Media Ethics Initiative

Home » Posts tagged 'advertising'

Tag Archives: advertising

Politics in the Age of Digital Information Overload

CASE STUDY: Facebook’s Policy to Allow Misleading Political Ads

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies

On September 24, 2019 Facebook’s Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications, Nick Clegg, announced during his speech at the Atlantic Festival in Washington DC that Facebook would not fact-check or censor political advertising on the social media platform. Speaking on behalf of the tech company, he noted: “We don’t believe that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny” (Clegg, 2019).


With the 2020 presidential election in the United States approaching, Facebook immediately faced criticism for this decision, especially since it closely followed other controversial decisions involving the tech company’s refusal to remove misleading content – namely, a doctored video which made House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appear drunk and a Donald Trump ad which accused candidate Joe Biden of bribing the Ukrainian government to fire a prosecutor investigating the former Vice President’s son. Despite the Pelosi video’s misleading editing techniques and the Biden-focused ad’s lack of evidence to back it up its serious claims, Facebook stood firm in their decision (Stewart, 2019). There is the probability that more misinformation campaigns will be run by a range of parties in the next election, causing worries about the hopes of achieving a free and informed election. For example, Roose recounts a Facebook ad “run by [the group] North Dakota Democrats [which] warned North Dakotans that they could lose their out-of-state hunting licenses if they voted in the midterm elections” – an assertion that was utterly false (Roose, 2018).

On October 17, 2019 founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg spoke publicly at Georgetown University explaining his reasoning for the policy to not fact-check political advertisements, using his 3-minute speech to appeal to the First Amendment. Zuckerberg emphasized that he is concerned about misinformation, but ultimately believes it is dangerous to give a private entity the power to determine which forms of non-truthful speech are deserving of censorship. Instead, he stressed the importance of the credibility of the individual behind a post, rather than the post itself. Zuckerberg hopes to accomplish this through the introduction of another policy in which Facebook requires users to provide a government ID and prove their location in order to purchase and run political ads on the site (Zuckerberg, 2019).

Zuckerberg maintains that through the transparency of identity, accountability will be achieved and “people [can] decide what’s credible, not tech companies” (Zuckerberg, 2019). Appealing to John Stuart Mill’s ideas of free speech, Zuckerberg believes that the truth is always bound to come out. The unfiltered speech of politicians provides an opportunity for claims to be publicly evaluated and contested. If deception is revealed, then an opportunity for correction is provided through the refutation of the false speech of others. If a non-popular source turns out to be right about an unpopular point, others have the opportunity to learn from that truth. In either case, the hope is that the political community can use the identity of candidates or speakers in making judgments concerning who they deem credible and what arguments are worthy of belief. Censoring political information, the argument goes, only deprives people of the ability to see who their representatives really are.

Many find Zuckerberg’s free-speech defense of Facebook’s stance too idealized and not realistic enough. Of particular importance is the evolving role that social media has to play in society. Social media platforms were once only utilized for catching up with friends; now many Americans catch their news from social media sites rather than traditional print or televised news (Suciu, 2019). Additionally, as Facebook’s algorithm “gets to know our interests better, it also gets better at serving up the content that reinforces those interests, while also filtering out those things we generally don’t like” (Pariser, 2016). Based on user data such as what we “like” or what our friends share, Facebook may facilitate the creation of an “echo chamber” by providing news to our feeds that is increasingly one-sided or identifiably partisan. Such arrangements where people only engage with those who share like-minded views contribute heavily to confirmation bias – a logical error that occurs when people “stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views or prejudices one would like to be true” Heshmat, 2015). If politicians are able to mislead in their purchased advertising, they could use such a platform to encourage individuals to engage in confirmation bias by feeding them information tailored to match their data without critically looking into it – or opposing information – any further (Heshmat, 2015). Furthermore, those hoping that Facebook will crack down on paid political advertising are disheartened by the conflict of interest surrounding this issue. Political advertisers pay top dollar to advertise on social media sites. In fact, the Trump campaign alone has already spent more than $27 million on Facebook’s platform and the Wall Street Journal predicts that “in 2020, digital political ad spending [will] increase to about $2.8 billion” (Isaac & Kang, 2020 and Bruell, 2019). The economics of political advertising revenue make Facebook’s decision about curtailing it even harder to swallow.

