Ethical Marketing

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Ethical Marketing

Ethical Marketing


Marketing ethics is the systematic study of how moral standards are applied to marketing decisions, behaviors, and institutions. Because marketing is a process inherent to most organizations, marketing ethics should be viewed as a subset of business ethics; thus, much of what is written about business ethics applies to marketing ethics as well. At the outset, it is also useful to distinguish between positive and normative marketing ethics. Positive marketing ethics looks at marketing practices from the standpoint of “what is.” For example, specifying the percentage of organizations that have codes of ethical marketing practice or tracking the number of violations that deal with deceptive advertising would be examples of positive marketing ethics. In contrast, normative marketing ethics deals with how marketing ought to operate according to some moral standard or theory. The sort of moral standards (or theories) applied to marketing situations involve the usual moral frameworks commonly applied when evaluating business ethics (e.g., utilitarianism, duty-based theories, virtue ethics). When the words “marketing ethics” appear in the general media or business press, the reports typically describe a marketing strategy, tactic, or policy that some constituency feels is “unfair” or “exploitive” or “deceptive.” Often, the subsequent discussion turns to how marketing practices might become more consumer-friendly, socially compatible, or put in philosophical terms, how marketing might be normatively improved.

Normative marketing practices might be defined as those that emphasize transparent, trustworthy, and responsible personal and/or organizational marketing policies and actions, and exhibit integrity as well as fairness to consumers and other stakeholders. In the true spirit of normative ethical standards, this definition provides certain virtues and values (e.g., trust, fairness) to which marketing practitioners ought to aspire. However, the definition also raises myriad questions. What do we mean by transparent? Does that mean no trade secrets are ever allowed? What is the essential nature of integrity? Does it mostly involve keeping organizational promises to customers or is it broader than that? What is the nature of fairness, and who decides what standard of fairness is to be applied? Should it be consumers, the company at focus, regulatory agencies, or a broader cross-section of society? What stakeholder interests should be taken into consideration, and how should they be weighted? As one can see from these questions, the area of normative marketing ethics is likely to generate considerable controversy because there are differing views among various parties about what constitutes “proper” behavior in marketing.

Many smaller organizations often function with small budgets and minimum attention to marketing (Pomerantiz, 2002; Carson, 1990). This is especially true among business-to-business marketers. When small organizations develop and implement marketing plans, those plans usually contain large doses of inexpensive creativity. But creativity may cross ethical lines. A significant issue facing marketing decision makers in smaller, budget-constrained organizations is whether creative and successful marketing activity contains elements that strain acceptable ethical behavior.

This paper seeks to shed light on the issue of marketing creativity and ethical behavior by evoking alternative ethical models that can be ...
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