that an ethical approach has a “significant” positive effect on core customer metrics: loyalty, trust, and satisfaction (Vidianti and Ekawati, 2019).

There is much more research that could be cited, but that should give you something of a brief overview. 

What kind of results can you expect from ethical advertising?

Ethical advertising leads to improved outcomes in three main areas:

  • Customer trust: Researchers have shown that ethical integrity is the key driver in creating consumer trust and positive brand reputation.
  • Customer loyalty: Average lifetime value and repeat purchase rate are much higher for those customers that perceive a brand as ethical. 
  • Customer experience: Customers report a better experience with ethical brands. 

Case study: 15% opt-ins and 5.7% conversions for sustainability consultants

Here’s a case study from one of our clients at Nued with measurable outcomes from an ethical ad campaign. 

  • Problem: A struggling sustainability consultancy approached us. It had a marketing and sales department of 15 people. Only one person was generating any sales. 
  • Reason: We identified a large sales knowledge gap and an absence of a well-defined, tested process to generate sales calls.
  • Solution: We provided sales coaching that emphasised transparency and honesty. We also implemented a sales funnel showcasing the trustworthiness of the client. The funnel had an average accessibility score of 9.5/10 and a CO2 impact of 0.45g/visit.
  • Results: The opt-in page converted at 15%, with 5.7% of visitors booking a meeting. The sales team started to close deals consistently. 


Why are marketers sceptical of ethical advertising?

Advertisers and marketing communications professionals are often sceptical of ethical practices because of misunderstandings around effectiveness. There is a perception that exaggerating claims and skimming over the negative aspects of a product or service will drive more customer engagement. 

Other reasons for scepticism include higher costs (sustainable, socially conscious advertising can be more expensive), the time and complexity of clearly defining ethical boundaries and difficulty in measuring outcomes.

Interesting story: Radical transparency and the world’s first full-time copywriter 

John Emory Powers was, according to many sources, the world’s first full-time copywriter. He gained a reputation for his transparent, honest and crystal-clear style, even losing his job because he refused to lie. 

He once rescued a clothing company from bankruptcy by running the following ad:

We are bankrupt. This announcement will bring our creditors down on our necks. But if you come and buy tomorrow we shall have the money to meet them. If not we will go to the wall.

What is the difference between ethical and unethical advertising? 

The easiest way to think of the difference between ethical and unethical advertising is in terms of immediate and long-term goals. 

Unethical advertising is single-mindedly and aggressively focused on maximising sales, without considering any other bigger-picture factors. 

An analogy I often use is that of a grandmaster. The unskilled chess player only thinks one or two moves ahead. The grandmaster, on the other hand, plans up to twenty moves ahead. 

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Ethical Checklist

13-Point Checklist: Boost Your Conversion Rate By Building Trust

Learn how to boost your funnel conversion rates and sales by building trust through transparency, honesty, and sustainable practices. Download your free, ultra-practical checklist now.


Ethical advertising practices: 5 Principles for running ethical campaigns

At NUED we use a five-step approach to running ethical campaigns, drawing on ethical practices like those published by the Institute for Advertising Ethics (IAE). This ensures we cover all the bases. 

1. Take a full-funnel view

Your whole funnel should take ethics into account—from initial discovery right through to renewal of contracts and covering both online and offline media. You should also account for the technical components of your campaigns, like websites, landing pages, ad networks and so on.

This ensures that all three sustainability pillars—environmental, social and economic—are fully considered. 

A full-funnel view also has organisational ethical considerations. Your team should have a shared ethical stance. And this includes the space to raise issues and concerns. 

2. Focus on positive action

Pioneer of ethical persuasion, Robert Cialdini said, “By understanding the principles of influence, we can ethically and effectively persuade others to take positive action.”

Ethically minded people often get hung up on the use of persuasion techniques. But these techniques aren’t inherently bad. 

All forms of communication constitute manipulation at some level. Even if you ask somebody for directions, you’re seeking to elicit a response you desire.

The ethical approach brings a high degree of awareness to the use of persuasion. It persuades transparently. It makes clear to the target customer that you are promoting something you believe to be of value. And if there is honesty, there isn’t unethical manipulation. 

What’s more, this approach puts the well-being of the consumer centre-stage. Awareness forces you to ask the question, “Am I driving customers to a positive outcome?”

3. Evaluate the social and individual impacts of your campaign

Evaluate your campaign through the lens of the three pillars of sustainability: 

  • Environmental: This relates to your carbon footprint, waste and water usage and the mitigation of harmful environmental impacts. 
  • Social: This involves considering the needs of all involved parties: employees, stakeholders and the broader community in which your advertising campaign will operate. 
  • Economic: Economic sustainability is about integrating profitability into your broader ethical mix. 

4. Check for inflation of claims

Verify and fact-check claims at all stages of your consumer-facing funnel, including in paid ads, emails and landing pages. This applies particularly to specific, number-based promises. 

Similarly, it is important to disclose conditions and sponsors. If an offer comes with conditions—a free trial, for example, that isn’t really free—then these should be disclosed. 

5. Be transparent about how you use personal information

Data privacy is a hot issue nowadays, and failure to treat personal details safely can have wide-ranging ramifications for your business. 

Clearly stipulate how you will use any data you collect, with guarantees it will never be sold or used non-consensually.

Magic happens when ethics and customer needs meet 

When you align your advertising campaigns with firm ethics, you will begin to see improvements across a range of metrics. 

Ethical advertising naturally improves many technical parts of an advertising campaign, such as website speed. But it also boosts consumer trust. And trust has repeatedly been shown to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, drivers of action. 

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Ethical Checklist

13-Point Checklist: Boost Your Conversion Rate By Building Trust

Learn how to boost your funnel conversion rates and sales by building trust through transparency, honesty, and sustainable practices. Download your free, ultra-practical checklist now.


Written by...
Anton Keller
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Co-Written by...
Dan Mowinski
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