Unethical Ads Due to the Introduction of Reference Ads


One of the most important contributors to the success of consumer products is advertisements and the perception that these ads create in people’s minds. People are exposed more to television ads and hence are more influenced by them. This influence is known and hence well taken advantage of by advertisers. They tend to drum a message into the consumer’s mind to manipulate their acceptance of the product. Study says that if a message is drummed into us enough, whether consciously or unconsciously, it is likely to have an effect (J.E.Gratz The Ethics of Sublimal Communication). Does this indicate that consumers remember every ad they see, or atleast the ones that have had an impact? Study also suggests that people tend to take ads personally and subconsciously rate them as good or bad on the basis of many parameters. Infact the public’s views towards advertisements are copiously negative (e.g., Bauer and Greyser 1968, Mittal 1994). Negative information is also more diagnostic than positive information, meaning the consumers put greater weight on it in their brand judgments (Ahluwalia, Burnkrant, and Unnava, 2001). This therefore says that consumers tend to remember the effect of a negative ad.

On the other hand studies suggest that consumers have less retention power when it comes to advertisements. When there is time difference between two ads and the time interval in laced with other learning (other ads) then the consumer’s recollection of the first ad is inhibited (e.g., Raymond R Burke and Thomas Skrull Competitive Interference and Consumer Memory for advertising; Melton and Irwin, 1940).

Is it therefore possible that the perception of an ad changes when the ad is compared with another ad, especially a ‘negative’ one? Does the introduction of a reference ad change the perception about an ad that was erstwhile perceived to be negative, into a lesser negative one, or, maybe even, positive?

A reference ad can be defined as any ad in relation to which other ads are seen. (Contextual effects of reference pricing in retail advertising- Abhjit Biswas and Edward A Blair).

This research has been conducted to understand the change in the perception of unethical ads because of an introduction of a reference point. A simple way of checking this is to note the initial perception of an unethical ad and then take a second rating of the same when shown against another unethical ad (determined by the ratings of the control group) and compare the two to see if there is any change. This will show very clearly that the perception about an ad changes when the reference point has been introduced. What also needs to be checked is if there is any other factor contributing to this change in perception. Factors such as gender, (Females perceptions of offensive advertising: The importance of Values, expectations and control – Timothy P Christy) etc. may influence the perception of an ad but not the change in perception. This has been taken into account by having equal representation in the sample at every level.

If our hypothesis is proven right, then this study will enable ad-makers to understand how to position their ad along with those of their competitors’ or other products’, such that the perception of consumers towards their ad is more tolerant when compared with the competitor’s ad especially when the decision is based on towing the fine line between humour and vulgarity.


The research started out with the selection of five unethical advertisements. They have been determined to be unethical based on a previous study conducted by Dwane Hal Dean in ‘After the Unethical Ad – A comparison of Advertiser Response Strategies’

‘…There is a large body of literature on advertising ethics. Among other topics, papers have addressed the ethicality of political attack ads, the use of sexual appeals in print advertising, the use of fear appeals in advertising, lottery advertising, the use of questionable environmental claims to sell products, the use of reference prices in advertising, the uses of cookies and spamming in electronic media, advertising that targets children, advertising that stereotypes minorities and alcohol advertising that specifically targets low income minority populations.’

Hence we selected five advertisements depicting sexually explicit scenes, brand wars, over-hyping of the product,

The ads also were:
1. Well known brands available in India too
2. Ads with unethical connotations; unethical per the standards defined in the research paper cited earlier
3. Brands that are relevant to our sample – youth
4. Brands that are leaders in their respective segments

The sample size has been determined as follows:

D = ± 0.5,  = 3.5, z = 1.96 (Confidence interval of 95%; Precision and reliability (acceptable confidence level) required: D = ± 0.5)

n = 190(approx)

Determination of 

Estimating Variances for Rating Scales used in marketing research

Source: “Sample Size Tables for Significance Tests,” Research on Research 45 (Chicago: Market Facts Inc. , undated)
Number of Scale Points Typical Range of Variances
3 .67
4 1.0
5 1.8
6 2.5
7 3.5
8 4.0
9 5.0
10 6.0

The sample includes MBA students in the age group of 21 – 24 yrs

Research Design

This research involves testing the difference in scores when a respondent is shown the ad individually and in comparison with another. Hence we would need two groups, one experimental and one control. The research design being used is Posttest-Only Control Group Design

EG: R X O1

CG: R X O2

The treatment effect is thus obtained by:

TE = O1 – O2


The pretest was conducted on a sample of 50 students. Five groups of ten students were shown five ads determined unethical as per the research stated earlier. Ratings were on a semantic differential scale of 1 – 7 with 1 being Unethical and 7 being Ethical. In our differential scale, throughout the study, we have used 1 as Unethical and 7 as Ethical as this would eliminate the interviewer’s intention of wanting the scores to tend towards Unethical (if it is placed on the right side as against the general tendency to have a negative on the left side and a positive on the right). On the basis of this data the following scores were obtained:

Advertisements Ratings (sum of ratings of each group)
Fair and Lovely

It is evident from this that Fair & Lovely, Pepsi and Microsoft were voted as the three most unethical ads. Further study was done on the basis of these three ads.

Control Group

Three control groups with 20 students each were randomly selected and shown the three ads separately and asked to rate them on the semantic differential scale mentioned earlier. They were shown the ad in a closed room, with no other intervention. The ads were shown once and the respondents were asked to rate it. The mean score of the ratings given by each control group is as below:
Control Group Advertisement Mean score
1. Microsoft 3.5
2. Pepsi 3.45
3. Fair & Lovely 3.65

Experimental Group

The experiment group consisted of 20 students each and six such experiments were conducted. Students shown two ads and their ratings for the same were noted on a single data sheet on the differential scale mentioned earlier. There was no break between the ads and the respondents did not rate each ad separately. They were specifically instructed to rate both the ads together after seeing both the ads. No other instructions were given to them. Here the first ad shown becomes the reference point for the second ad. The intent is to compare the scores of the second ad thus tested with the scores received for the same by its control group.

The mean score of the new ratings thus developed is as below:

Reference ad

Second ad
in the control group Microsoft Pepsi Fair & Lovely
Microsoft – 4.35* 4.15
Pepsi 3.45 – 4
Fair & Lovely 3.95 3.6 –

* Interpretation of score: The Microsoft ad got a mean score of 4.35 when it was shown after the Pepsi ad. The Pepsi ad is the reference point for the Microsoft ad.


Our hypothesis is as follows:

H0: µ1 = µ2
The means of both the samples (control group and experimental group) are the same. There has been no impact of the reference ad

HA: µ1 ≠ µ2
The means of both the samples are not equal. The reference ad has had an impact

A simple comparison of means show the following information:

Microsoft Ad:

Case Processing Summary
Included Excluded Total
N Percent N Percent N Percent
cg_exp_microsoft * seen_notseen_refad_microsoft_group 60 100.0% 0 .0% 60 100.0%

seen_notseen_refad_microsoft_group Mean N Std. Deviation
not seen 3.50 20 1.469
seen pepsi 4.35 20 1.899
seen fair 4.35 20 1.496
Total 4.07 60 1.656

Pepsi Ad:

Case Processing Summary
Included Excluded Total
N Percent N Percent N Percent
cg_exp_pepsi * seen_notseen_refad_pepsi_group 60 100.0% 0 .0% 60 100.0%

seen_notseen_refad_pepsi_group Mean N Std. Deviation
not seen 3.45 20 2.012
seen micro 3.45 20 1.849
seen fair 3.60 20 1.957
Total 3.50 60 1.909

Fair & Lovely Ad:

Case Processing Summary
Included Excluded Total
N Percent N Percent N Percent
cg_exp_fair * seen_notseen_refad_fair_group 60 100.0% 0 .0% 60 100.0%

seen_notseen_refad_fair_group Mean N Std. Deviation
not seen 3.65 20 1.981
seen pepsi 3.60 20 1.392
seen micro 3.95 20 1.731
Total 3.73 60 1.696

There is an apparent difference in the means of the scores of the control groups and the experimental groups. This could mean that the ethical perception of the ads in the minds of the consumers.

However this does not prove that the change in perception has been due to the introduction of another unethical ad. There is no explanation of the relation with the reference ad. To understand this further we did an ANOVA.

On conducting an ANOVA test these were the results obtained:

Microsoft Ad:

Sum of Squares df Mean Square F Sig.
Between Groups 9.633 2 4.817 1.805 .174
Within Groups 152.100 57 2.668
Total 161.733 59

Pepsi Ad:

Sum of Squares df Mean Square F Sig.
Between Groups .300 2 .150 .040 .961
Within Groups 214.700 57 3.767
Total 215.000 59

Fair & Lovely Ad:

Sum of Squares df Mean Square F Sig.
Between Groups 1.433 2 .717 .243 .785
Within Groups 168.300 57 2.953
Total 169.733 59

Our significance level p is .05 and here in all the three cases, the significance is greater than p. Hence we will not reject H0

Therefore the conclusion is that there has been no impact of the reference ad on the perception of another ad.


Our study has proved that there is no relation between the perceptions of two ads on the consumer’s mind. The ethical perception of one ad does not alter the ethical perception of another ad which would have erstwhile been thought to be equally or more unethical. Our study said that Negative information is also more diagnostic than positive information, meaning the consumers put greater weight on it in their brand judgments (Ahluwalia, Burnkrant, and Unnava, 2001). Here it is apparent that an unethical ad is rated as negative by the consumer. They may even remember the ad, but the depiction of a more unethical ad does not make the former ad positive. The negative impact or perception of an ad remains.

We attribute this lack of change in ethical perception of an ad even with the change in reference point to the fact that an unethical ad, no matter how slight or grave it is, is not compared to another one. Once the consumer/viewer mentally rates the ad as unethical, nothing can change his perception of the same. Hence it would be wiser for an ad-maker to refrain from offending the sentiments of his viewers, in the pretext of being humourous or different. This survey was conducted on the youth, who are generally perceived to be more tolerant or accepting towards ethical/unethical issues in ads. If their perception of an unethical ad remains unchanged by another ad then it strongly points out the fact that ethics or values that people hold dear cannot be manipulated by ad-makers or marketers.


• J.E.Gratz The Ethics of Sublimal Communication
• Bauer and Greyser 1968, Mittal 1994
• Ahluwalia, Burnkrant, and Unnava, 2001
• Raymond R Burke and Thomas Skrull Competitive Interference and Consumer Memory for advertising
• Melton and Irwin, 1940
• Contextual effects of reference pricing in retail advertising- Abhjit Biswas and Edward A Blair
• Ethics In Advertising – Ideological Correlates Of Consumer Perceptions – Debbie Treise, Michael F Weigold, Jenneane Conna and Heather Garrison
• The Influence of Positive Moods on Brand extension Evaluations – Michael Barone, Paul W Miniard, Jean B Romeo
• An Examination of Consumer’s Perceptions of Purpose and Content of Corrective Advertising – George E Belch, Michael E Belch, Robert B. Settle and Lisa M D Lucchi
• Being ‘Effective’ in Branding? ¬– Adrian Zambardino, Ogilvy Advertising, UK and John Goodfellow, London Metropolitan University, UK
• Consumer Perceptions of Promotional Activity – Aradhna Krishna, Imran S Currim and Robert W Shoemaker
• The Influence and Context of College students’ Perceptions of Advertising Offensiveness – Timothy P Christy, University of Oregon, Eugene OR Eric Haley, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN