The focus of this blog is marketing ethics, so it only makes sense to begin by answering the question, “What is marketing ethics?” Before we go too far down this road, I want to clarify a minor semantic point…
Is “ethical marketing” the same as “marketing ethics”?
The short answer is no, the terms ethical marketing and marketing ethics are not entirely synonymous—although they are very similar.
Consider this definition of ethical marketing from an article on CBS News MoneyWatch from 2007:
“Ethical marketing describes an approach to marketing in which companies set high ethical standards[…] A company that sourced environmentally friendly products from a country or company that practiced excellent employee relations would be practicing ethical marketing.”
Compare that to this definition of marketing ethics from the same article:
“Marketing ethics sets out a framework for good practice in marketing, regardless of the product or market sector. […] A tobacco company that refrained from advertising would be complying with marketing ethics.”
Can you see the difference?
In researching this post, I found plenty of sources that used the two terms interchangeably. However, on this blog, we’re going to differentiate the two in the following way:
- Ethical marketing characterizes the process of marketing, e.g., the sourcing of materials and vendors.
- Marketing ethics characterizes the content and design of marketing messages and advertisements.
With that out of the way, we can return to the problem of defining marketing ethics. One way to do this is to define each word separately. Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say:
marketing: the act or process of selling or purchasing in a market; the process or technique of promoting, selling, and distributing a product or service; an aggregate of functions involved in moving goods from producer to consumer
ethics: a set of moral principles; a theory or system of moral values; the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group; a guiding philosophy; a consciousness of moral importance; a set of moral issues or aspects (such as rightness)
If we simply put these two definitions together, it would look like this:
Marketing ethics is the application of a set of moral principles to the act or process of promoting, selling, and distributing a product or service.
It’s not a bad start, but it’s rather dry. Adding more concrete language and examples may impart the nuance that this term requires. After all, ethics generally are subjective and open to interpretation. Two people can argue opposite ethical viewpoints, and both would be correct.
Despite the phrase’s binary construction, there’s nothing black and white about “right and wrong.”
Educational company Cengage published an overview of marketing ethics as applied to
Although we will not use an academic definition of marketing ethics, it is worth mentioning that the topic is a multidisciplinary study covering the fields of:
- Business administration
…among many others!
The aim of this post is to provide a practical definition of marketing ethics. Creating a practical definition is about putting the utility of the topic first. A practical definition is easily understood and easily applied to everyday life. If the practical definition is not useful to most marketers, then it has failed. To formulate this definition, we will make some assumptions.
- Ethics are subjective. May I remind you, my reader, that ethics vary from person to person, culture to culture. This conversation is not about true or false as much as it’s about defining good and bad and promoting good. Speaking of culture…
- We are looking at this topic from a US-centric, Western perspective. I can’t deny that I’ve only experienced marketing as an American. This limited experience will undoubtedly color my perspective. That said, I am curious to hear the thoughts of anyone with another perspective! What is the state of marketing ethics in your country?
- Most marketers have good intentions. Some people have bad intentions, but for the purpose of keeping the focus on the good, I’m going to assume that most of us want to do the “right” thing.
- There is such a thing as “big enough.” This is a big one. I firmly believe that “big enough” exists and that it is up to each organization to define what that looks like. Consider that “marketing usually occurs in the context of an organization, and unethical activities usually develop from the pressure to meet performance objectives.” (Dr. Linda Ferrell, “Marketing Ethics”). The push towards bigger, more expensive, and more profitable companies is often a catalyst for pushing the boundaries of what’s ethical.
- Ethics can be separated from religion. Yes, I admit that morality today is heavily based on “the Judaeo-Christian scheme of morals.” However, I do not plan to touch religion in these posts.
A High-Profile Example
Sure, naming every stakeholder sounds like the right thing to do, but it’s not practical. In real life, marketers are often presented with the choice of prioritizing the success of their companies and colleagues over their customers and vice versa.
The AMA Statement of Ethics puts the onus on the individual marketer to decide which stakeholder’s interests are the most important in any given situation. This leaves quite a lot of moral wiggle room.
What I would prefer to see is a clear cut preference for the customer, with self-preservation checkpoints in place. (I’ll go into this idea more in future posts.)
Finally, what you’ve been waiting for all along! The answer to the question, “What is marketing ethics?”
This is a loaded definition that I will unpack for you throughout subsequent blog posts, but feel free to share your thoughts on it in the comments below.
As we move forward, I will use three frameworks to analyze ethical dilemmas:
- Value-oriented framework: analyzing ethical problems on the basis of the values which they infringe (e.g., honesty, autonomy, privacy, transparency). An example of such an approach is the AMA Statement of Ethics.
- Stakeholder-oriented framework: analyzing ethical problems on the basis of whom they affect (e.g., consumers, competitors, society as a whole).
- Process-oriented framework: analyzing ethical problems in terms of the categories used by marketing specialists (e.g., research, price, promotion, placement).
These frameworks, along with our definition of marketing ethics, will help us break down common scenarios and difficult decisions we face as marketing professionals.
Thank you for joining me on this journey. I’m excited to get started!
I would love to hear your experience with marketing ethics. Please leave a comment below to share an experience (good or bad) that made an impression on you. This may be a situation you encountered while working as a marketing professional, or it may be an example of ethical or unethical marketing messages. Comment below!