The larger question of whether platforms like Facebook should become the arbiters of truthful and informative political speech on their sites presents one of the most pressing ethical dilemmas of the information age. On one hand, it is a dangerous and possibly slippery slope to place private tech companies into the position of deciding what counts as untruthful speech deserving of censorship. Some might worry that the distinction between truthful and untruthful political speech isn’t one that could be enforced – political ads often make questionable inferences from cherry-picked evidence, or purposefully extract specific phrases, images, or statements out of their context to render their opponents especially undesirable among audience members. How could anyone – including Zuckerberg – be tasked with evaluating anything but blatant falsehoods among the sea of claims that are questionable or badly reasoned to only some on the political spectrum? Given the challenging nature of determining what a lie is (as opposed to strategic presentation, lies of omission, or simple mistakes), the issue of eliminating purposefully untruthful speech becomes that much more challenging. Many would believe that political actors, just like everyday voters, should be able to express opinions and arguments that don’t seem particularly well-reasoned to all. On the other hand, the classic conception of free expression and the marketplace of ideas that grounds this reluctance to eliminate untruthful speech on social media may not be so realistic in our age of technology and self-selecting groups and political communities.

Between information overload and confirmation bias, it may be unreasonable to assume everyone can and will look into every news story they see on Facebook. And, as some critics would point out, many of the most vulnerable in our society, such as women and minorities, suffer the brunt of harassment online when absolute expression is valued. With so much at stake on both sides it is worthwhile to consider what has the most potential to enhance or inhibit the democratic process: reducing interference in personal expression or reducing misinformation in political advertising?

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are the central values in conflict in Facebook’s decision to not fact-check political advertisements?
  2. Has the evolution of technology and the overload of information in our era mitigated John Stuart Mill’s arguments for unrestrained free speech?
  3. Do social media companies like Facebook owe the public fact-checking services? Why or why not?
  4. Who is responsible for accurate political information: Producers, consumers, or disseminators of advertisements? 

Further Information:

Bruell, A. (2019, June 4). “Political Ad Spending Will Approach $10 Billion in 2020, New Forecast Predicts.” Available at:

Clegg, Nick. (2019, November 13). “Facebook: Elections and Political Speech.” Available at:

Heshmat, S. (2015, April 23). “What Is Confirmation Bias?” Available at:

Isaac, M., & Kang, C. (2020, January 9). “Facebook Says It Won’t Back Down from Allowing Lies in Political Ads.” Available at:

Pariser, Eli. (2016, July 24). “The Reason Your Feed Became An Echo Chamber — And What To Do About It.” Available at:

Roose, K. (2018, November 4). “We Asked for Examples of Election Misinformation. You Delivered.” Available at:

Stewart, E. (2019, October 9). “Facebook is refusing to take down a Trump ad making false claims about Joe Biden.” Available at:

Suciu, P. (2019, October 11). “More Americans Are Getting Their News from Social Media.” Available at:

Zuckerberg, Mark. (2019, October 17). Washington Post. “Watch live: Facebook CEO Zuckerberg speaks at Georgetown University.” Available at:


Kat Williams & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin

May 21, 2020

This case study is supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It was produced as part of a cooperative endeavor by the Media Ethics Initiative and the Project on Ethics in Political Communication. This case can be used in unmodified PDF form for classroom or educational uses. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Center for Media Engagement.


Ethics and E-Cigarette Advertising

CASE STUDY: Are Companies like Juul Blowing Smoke?

