Ethical Issues in Marketing


Ethics are a code of values and principles that govern the actions of a person regarding what is right versus what is wrong. They determine our behavior when faced with a moral dilemma. Morals are subjective, in that they vary from person to person depending on their point of view, and the ethical standards of their culture. Ethical practices, as well as unethical practices, can have an effect on marketing, and in some instances, unethical behavior can lead to government intervention. Also, our ethical choices and moral philosophies are relative to marketing practices.

Ethical Issues and Their Impact on Marketing

camelsAdvertisements are a great way to spread knowledge about a product or service, but sometimes the messages in advertisements are questionable. Vintage advertisements from the 1950s and 1960s, for example, were created in an era with far less oversight. Today, many of these ads are seen as more offensive and unethical than persuasive. If you look at an ad for Camels cigarettes from the 1950s, you’ll see a doctor smiling while holding a cigarette, with the caption, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette”. This ad is hypocritical since doctors spend their careers advocating for healthy lifestyles. It also sends a message to society that if doctors are smoking then it must not be bad.

In marketing, the strategy of promotion is used to gain the interest of consumers and to persuade them to try a product or service, but too often, the objectification of women is implemented in this strategy. Carl’s Jr. is well known for doing so. Since 2000, the majority of their advertisements include models eating hamburgers and wearing revealing clothing. Carl’s Jr. defends their actions by saying “We believe in putting hot models in our commercials, because ugly ones don’t sell burgers.” Because of their unethical choice to objectify women, many women believe they are not the target audience, but that males age 18 – 35 are.

Ethical and Unethical Data Collection

Before a new product or service is released, research is conducted to gain feedback on how well it will test in the market. An ethical marketing research strategy used to gain this information is focus groups. The main purpose of focus groups is to get the consumers’ opinions, beliefs, or perceptions about a product or service. This form of qualitative research consists of a moderator that interviews a small group of people, or respondents. The interview is set up in an informal way, so the respondents are free to give their stance without restrictions.

Another strategy is data collection. Many websites like Google, Facebook, and Amazon collect their users’ data, including web search habits, name and contact information, and location. They use this to build a profile of their customers which they then use to show ads for products and services that are tailored to consumers’ interests. Data privacy issues are currently a very hot topic – there is a serious trade-off between protecting individual privacy, and building more effective marketing strategies.

Growth Hacking

“Growth Hacking” is the practice of using automatic friend invites and push notifications from apps to try to pull in your friends lists. “Growth Hacking” pushes the ethical boundaries of what consumers will accept from marketers – many consumers see this as such a turn-off that they will discontinue the service entirely. From a business perspective, saving customer data for future use can also be a major legal problem, even if you try to discontinue use of the service. This is an evolving field in marketing. Just like the cigarette ads are considered silly and offensive today, these types of marketing practices could either become the norm, or serve as an example of bad practice when looking back.

Ethical Standards in International Markets

Culture has a big influence on ethical principles since it refers to a set of values and attitudes that are shared among a group of people. However, not all cultures are the same which makes ethics vary among countries. Ethical standards should be relevant to international markets and should be equal in all markets, meaning that ethical practices carried out in the home country should be carried out internationally as well. Avon (AVN)is committed to this. The marketing strategy they use to distribute their products in Asia, Europe, and South America, is the same marketing strategy they use in the United States: Direct Selling. Avon recruits many local sellers, who then market the beauty products individually to friends, professional contacts, and others. By using this direct marketing strategy, Avon tries to make sure its marketing efforts are specifically tailored to micro-markets, avoiding ethical complications.

At the same time, this same strategy has potential for abuse. Herbalife (HLF) is constantly dodging lawsuits challenging that it operates as a pyramid scheme, making more of its money by requiring membership fees and minimum payments from its individual sellers than it does by selling its products. These lawsuits push the bounds of marketing ethics – a huge number of potential customers avoid Herbalife’s products entirely because of the allegations.

Unethical Behavior and Government Regulation

Unethical behavior is present in marketing and can include misleading marketing and advertising, price gouging, predatory pricing, unsolicited calls known as telemarketing, and unsolicited messages known as spam emails. To eliminate this, every business is legally obligated to disclose that their marketing practices are genuine and honest, and not violating the law. Unethical behaviors can harm consumers, so to protect them, the Federal Trade Commission works to limit unfair marketing practices. The agency also enforces the law that claims in advertisements must be true and cannot be unfair and deceptive.

As more marketers and advertising campaigns push ethical boundaries, the government is forced to step in to put hard limits on what can, and cannot, be done. Introducing government regulation means marketers are not only punished by public opinion for unethical behavior, but also face high fines and other legal penalties.

A Code of Ethical Behavior for Marketing

When it comes to marketing, a code of ethics should be put in place that imposes ethical principles on marketing practices. First and foremost, it should be mandatory for marketers to adhere to all laws and regulations. Marketers should accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions, and ensure that their decisions and actions satisfy consumers. They should be honest and uphold dignity when serving consumers and make sure the products and services they are offering are safe and match consumers’ intentions. Marketers should also disclose risks associated with the product or service, and avoid false advertising and misleading tactics.

Every company’s marketing approach is different, so every company should have a strong ethical code to guide their marketing efforts. Marketers should refer to this code before and during every marketing campaign – otherwise the company risks a serious public, and perhaps even legal, backlash.

The Connection Between Moral Philosophy and Marketing Practices

In the end, ethical choices are based on our personal moral philosophy. Our moral philosophy is based on the kind of society we live in and what we surround ourselves with. Two kinds of moral philosophies that have a connection to marketing practices are moral idealism and utilitarianism.

Moral idealism is a moral philosophy that no matter what the outcome, individual rights must always be protected. This philosophy can be found in the ethical practice of informing consumers of safety hazards in a product or service, or recalling a defective product no matter the cost, so long as consumers are protected.

Utilitarianism is based on the overall outcome and evaluates the costs and benefits of ethical behavior. The goal is to achieve happiness for the greatest amount of people. If the benefits are greater than the costs, then that behavior is ethical. Utilitarianism in marketing provides value to its consumers. Samsung achieves this by setting up cell phone charging stations in airports for passengers. This provides a valuable service to Samsung’s customers and even the ones who are not, since the charging stations can charge any device.

Marketing is not just about promoting and selling products to consumers. It’s about putting forth ethics in marketing practices to eliminate deception, and to guarantee that consumers are getting the most out of a product or service.

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