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.

Literal Definition

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.” 

Academic Definition

Educational company Cengage published an overview of marketing ethics as applied to marketing organizations, written by Dr. Linda Ferrell. The paper views marketing ethics through the lens of organizational or business ethics (which we will not be doing), and it is too broad for the purposes of this blog. It is a good read with valuable examples though, so I recommend checking it out if you’re interested.

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:

  • Philosophy
  • Psychology
  • Business administration
  • Economics
  • Law

…among many others!

Practical Definition

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.

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

Illustration is an important component of a practical definition. One example of marketing ethics “in the wild” is the AMA Statement of Ethics. Unfortunately, the preamble to this statement presents an issue; it ends by stating that marketers have a “responsibility toward multiple stakeholders (e.g., customers, employees, investors, peers, channel members, regulators and the host community).” 

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.)

Conclusion

Finally, what you’ve been waiting for all along! The answer to the question, “What is marketing ethics?”

Marketing ethics: the application of moral principles, which prioritize the well-being of the person receiving the message, to the content and design of promotional and sales messages

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).

(Source)

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!

Join the Conversation

6 Comments

  1. Thankfully, this is not my immediate experience, but an example of poor marketing ethics would be Fyre Festival. Billy McFarland consistently lied to customers, employees, and shareholders, and by the looks of it, defrauded many of them, too.
    An interesting question may be to ask: If bad (or good) marketing ethics that are apparent in one aspect of the business, will it eventually arise in another?
    For instance, if a business purposely misrepresents itself to its customers, does it create an internal culture of deception? The probable answer is yes, because if an organization is willing to lie to their customers, they’re probably taking advantage of their employees as well. It’s a culture created from “top-down,” where senior leadership sets the tone for the entire business. That’s why we need to hold leaders to a higher standard.

    1. Yes, the Fyre Festival is a textbook case of poor marketing ethics. I’m planning a dedicated post about that incident, so stay tuned! As for your question, my answer is also yes—the outside usually reflects the inside. You make a good point about holding leadership to a higher standard. Anyone who is in a position to influence others has a much higher level of accountability. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Elizabeth. I’m looking forward to reading your feedback on future posts!

  2. Super! As a small business owner its difficult to know all of the rules while trying to advance goals of our business… I agree most people operate with the best intentions, but this article sets a clear target for knowing I’m on the right track…Thanks for your service…it is helpful!

    1. Thanks so much for your input, Cher! It’s great to hear from small business owners on this topic. I agree that it is difficult to find that place where ethics and business growth overlap. As long as you prioritize your customers’ well being, you’re definitely on the right track!

  3. Great post! You can clearly feel this marketing ethics problems in a third world country like Brazil. Here the merchandise do everything but tell the truth about a product or service…as a consumer you have to keep the eyes opened all the time to every single detail to avoid headaches with a bad service provider(specially the big companies). At the same time there are new companies committed to the customer satisfaction and they starting to change this rules. So the big companies such as Banks, Mobile Services Providers are watching their customers slowly moving to these new “start-ups” or new companies that are more ethical and respect the people. So at the end doing the right thing is always the right choice 🙂

    1. Great insight, Sandra! It’s motivating to hear stories like this. We need more business owners who are committed to doing right by their customers to make the change happen. Start-ups are known for their ability to disrupt the marketplace and set new standards. Because of this, they have the power to affect change and force big corporations to follow suit. Brazil is lucky to have people like you providing quality services and marketing authentically and ethically!

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