Case Study PDF| Additional Case Studies

E-cigarettes are a growing fad, but they might present a host of potential health problems. In the wake of criticism from public health advocates, news networks including CNN, CBS, and Viacom completely removed advertising for e-cigarette companies like Juul. The ethicality of this move must be called into question when examining the relationship between public health measures and the media. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that 2,172 cases of lung injury associated with e-cigarette product use have been reported from 49 states and 42 deaths have been documented from 24 states as of November 13, 2019 (CDC, 2019). These numbers prompted the Trump administration to threaten a ban on flavored e-cigs, news outlets to remove e-cigarette advertising, and Juul’s recent decision to stop all advertising in the United States.

On one hand, the removal of e-cigarette advertisements from networks could diminish potential vape related illnesses that have recently surfaced. Further, the disappearance of advertisements for e-cigarettes may decrease the number of users who pick one up for unintended reasons. Juul claims to provide their e-cigarette products as options for smokers working to quit. However, other audiences, especially young people, have picked up e-cigarettes as a new habit rather than as a way to give up an old one. Juul has been criticized for its use of bright colors and young models in its advertising, so preventing youths from identifying with the product could be fruitful in reducing nicotine use.

Exacerbating the problem is the lack of FDA approval of Juul products as a safer alternative to smoking, despite the company’s consistent advertising of its e-cigarette as a better solution to nicotine addiction. As CNBC reported, “the Food and Drug Administration threatened to fine Juul and criticized its marketing and promotional activities, saying its claims that Juul was a safer alternative to cigarettes violated regulations that require the agency to review smoking cessation devices” (Graham, 2019). On top of this, at least four lawsuits were filed against Juul that included allegations that Juul “deceptively marketed its product as safe and targeted underage and nonsmokers” (Chaykowski, 2018). Removing Juul advertisements entirely could prevent this unverified claim from feeding e-cigarette addiction.

On the other hand, the removal of e-cigarette advertisements from networks limits exposure to this alternative for anyone with a genuine interest in using the products to quit smoking. Though FDA approval is still pending, e-cigarettes may be a beneficial option for people attempting to ween off cigarettes and other addictive tobacco products. While eliminating advertisements may be beneficial for younger nonsmokers, it could prove detrimental for smokers looking for alternative avenues for smoking cessation.

It is unclear whether Juul and other e-cigarette companies will see a dramatic decrease in profit. Some sources say that it’s “too late” to secure the health of young nonsmokers as many will continue to market the product through word of mouth, despite loss of e-cigarette advertisements in the media. Dr. Robert Jackler, cofounder of Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising (SRITA), said “while Juul has halted its own [social media] posts, the viral peer-to-peer spread among teens the company initiated will live on indefinitely, or at least until the teen craze for Juul abates” (Chaykowski, 2018). One could argue that the removal of advertising may not even have a significant effect on the rate of e-cigarette use, especially among younger audiences.

The rise in e-cigarette use is comparable to the heavy usage of tobacco in the 1950s. What remains to be seen is if we will follow the same path that was taken to address the initial cigarette surge: “under federal law, tobacco companies have been barred from advertising on television and radio since 1971” (Yaffe-Bellany, 2019). For public health reasons, it may be necessary for some sort of media control to be implemented, but other factors, including the health of current smokers attempting to find alternatives and the fairness of designating what is considered unsafe, should be weighed in this time of uncertainty.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Whose health should take precedence, non-smokers who might fall victim to the e-cigarette trend or cigarette smokers looking to quit?
  2. Are media companies who run advertisements responsible for the effects of the products they are paid to advertise?
  3. What is the burden of proof when it comes to the potential harms and benefits of products and how they might be accounted for in ads?
  4. Is there a greater ethical responsibility when selling a product that might be attractive to minors?

 Further Information:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  “Outbreak of Lung Injury Associated with the Use of E-Cigarette, or Vaping, Products.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 14, 2019 Available at:

Chaykowski, K., “The Disturbing Focus of Juul’s Early Marketing Campaigns.” Forbes Magazine. November 16, 2018. Available at:

Graham, M., “Juul suspends broadcast, print and digital product advertising in the US.” CNBC, September 25, 2019. Available at:

Yaffe-Bellany, D., “TV Networks Take Down Juul and Other E-Cigarette Ads.” The New York Times, September 18, 2019. Available at:


Page Trotter and Dakota Park-Ozee
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
January 20, 2020

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.


