Is Marketing Ethics an Oxymoron?
To many people the answer to this question would be a resounding “YES”. Are marketers really concerned with the welfare of their customers, or are they more concerned about the ‘bottom line’ of the organization they represent? I read of one example of an official in the Swedish office of Coca-Cola who says her goal is to get people to drink Coke for breakfast instead of having orange juice. Is that in the best interest of the consumer?
A change is coming, and has already started, in how consumers and organizations must view the marketing profession; a more ‘holistic’ approach towards consumers is required. In that regards companies must consider all aspects of their relationship with the consumer, not just their own goals.
Many may ask “is there a place for ethics in marketing?” In discussing concerns that consumers and advocacy groups have with the apparent lack of concern for consumers’ well being, we must address the challenges that marketers have to ‘self regulate’ and become more socially responsible. This really is no different than what would be expected of each of us: In an organized society it is the responsibility of all to behave ethically. One concern within the marketing industry is that if marketers do not change their ways, and become more socially responsible, they will become subject to more government controls.
The ethical relationship between marketing and the consumer is a key to the success of organizations. Consumers expect to be treated fairly and with respect. Consumers expect that the service they receive from organizations will be reliable, responsive, trustworthy, understanding, and that they are really receiving something of value. They do not want ‘lip service’, unrealistic promises, or misleading offerings. Consumers do not want to be sold products that are inherently bad for them. The ethical implications for marketers are great in meeting these expectations. As more people join the marketing field, especially in the increasingly popular ‘information marketing’ arena, these issues will, and should be, some of the first issues that need addressed.
A new foundation for marketing and the ethical implications of marketers targeting specific groups or segments of consumers is needed. Companies have targeted specific segments of consumers that they feel will provide them with the greatest returns, sometimes to the exclusions of others. Some consumers feel that marketers do not care at all about what happens to them once they purchase a product and that this caveat emptor, or ‘let the buyer beware’ theory of marketing is, and must, rapidly be dismissed.
Markets must become more concerned with the needs and wants of the consumer, but they must still keep in mind the overall goal of the company. This unfortunately creates a conflict between the priorities of the marketer, the needs and wants of the consumer and the goals of the organization (Profits), and is the basis for much of the confusion and concerns about ethical marketing practices. To overcome the challenges that this presents organizations, and to some extent consumers, all involved must take a more holistic, or all encompassing view of the marketing process. Ethical decision making for businesses will require them to take an “enlightened self interest” approach to serving the consumer, to insure that there marketing practices are ethically sound.
Consumers also must bear some responsibility to become more self aware and informed about the products they purchase and use. For those with the ability to make rational choices, consumers must take actions and research the products they buy; they must develop an awareness of their needs, as opposed to their wants, and make appropriate decisions concerning the directions their consumptions take them. If consumers expect organizations to treat them with respect, and provide a level of service consistent with their needs, they must do their part.
Service is really the art of offering a consumer more than just the product they are purchasing. Part of that offering is to provide consumers with the assurance that what you are marketing to them is based on ethically sound principles: Do organizations treat their customers with respect? Are they honest and forthright in their communications with consumers?
As awareness of consumer rights increases, and advocacy groups increase pressure on organizations and governments, the priority that organizations must place on the ethical implications of their marketing programs will only increase. In the service industry the relationship between the consumer and the service provider is all that matters. If the consumer perceives that they are being treated unethically they will go elsewhere. But, not only will they leave, they will take with them as many others as they can. The risk that organizations face by treating their customers/clients unethically is too great to let this happen.