Is marketing ethics an oxymoron?


For many people the answer to this question would be a resounding “YES”. Are marketers really concerned about the well-being of their customers, or are they more concerned with the “bottom line” of the organization they represent? I read about an example of an official in the Swedish office of Coca-Cola saying that his goal is to get people to drink Coca-Cola for breakfast instead of orange juice. Is that what is best for the consumer?

A shift is coming, and has already begun, in the way consumers and organizations should view the marketing profession; a more ‘holistic’ approach to consumers is required. In that sense, companies must consider all aspects of their relationship with the consumer, not just their own objectives.

Many may wonder “is there a place for ethics in marketing?” In discussing the concerns consumers and advocacy groups have with the seeming lack of concern for consumer welfare, we need to address the challenges marketers have in ‘self-regulating’ and becoming more socially responsible. This is really no different than what would be expected of each of us: in an organized society, it is everyone’s responsibility to behave ethically. One concern within the marketing industry is that if marketers don’t change their ways and become more socially responsible, they will be subject to more government controls.

The ethical relationship between marketing and the consumer is key to the success of organizations. Consumers expect to be treated fairly and with respect. Consumers expect the service they receive from organizations to be reliable, responsive, trustworthy, understanding, and that they are actually receiving something of value. They don’t want ‘words to the outside’, unrealistic promises or misleading offers. Consumers don’t want to be sold products that are inherently bad for them. The ethical implications for marketers are great to meet these expectations. As more people join the field of marketing, especially the increasingly popular field of ‘information marketing’, these topics will be, and should be, some of the first topics that need to be addressed.

A new foundation is needed for the marketing and ethical implications of vendors targeting specific groups or segments of consumers. Companies have targeted specific segments of consumers that they believe will provide them the most benefits, sometimes to the exclusion of others. Some consumers feel that marketers don’t care at all what happens to them once they buy a product and that this emptor Warning, or the ‘buyer beware’ marketing theory is, and should, be quickly dismissed.

Markets need to be more concerned with consumer needs and wants, but still need to keep in mind the overall goal of the business. Unfortunately, this creates a conflict between the marketer’s priorities, the consumer’s needs and wants, and the organization’s goals (Profits), and is the basis for much of the confusion and concern about ethical marketing practices. To overcome the challenges this presents to organizations and, to some extent, consumers, everyone involved needs to take a more holistic or all-encompassing view of the entire marketing process. Ethical decision making for businesses will require that they take an “enlightened self-interest” approach to serving the consumer, to ensure that their marketing practices are ethically sound.

Consumers must also take some responsibility to be more aware and informed about the products they buy and use. For those with the ability to make rational decisions, consumers need to take action and research the products they buy; they must develop an awareness of their needs, as opposed to their wants, and make appropriate decisions regarding the directions their consumption takes them. If consumers expect organizations to treat them with respect and provide a level of service commensurate with their needs, they must do their part.

Service is really the art of offering a consumer more than just the product they are buying. Part of that offering is giving consumers the assurance that what you’re marketing to them is based on sound ethical principles: Do organizations treat their customers with respect? Are they honest and direct in their communications with consumers?

As awareness of consumer rights increases and as advocacy groups increase pressure on organizations and governments, the priority organizations must give to the ethical implications of their marketing programs will only increase. In the service industry, the relationship between the consumer and the service provider is the only thing that matters. If consumers perceive that they are being treated unethically, they will go elsewhere. But, not only will they leave, they will take as many others with them as they can. The risk organizations face in treating their customers unethically is too great to allow this to happen.

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