Advertising Ethics and Social Issues

CASE STUDY: Gillette’s Close Shave with Toxic Masculinity

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies



Gillette took to social media to air their new “We Believe” advertisement in early January of 2019. The ad depicts what some would consider the issues related to the common “boys will be boys” mind set and the issues related to current social movements. The ad depicts men of all ages partaking in behavior that many found very controversial to begin with. The ad begins with audio from various newscasts that reported on several controversial topics such as the spread of the #MeToo movement and other ways in which men were involved in cultural movements from the past couple of years. The ad continues to show how these ideas are spread by depicting a scene where fathers are standing around a barbeque laughing and as making excuses as their young sons fight. Another scene depicts a very young boy crying to his mother after his peers had sent him text messages calling him derogatorily terms and questioning his masculinity.  Bullying, toxic masculinity, and sexual harassment are all addressed within the short ad campaign. While some believe this ad is challenging men to hold themselves to a higher standard, others disagree and feel that this ad is shaming them based on their gender. The commercial begins by showing men partaking in controversial behavior such as cyber bullying, cat calling, and fighting. The ad then challenges these men to step above these actions by depicting ways men can avoid partaking in and teaching such things to younger generations.

Scott Galloway, founder of the business research firm Gartner L2 and a professor of marketing at New York University, argues “The ‘woke’ business strategy will be a big theme in 2019 as that’s where the money is.” People who seem to agree with Proctor and Gamble’s stance on the issues in “We Believe” applaud the commercials portrayal of real world issues such as bullying and the #MeToo movement. These pro “We Believe” Twitter uses have defended the ad stating “This commercial isn’t anti-male, it’s pro humanity” (Evans 2019). Other viewers have taken to social media and other platforms to discuss their dissatisfaction with Gillette’s message. These viewers seem to feel that this ad blames certain social issues of today on all males regardless of true character.  Political commentator, Ben Shapiro remarked on the issues he saw in the Gillette campaign: “This ad is all about how men have created a crisis of masculinity in America. How men have trained their boys to be bad. How men are solely responsible for all of the ills in American society. An ad created by a company who makes their money off of men shaving” (Shapiro 2019). Along with Shapiro, the hash-tag #BoycottGillette has rapidly gained recognition after the company released this ad. Twitter users in support of this boycott find that “a company who has asked us to celebrate masculinity for 30 years suddenly wants us to feel ashamed of it.” (Grant, 2019). Others agreed with Gillette’s message about harmful gendered stereotypes but remained skeptical about companies like Gillette and Nike using social justice imagery and messages in a calculated attempt to sell products and brand.

Time will tell if such advertising campaigns help or hurt companies’ bottom lines. But the question stands: Is Gillette’s “We Believe” advertisement a smooth use of important social topics or simply another way to gain a positive image among consumers?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Was it smart for a company like Gillette to air a commercial like this or do you feel it will inevitably hurt them as a brand? Why do you think this?
  2. Will this affect the future of advertising and the way companies leverage social issues in campaigns?
  3. Do you think Gillette could’ve accomplished their message without sparking an enormous controversy?
  4. Do you agree that it was hypocritical of Gillette to air this commercial or do you think they’re trying to right past wrongs?
  5. Which brands and in which ways could you see classic male brands aligning or disagreeing with Gillette for Men?

Further Information:

Evans, Erica. “Gillette Is Being Praised and Condemned for an Ad about ‘Toxic Masculinity.’ Here’s What People Are Saying.”, Deseret News, 15 Jan. 2019, Available at:

Gant, Michelle. “Gillette Addresses ‘Toxic Masculinity’ in New Ad Campaign.” Fox News, Available at:

McCluskey, Megan. “Gillette Makes Waves With Controversial New Commercial.” Time, 15 Jan. 2019, Available at:

Meyersohn, Nathaniel. “Gillette Says It’s Satisfied with Sales after Controversial Ad.” CNN, 23 Jan. 2019, Available at:


