Since the industrial revolution, the worldwide marketing practices have been developing and evolving with an amazing speed. Previous centuries have seen numerous forms of marketing philosophies. Nowadays marketing has become the most significant thing that influences people’s lives. It affects their decisions, their desires and, eventually, their lifestyles.
From day to day customers are demanding more and more, and the world of business is rapidly changing. Never have marketing ethics been more important to marketers and consumers, because ethical problems very often lead to legal problems.
The every first step to solving any dilemma is understanding and recognizing the true nature of it. That is why the main purpose of this paper is to examine the most common ethical problems that both marketers and customers are likely to face.
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Ethics is generally understood as moral principles behind every single action. It is always concerned with what is really right and what is not. Therefore, ethics in marketing means applying all possible standards of fairness, honesty, responsibility, respect and transparency (American Marketing Association n.d.).
However, the line between what is considered ethically right and ethically wrong in marketing ethics is quite fine and substantially differs depending on industry, nationality and culture. Yet, in the majority of cases marketers overstep the line as it gives the only opportunity to escape high costs, high overheads and a danger of building up false expectations.
The most common ethical issues that marketing managers are facing daily are: false advertising, selling a product that is bad for the consumer’s health or environment and deciding between making considerable profit or making the product more affordable. Unfortunately, ethics not always wins the battle, although it is of paramount importance for those companies that want to keep a good image, especially in today’s world where the competition is getting tougher and tougher from day to day.
The market itself is free to act in the way that is believed to be the best for its own interest. As the result, a number of ethical issues have arisen.
Unfair, Offensive and Deceptive Marketing Practices
There are a number of ethical concerns in marketing. The main problem of present marketing actions lies in the fact that the main purpose of this activity is to sell products, services and ideas to people. However, it can be done in different ways and not all of them are necessarily ethical. Such problematic situations range from the bad management issues to cases where marketers have overstepped the ethical line and deceived the target customers. Here are a number of the most common examples divided in various categories.
Vulnerable consumers, such as children and elderly people, are of the greatest concern to the marketing ethics. Here a thorny dilemma arises about the ability of too young people to understand the real persuasive intent of advertising and not be deceived or manipulated by it. "Young children, in particular, have difficulty in distinguishing between advertising and reality in ads, and ads can distort their view of the world." (Karpatkin and Holmes 1995). The same is particularly true for older people, who are most sensitive to external influences. As an example may serve the case of TV ad for the Volkswagen Golf, which was prohibited to be shown before 9pm as it contained fighting scenes too realistic and too violent in appearance.
The next ethical problem, which became a burning issue in the last few decades, is of the nutrition concern. The commercials for healthy food make up only a small percentage of all shown to consumers daily; the rest is for junk food, sweetened cereals and soft drinks. Moreover, to target potential consumers the fast food industry may even offer some additional services free of charge, for example playgrounds, games, toys, contests… Needless to say that such a behavior is far from being morally and ethically correct. The example of McDonald’s nationwide advertising campaign illustrates the point. At first glance it seems that it promotes healthy alternatives to calories, fat and cholesterol rich food. Moreover, it provides its customers with a number of free additional services to lure people.
Another dilemma is tobacco and alcohol marketing. Every year thousands of people die from the tobacco-related diseases. Yet, over a hundred of different cigarette advertisements manipulate our psyche. Alluring scenes of success, power, sex, glamour and prestige (as for example: “To keep a slender figure no one can deny Lucky” for Lucky Strike or “For steady pleasure Camels suit me” for Camels) create a positive image between the “great” life and smoking (Kotler 1999). However, here marketers themselves must take the responsibility for the causes and harm the product they promote can bring. However, the right choice here is not always ethically and morally right, and that is where marketers can step up.
Misleading advertising is one more common ethical issue. This is a practice of airbrushing photos to enhance the product or lying about the real benefits or origin of the product, which are rather dubious. Procter & Gamble’s Olay Definity Eye Illuminator ad with Twiggy was considered to be misleading as the image of Twiggy had been greatly digitally enhanced and, as a result, gave deceptive impression of the effect it can give. One more example is of Nestlé with its marketing of infant milk-formula in Third World countries, which is meant to deliver health benefits.
Ethical problem concerning the portrayal of the females in advertising (sexism in other words) is highly important as well. Stereotypical and offensive images where women are presented as less clever, obedient and obsessed with the males are commonly used to appeal to the sexual interests of the men. To illustrate a point the following examples can be given: “It’s nice to have a girl around the house” with man stepping on the woman’s head for Mr. Leggs, “Men are better than women” for Drummond Sweaters or “I can’t cook. Who cares?” for Wonderbra, and the list is endless.
The next issue is boundaries. Cross-cultural and multinational advertising requires a deep understanding of its culture, language, customs and communication style. Images should be very culturally sensitive as well: if it is quite acceptable to see naked woman or the one wearing bikini on ads in Europe, it does not necessarily mean that it is acceptable in the Middle East. Quite the contrary, such images would definitely cause offence.
Of course, many other alarmingly serious ethical issues confront marketers and consumers daily. The only possible solution out of this situation is not to rely upon marketers’ promises, but to think critically in order to be socially aware of the situation.
The Importance of Social Awareness in Marketing Ethics
The awareness of the society in marketing ethics generally refers to the knowledge the consumers have about the products they buy or services they get and their rights as customers (Bagozzi 2002). Basically, it means developing a deep understanding of the origin, manufacturing process, real price, all possible effects and drawbacks of the product. Consumers do need more clear information that will allow them to judge better, and the huge role is given here to the media (both to advertising and news stories that about products or services). However, nowadays people need to be able to compare ethical behavior of different companies and the quality of their products more easily.
The problem of consumer skepticism concerning marketing ethics also requires attention. It is obvious that we would never bear unethical behavior from lawyers or economists, especially if we pay for their services. However, dealing with marketers, consumers do not care that much and that is the main problem. The social awareness in the field of marketing is a matter of great importance.
There are a few steps every consumer should take in order to be aware of what is going on in the market. Firstly, the person should conduct a research on the specifications and options for the product. There is always a considerable need to become an expert on the service or product the person is going to buy.
Secondly, the consumer should always compare the product he/she wants to similar products in terms of price, safety and possible drawbacks. Sometimes, to be perfectly aware of the marketing practices and strategies, one may read overall critical reviews of the products and services.
Moreover, people should file complaints against companies and organizations that are performing doubtful marketing activities or sell dangerous or harmful products. Filling such complaints and providing other costumers with unbiased reliable information will help increase social awareness of the potential problems
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