Ethics are a set of moral codes and obligations that are considered to be acceptable social norms of behaviour and should therefore apply to marketing activities in the same was as they do to other members of society. Recently, in response to increasing concerns about the behaviour of commercial organisations, the need for ethical conduct to be applied to all areas of business activities, including those related to marketing, has been reinforced by the introduction of corporate social responsibility (CSR) standards. This post provides a brief guide to key areas of marketing ethics, many of which have now been embodied within industry codes introduced by organisations such as the British Marketing Association.
Truth and honesty
Perhaps the foremost ethical considerations that should be incorporated in marketing is truth and honesty. This applies to every aspect of these activities. The information that is presented to stakeholders, including consumers, suppliers and others, should always reflect a true and honest opinion of the brand and its products. Marketers should never be tempted to embellish the truth, for example, by claiming that a product will do something that it blatantly cannot. This level of honesty has to be extended to both written and visual communication. In other words, if one is marketing a beauty product and presents a ‘before and after’ visual image of the results, these images must be based on truth, not on ‘after’ photos that have been doctored using model image enhancing technology. Similarly, the business must be truthful and honest about any service it offers in connection with the product/service. For instance, if a warranty is being offered its terms, complete with any limitations, must be explained honestly and openly to the customer, not hidden away in small print.
Fairness and discrimination
Marketers should treat every person or organisation they have contact with, irrespective of the relationship, fairly and without discrimination. Discrimination in this respect, relates to a number of different issues. From a social aspect, therefore, the marketing activities should not discriminate based on age, ethnicity, gender, class or disability. Naturally, this does not extend to the purpose of a particular product. What it does mean however, is that the information and visual images being presented by the firm should not be discriminatory in nature. In other words, it is not fair to infer or state that certain social groups are precluded from purchasing or receiving the benefits of a particular product/service. This social fairness should also extend to the marketing department treatment of employees and suppliers.
However, there is also the commercial aspect of fairness to consider in the marketing environment. Size of a customer order or of a supplying business should not result in those of a greater size being given preferential treatment over others, except for the purpose of discounts. In all other respects, every stakeholder should be treated fairly.
Intrusion and protection of privacy
It is likely that at some stage we have all been subject to continuous junk mail, spam e-mails and persistent phone calls from marketers, which are intrusive. A brand that wants to be respected and trusted by the consumer will desist from these methods of marketing and promotion. The ethical brand/product marketer will only enter into continuous communications with consumers who have acknowledged that they wish to receive updated and promotional literature from a specific organisation.
Privacy and data protection is another ethical issue that should concern marketers. Customers like to know that when they provide private information to marketing departments, that their privacy and the data provided will be protected. It is therefore unethical for marketers to pass on that information to a third party, irrespective of its nature, without the express permission of the persons who data they hold. Similarly, it is also important for the marketing department to ensure that any personal data being held is a) only pertaining to relevant information, b) securely protected with restricted access and c) deleted immediately it is no longer required.
Deception and distortion
Deceiving anyone during the marketing process is unethical, whether this is direct deception or by distorting facts to project a better situation than is factually correct. There have been a number of instances where marketers have made claims for their products, the prices or other elements of the brand experience, which when tested, usually by trusting consumers, prove to be deceptive or a creative distortion of the facts. A clear example of this might occur when an auto sales campaign might promise to pay £X for your old vehicle, but when you take them up on this offer bring up several conditions that your vehicle had to comply with before the price would be paid. If these conditions are not made clear in the original information about the offer then this is deception. Similarly, there have been several promotions for beauty products that suggest X% (usually in excess of 80%) of consumers say it is the best. Before recent changes to marketing and advertising regulations, many of these promotions did not indicate that the percentage had been calculated from a very small sample of consumers, often in the UK as low as 100. Obviously, giving the impression that a product is more popular than might actually be the case is distorting the facts for the marketers own ends, which can be considered as unethical.
Any element of marketing that can be deemed as offensive has to be considered as unethical. Offence in this context can occur in several different ways and involved a diverse range of stakeholders. If one looks at it from the commercial aspect, it is offensive to make disparaging comments in a marketing project about a specific competitor’s products or service simply for the purpose of discouraging consumers from choosing that brand. Similarly, any form of marketing which causes offence to social demographic groups is unethical. Offence in this context can be deemed as seeming to belittle or devalue these groups, evoking a humorous reaction from an audience at their expense or producing information that offends their cultural beliefs and values. The ethical marketer and manager will avoid the use of these and other types of messages likely to cause offence.
Although some might think it is understood, the final element of ethical behaviour that marketers need to bear in mind is that, within all of their activities, they need to ensure that these are carried out within the framework of existing laws and government policies. No corporation and marketing department is above the law and it is unethical to think or act otherwise.
With consumer expectations of ethical behaviour from marketers becoming increasingly important, marketers have a moral duty to conduct their activities in an ethical manner, it also makes commercial sense to do so if one is intending to build a reputational brand that is trusted in the marketplace. It is therefore important to ensure that ethical considerations remain at the forefront in all areas of the marketing decision-making activities.
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