Grace Holland & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
February 26, 2019

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Entertaining Endorsements in Sports Journalism

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Product Sponsorship in Sports Media

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies

Although it is generally rare for journalists to accept endorsement deals, the realm of televised sports journalism appears to be an exception. Erin Andrews, a sideline reporter for the 2011 Rose Bowl and a spokeswoman for Reebok, caused a stir in the sports world and renewed concerns regarding journalists endorsing products for pay. During her coverage of the Rose Bowl, Andrews reported that the players from one team were performing poorly because the new Nike Zoom Alpha Talon cleats they were wearing were causing them to slip on the field. Her remarks remained uncontroversial until two weeks later, when Reebok announced that Andrews would be “the first female featured in Reebok’s ZigTech campaign,” endorsing a shoe in direct competition with the Nike cleat.

It is unclear whether Andrews had struck a deal with Reebok prior to her comments about the Nike shoe, but the comments led some to question her credibility. Kelly McBride, a journalism professor at the Poynter Institute states: “Journalists can review products. But they can’t take money from a company to endorse them. That totally ruins their credibility… If those reporters were getting paid to endorse mp3 players or cholesterol drugs, no one in the audience would trust their judgment, because their independence would be compromised.” On the other hand, ESPN, the news outlet Andrews works for, notes that it is unlikely that she would have many opportunities to discuss the shoes in her sideline reporting role. Even if she does, they argue that as long as she discloses her relationship with Reebok it should not be an issue.

While most would agree that journalistic endorsements can be problematic in certain contexts, it is not clear whether televised sports casting should be an exception. Todd Rosenstiel, director of Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, says that disclosure is “the minimum standard,” but he compares sports reporting to political reporting. In the political context, journalists cannot accept money from parties or interest groups. Others, however, draw a line between hard journalism and the type of reporting Andrews engages in while covering sporting events, likening her more to an entertainer than a journalist.

In response to such concerns, ESPN instituted a new policy prohibiting reporters like Andrews from accepting endorsement deals. However, the policy is specific to reporters—not analysts. According to the policy, “… in assessing apparel, footwear and equipment, exceptions will be granted to players, coaches and administrators who are engaged as analysts and for whom such endorsements are part of the sports coverage/reporting landscape.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Did Andrews do anything wrong? Why or why not?
  1. Would it matter if she had signed the Reebok deal before making the comments about the Nike shoes?
  1. Should ESPN cover the controversy surrounding Andrews? Why might one say they shouldn’t? If they do cover it, what would be the ethically best way to do so?
  1. Do endorsements hurt the credibility of sports reporters and analysts? Is it harmful enough for organizations like ESPN to forbid?

Further Information:

The Big Lead, “Erin Andrews has Another Controversy: Sneakers.” Available at:

Katie Thomas, “Andrews faces Questions about a Deal with Reebok.” New York Times, January 29, 2011. Available at:

Allan Brettman, “ESPN revises Endorsement Policy; Erin Andrews allowed to keep Reebok Deal through 2011.” Available at:


Danee Pye, Ph.D., & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational use. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Just Do It?

CASE STUDY: Nike, Social Justice, and the Ethics of Branding

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


ViktorCylo / CC BY 3.0 / Modified

In September of 2018, Nike unveiled their 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign, featuring prominent athletes such as Serena Williams, LeBron James, Lacey Baker, and Odell Beckham Jr. Also featured in the series is former San Francisco 49ers quarterback turned activist Colin Kaepernick, who has been a controversial figure since early August of 2016 when he protested racial injustice in America by sitting and later kneeling during the national anthem at the start of football games. Kaepernick’s Nike advertisement, which he posted to social media sites on September 3, 2018, displays a close-up image of his face with the words “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” written across the image. Some have praised the advertisement as taking a stand in the nationwide debate over the state of minority rights while others have been concerned with Nike’s movement into the arena of political advocacy.

Gino Fisanotti, Nike’s vice president of brand marketing for North America, defended the company’s featuring of Kaepernick, who has not played in the NFL since the 2016 season when he refused a contract with the 49ers: “We believe Colin is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward.” Additionally, many high-profile athletes and celebrities have voiced their support for Nike and Kaepernick, including LeBron James and Serena Williams, both outspoken figures about social justice in their own right. “He’s done a lot for the African American community, and its cost him a lot. It’s sad,” Williams said of Kaepernick. “Having a huge company back him,” she continued, “could be a controversial reason for this company, but they’re not afraid. I feel like that was a really powerful statement to a lot of other companies.”

Other observers see Nike’s move from the commercial to the political as potentially concerning. Michael Serazio worries that this is just another sophisticated trick from a corporate powerhouse: “Getting us to think we’re making a statement by buying Nike is the long con advertising has played, and it has played it well.” Increasingly, brands are giving in to a recent demand for politicization, forcing consumers to question the political participation of various corporations. Some argue that Nike is using a popular movement to increase its own sales, and taking advantage of the prestige and celebrity status of its minority athletes while doing so. Another worry is that it distracts attention from how Nike products are made, often by workers in difficult working conditions in developing countries. As Serazio puts it, the new campaign risks diverting our focus from “the marginalized who make stuff rather than the posturing it affords those privileged enough to own it.”

The advertisement campaign is a risky move for Nike, who might garner heightened attention to its products and brand, but who also runs the risk of alienating part of its consumer base by becoming too politicized. Swaths of the football-watching public, and public at large, are divided by the anthem protests carried on by Kaepernick and others. By featuring the originator of this series of protests, many fans might view Nike as standing with black athletes and their concerns. Yet others may view the advertisement as an attempt to profit off of a protest that strikes at the heart of patriotic values that some hold dear. Some owners of Nike products even illustrated their disgust with the campaign by burning their shoes, and then subsequently posting the flaming images on social media. So far, however, Nike has not sacrificed anything due to the gamble that this advertising campaign represents: Nike stock is up 5% since the advertisement hit the public, representing $6 billion increase in Nike’s market value.

Nike’s campaign was meant to garner attention and make a statement on its 30th anniversary. It succeeded at accomplishing these goals. But many are still wondering: was Nike primarily interested in taking a courageous stand on an important political issue of our time, or were they simply using Kaepernick as a clever ploy to sell more shoes?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Should a company like Nike get involved in matters of political controversy and social justice?
  2. Is Nike misusing Kaepernick and the NFL protests in its recent campaign? If you judge this to be the case, what other ways could Nike do if they wanted to bring attention to these issues and protests?
  3. Do you think that these advertisements will hurt Nike’s brand or bottom line? Do you think this is an important ethical consideration for Nike?
  4. Should companies take stands on controversial debates orbiting around justice and the public good in their advertisement campaigns? Why or why not?
  5. Nike clearly has the ability—and right—to take a stand on this issue. What should the virtuous consumer do in reacting to Nike’s campaign? What about if they disagree with Nike’s stance?

Further Information:

Anderson, Mae. “Good for business? Nike gets political with Kaepernick ad.” September 4, 2018. Available at:

Belvedere, Matthew J. “Sorkin: Nike’s Kaepernick ad decision was based on ‘attracting big name athletes’ who side with his cause.” September 7, 2018. Available at:

Boren, Cindy. “As Trump tweets, Colin Kaepernick shares new Nike ad that reportedly will air during NFL opener.” Washington Post. September 5, 2018. Available at:

Reints, Renae. “Colin Kaepernick Pushes Nike’s Market Value Up $6 Billion, to an All-Time High.” Fortune. September 23, 2018. Available at:

Rovell, Darren. “Colin Kaepernick part of Nike’s 30th anniversary of ‘Just Do It’ campaign.” ESPN. September 3, 2018. Available at:

Serazio, Michael. “Nike isn’t trying to be ‘woke.’ It’s trying to sell shoes.” Washington Post. September 5, 2018. Available at:


Holland J. Smith & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
September 24, 2018

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Side Effects May Include Persuasion

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Direct-to-Consumer Pharmaceutical Advertisements

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies

The United States and New Zealand are the only two countries in the world where direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising for prescription drugs is legal. The United States accounts for 5% of the world’s population yet it is responsible for 42% of global pharmaceutical ad spending. In the U.S., DTC advertisements tend to follow the format demanded by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA): the utility of the drug is explained, and then followed by a list of potential side effects. Jon Swallen, the chief research officer for Kantar Media, a firm that tracks multimedia advertising, noted that “Pharmaceutical advertising has grown more in the past four years than any other leading ad category” (2017). Spending on pharmaceutical commercials has increased by 62% since 2012, exceeding $6 billion in 2016, while spending for the majority of other products remains flat according to a report from ABC News. Brand name drugs tend to be astronomically more expensive than their equivalent, generic counterparts, magnifying the need for professionally-produced and persuasive advertisements that are calculated to get consumers to want specific drugs for their ailments. One may think that the presence of negative outcomes of the drug in DTC advertisements removes any ethical concerns by fully informing consumers of potential risks, but evidence suggests the opposite may be true. According to Jeff Rothstein, the CEO of an advertising agency specializing in health care, “It’s counterintuitive, but everything in our research suggests that hearing about the risks increases consumers’ belief in the advertising” (Kaufman, 2017). The controversy about DTC advertisements is far from abating.

Advocates for DTC advertising of pharmaceutical drugs claim that these advertisements are critical to disseminating information to the public, as well as for increasing doctor/patient dialogue about health issues and potential treatments. A study from the FDA in 2004 reported that 58% percent of people believe that these ads contained enough information for the individual to decide whether or not they should speak to a doctor, and 73% of doctors said their patients asked thoughtful questions believed to be a result of such advertisements. Additionally, spurring demand for health products are viewed by many as a necessary means of revenue for pharmaceutical companies. Developing a drug is a long and expensive process. The average development of a pharmaceutical drug costs a minimum of $4 billion and could be as high as $11 billion (Herper, 2012). Also, a patent for a new drug lasts for 17 years, and typically up to 10-15 of those years can be spent working with the FDA to get the drug approved to go to market. Successful DTC advertisements allow pharmaceutical companies to see a higher return on their investments before the patent expires and generic forms of the drug are made by other companies.

Critics of DTC advertising worry about these appeals doing more harm than good to the public, even if they help a company’s bottom line. They also worry about the supposed educational effects of these advertisements. In a survey of nurse practitioners published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, 74% reported having patients request inappropriate drugs and 43% felt pressure to prescribe the inappropriate drug. The worry is that the public is not educated enough to make the correct decisions about their healthcare, but persuasive DTC advertisements lead them to believe that they know what pharmaceutical products they need. While drug development is an extremely expensive and expansive process, critics argue that this shouldn’t be a reason to allow consumers to be fooled into thinking they know more than their doctors about which medicines they need. This consumer confidence is even implicated as a cause for rising health care costs. 37% of doctors surveyed by Science Daily, a research news source, said they often prescribe brand name drugs rather than the generic brand because patients demand the specific brand name they have seen advertised. This adds to increased health care costs due to the high price of brand name drugs.

Both the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association have made public requests to ban DTC advertisements. According to a study from the Harvard School of Public Health, 57% of adults in the U.S. support removing advertisements for prescription drugs from television. Does this apparent majority of medical professionals and the general public’s opposition prove that pharmaceutical companies do not ethically belong in advertising? Or are pharmaceutical advertisements a true benefit to consumer education while financially allowing for continued research and development of new drugs?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the ethical concerns with DTC advertisements?
  2. What values are in conflict in the debate over DTC advertisements?
  3. Is there a way to balance these concerns and interests beyond the requirements to list side effects and risks?
  4. What makes pharmaceutical advertising different from other sorts of advertising? Does this make a difference in the ethical concerns related to these messages directed at consumers?

