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[Weekender] Advertisers walk thin line between ethics and freedom of expression

Marketers and their ‘right to advertise’ face challenges of moral standards.

TV personality and lawyer Kang Yong-suk appears on the controversial “I sue you” advertisement poster that was voluntarily taken down in October. (Kang Yong-suk’s blog)
TV personality and lawyer Kang Yong-suk appears on the controversial “I sue you” advertisement poster that was voluntarily taken down in October. (Kang Yong-suk’s blog)


The “right to advertise,” despite the powerful support of the right to free speech, is now facing a new challenge.

Kang Yong-suk, a TV personality and lawyer at Next Law, recently triggered the controversy with a poster of himself roaring “I sue you!”

What was meant to be a witty ad was taken down shortly after concerns emerged that the ad could degrade the image of legal practice as simply a means of quick vengeance and moneymaking.

“This is more about doctors and lawyers being seen as businessmen -- although the South Korean Supreme Court may disagree,” Kang wrote in his blog, adding that he would let Seoul Bar Association decide whether the poster -- allegedly drafted by his secretary and not himself -- breaches lawyers’ code of professional conduct.

Kang’s office said it was preparing a second advertisement to replace the “I sue you” ad, “drafted with moderation.” The office acknowledged that the controversial advertisement reaped tangible effects, such as weeks of full booking of billable hours from new clients. 

Kang Yong-suk, an outspoken television persona and partner of law firm Next Law, signs autographs on 100 of his controversial “I sue you” advertisement posters. (Kang Yong-suk’s blog)
Kang Yong-suk, an outspoken television persona and partner of law firm Next Law, signs autographs on 100 of his controversial “I sue you” advertisement posters. (Kang Yong-suk’s blog)


Kang’s case sheds a new light on the tactical part of the ethical standards for a responsible advertisement.

Since 1998, the Supreme Court confirmed that the freedom to free expression applied to commercial advertisements, yet with restrictions.

“The special characteristics of a commercial expression has stronger ramifications on viewers than a non-commercial expression, and therefore is subject to stronger regulation,” says Kwon Hyung-doon, professor of law at Kongju National University, in his lecture at the Korean Society for Media Law, Ethics and Policy Research in August.

While the level of restrictions on commercial advertisements vary according to different cultures and government regimes, the most broadly accepted rules of responsible advertisement are those suggested by the U.S. Fair Trade Commission Act: truth in advertising, protection of minors, and refraining from overly provocative tactics and promoting harmful products.

Advertisements should be truthful and have evidence to back up their claims. The U.S. authorities defines deceitful statements as those that are likely to mislead consumers who act reasonably under normal circumstances and that are likely to affect consumers’ purchase decisions.

Even truthful advertisements can negatively affect children, by causing them to believe exaggerated statements or images, to develop negative self-images or to become attracted to products that can impede social development.

The most subtle part of the advertising ethics these days, indeed, is advertising tactics.

Subliminal advertising, emotional appeal and taking advantage of less educated audiences are strictly monitored by the Korean authorities.

Despite the good-willed goals of the media post-monitoring regulations, mainstream media law experts suggest that the Korean advertising regulations need more clarification.

Under the current broadcasting law, television commercials should not include “inappropriate,” or “excessive” expressions, leaving gray areas that are subject to interpretation.

By Chung Joo-won  (joowonc@heraldcorp.com)

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