Special Session on Ethical Issues in Marketing Communications

Session Overview

 Creative and effectiveness pressures on marketing communication practitioners can lead to campaigns that “not only push the boundaries of societal acceptance, but also go beyond acceptable norms, thus creating ethical problems and dilemmas” (Spence and van Heekeren, 2005, p.17). The objective of this session is to bring to the fore current research addressing ethical issues in marketing communications. This is a significant and timely topic, given that ever-evolving marketing technologies and new communication formats lead to novel ethical challenges for consumers, marketers and policymakers alike.

The first paper in the session addresses controversial marketing communications. Huhmann and Mott-Stenerson (2008, p.294) define controversial marketing communications as campaigns using “provocative images, words or situations that utilise or refer to taboo subjects or that can violate societal norms or values.” Similarly, Waller (2006, p.7) suggests these types of marketing communications “can elicit reactions of embarrassment, distaste, disgust, offence, or outrage from a segment of the population when presented.” Consequently, controversial marketing communications raise ethical issues in the marketplace, which Solon Magrizos speaks to through a systematic review of existing research in the field.

The second paper adds to existing debates on marketing ethics by examining how ethical issues manifest through a new marketing communications mix tool, namely branded entertainment. Branded entertainment can be defined as entertainment produced by brands, with messages and content that consumers welcome and enjoy rather than avoid (Pereira et al., 2018). Examples might include advergames, sophisticated forms of brand placements, and even entire films. The issue is that branded entertainment inevitably involves integrating editorial content and brand-driven messages. This integration raises ethical questions around the extent to which consumers are able to fully appreciate the commercial nature of such content; questions which are addressed by Katharina Stolley in this special session.

The third and final paper uses consumer ethical judgement and consent transactions theories to address ethical issues in experiential marketing communications. In this paper, Caroline Moraes, Finola Kerrigan and Roisin McCann explore how consumers judge the morality of threat-based experiential marketing communications in the context of horror films. The paper illuminates the significance of perceived consent as a component of consumer ethical judgement, identifying the boundaries of positive ethical judgement where experiential marketing communications seek to provoke negative consumer responses through shock and fear.

Together, these papers raise ethical questions around new practices in marketing communications, shedding light on emerging ethical challenges faced by marketing communicators and consumers, and advancing a future research agenda for the field of marketing ethics.


Advertising ethics; branded entertainment; controversial advertising; threat appeals; consent; ethical judgement.



Huhmann, B. A. and Mott‐Stenerson, B. (2008) Controversial advertisement executions and involvement on elaborative processing and comprehension. Journal of Marketing Communications, 14(4), 293-313.

Pereira, P.J. et al. (2018) A Cannes Lions Jury Presents: The Art of Branded Entertainment. London: Peter Owen Publishers.

Spence, E. H. and van Heekeren, B. (2005) Advertising Ethics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Waller, D. S. (2006). A proposed response model for controversial advertising. Journal of promotion management, 11(2-3), 3-15.