Further Information:

American Medical Association. “AMA Calls for Ban on DTC Ads of Prescription Drugs and Medical Devices.” American Medical Association, November, 17, 2015. Available at:

Herper, Matthew. “The Truly Staggering Cost of Inventing New Drugs.” Forbes, February 10, 2012. Available at:

Horovitz, Bruce, and Julie Appleby. “Prescription drug costs are up; So are TV ads promoting them.” USA Today, March 16, 2017. Available at:

Kaufman, Joanne. “Think You’re Seeing More Drug Ads on TV? You Are, and Here’s Why,” New York Times, December 24, 2017. Available at: “Should Prescription Drugs Be Advertised Directly to Consumers?” December 11, 2017. Available at:

Woodard, Larry D. “Pharmaceutical Ads: Good or Bad for Consumers?” ABC News, February 10, 2010. Available at:


Sabrina Stoffels & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 30, 2018

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational use. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Covering Female Athletes

CASE STUDY: Sexualized Portrayals of Female Athletes in Sports Journalism

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


Photo: Sports Illustrated

It is difficult to argue with the claim that female athletes receive less coverage than their male counterparts. In addition to considering how often female athletes are covered, journalists must also consider how they are portrayed when they are covered. Sports Illustrated, for example, is known for rarely portraying female athletes on its cover, but, on February 8th, 2010, Olympic skier Lyndsey Vonn was featured with the caption “America’s Best Woman Skier Ever.” Although this can be seen as a great moment for Vonn, and for female athletes in general, there were also those who took offense to the skier’s positioning in what some have called “a sexually provocative pose.”

The controversy surrounding the picture is two-fold. First, there is disagreement over whether the picture is or is not sexually suggestive. On the cover, Vonn is pictured on a mountain in a tuck position. As multiple commentators noted, male skier, A. J. Kitt, was featured on a 1992 Sports Illustrated cover in a similar pose. However, according to Nicole LaVoi, an expert on women in sports, the images of the two skiers differ in that Kitt is portrayed “in action,” looking forward down the hill, and wearing his helmet. Vonn, however, is clearly posed. She is obviously not moving down the hill. She is also facing the camera and is not wearing her helmet.

Those who find the picture to be offensive argue that it is just another of many examples of the journalistic tendency to portray female athletes as sex objects. Because women athletes receive less coverage, the instances where they are prominently featured are more significant. Portrayals that sexualize female athletes reinforce traditional gender norms and downplay female athletic ability. Photos like Vonn’s, they argue, may sell magazines, but they only work to increase interest in her body, not her athleticism.

Those who are not offended by the image either do not see any sexual connotations, or do not find the combination of sex and women’s sports to be problematic. Wendy Parker, a sports journalist, does not see anything provocative in the Sport Illustrated image, and she even points out that Vonn is fully clothed “from head to toe.” Then there are those who argue that it doesn’t matter even if it is a “sexy” picture. Sports Illustrated has a predominately male readership, so it may be a business-boosting ploy to promote reader interest in female competitive skiing. Additionally, female athletes have a right to celebrate their bodies without being told how to “behave.” As sports blogger Chris Chase asks, “Why can’t she be both the best skier in the world and really, really attractive too?”

Discussion Questions:

  1. What ethical values are in conflict with sites such as Racists Getting Fired?
  2. Do you agree with the “naming and shaming” approach to those who make racist (or sexist) comments online? Why or why not?
  3. If false accusations (such as that made against Rivera) could be eliminated, would such sites be ethical means of anti-racist activism?
  4. Do such crowd-sourced tactics stand a chance of creating a less racist society?
  5. How are such sites ethically different from in-person forms of activism such as picketing and boycotts?

 Further Information:

Austin Knoblauch, “Lindsey Vonn’s Sports Illustrated cover shot skis into controversy.” Available at:

Chris Chase, “Let the Lindsey Vonn Hype Begin: Vonn is Sports Illustrated Cover Girl.” Available at:

Mary Jo Kane, “Sex sells Sex, not Women’s Sports.” The Nation, August 15-22, 2011. Available at:

Wendy Parker, “A Truly Warped Way of seeing Women Athletes,” Available at:


Danee Pye, Ph.D., & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational use. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

%d bloggers like this: