The ethics of distress: Toward a framework for determining the ethical acceptability of distressing health promotion advertising

Stephen L. Brown, Demian Whiting
Published Online:
20 Sep 2013
Volume/Issue No:
Volume 49 Issue 2

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Distressing health promotion advertising involves the elicitation of negative emotion to increase the likelihood that health messages will stimulate audience members to adopt healthier behaviors. Irrespective of its effectiveness, distressing advertising risks harming audience members who do not consent to the intervention and are unable to withdraw from it. Further, the use of these approaches may increase the potential for unfairness or stigmatization toward those targeted, or be considered unacceptable by some sections of the public. We acknowledge and discuss these concerns, but, using the public health ethics literature as a guide, argue that distressing advertising can be ethically defensible if conditions of effectiveness, proportionality necessity, least infringement, and public accountability are satisfied. We do not take a broad view as to whether distressing advertising is ethical or unethical, because we see the evidence for both the effectiveness of distressing approaches and their potential to generate iatrogenic effects to be inconclusive. However, we believe it possible to use the current evidence base to make informed estimates of the likely consequences of specific message presentations. Messages can be pre‐tested and monitored to identify and deal with potential problems. We discuss how advertisers can approach the problems of deciding on the appropriate intensity of ethical review, and evaluating prospective distressing advertising campaigns against the conditions outlined.

© 2013 International Union of Psychological Science