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The Question of Ethical Decision in
Marketing and Ethics
Anton Jamnik
Marketing raises some of the most widely
and hotly disputed ethical issues regarding
business. Whether it is advertising, retailing,
pricing, marketing research, or promotion (to
name just a few marketing areas), marketing
has been charged with engaging in practices
that involve dishonesty, manipulation, invasion
of privacy, creating unsafe products, as well as
the exploitation of children and vulnerable
consumers. Two general studies which refer
to these (and other) criticisms of marketing
are John Tsalikis and David J. Fritzsche (1989)
and Bol et al. (1991).
In the preparation of this paper, I have
drawn primarily on articles and books which
are to be found within the “marketing ethics”
literature. This means that there are numerous
other articles and books outside of marketing
(so defined) which have implications, both
direct and indirect, for the topics and issues
discussed here on which I did not draw. I
adopted this approach to give yet a further
sense of the state of marketing ethics today.
Whether this shortcut best serves the topics
discussed, the reader must decide for him
or herself. However, because some sort of
marketing activities are necessary in any
society beyond the most undeveloped, the
elimination of marketing is not the answer to
the problems listed above. Rather, we must
look to the formulation and implementation
of an ethical theory for marketing.
In the past several decades, a great deal has
been written about the ethics of marketing.
This article attempts both to provide a brief
overview of the main currents of this literature
and to participate in the development of
marketing ethics. I do the latter, in part, by
Revista Cultura Económica
Año XXIX • Nº 80
Agosto 2011: 41-53
suggesting a framework according to which
present work in marketing ethics that might
better be understood and to identify areas of
future work. The aim of such work must be
twofold: to develop an evaluative response
to present ethical challenges to marketing,
and, proactively, to create an ethical theory
to tell us how marketing activities ought
to be morally constituted to avoid those
charges. Such an ethics must evade the
Scylla of irrelevant idealism, but also the
Charybdis of an unwarranted defense of the
status quo. Accordingly, an ethical theory for
marketing cannot limit itself simply to current
assumptions about present capitalist markets.
It must examine these assumptions as well
as the activities which take place within their
confines. (This view contrasts with that of
Robin and Reidenbach 1993: 104), who seek
to measure the ethical or unethical nature
of basic marketing functions “within our
understanding of their history, the times in
which they are applied, the context in which
they are applied, the expectations of society,
the requirements of capitalism”).
The creation of a marketing ethics is not
simply a matter of theoretical interest, but
also one of practical concern. This has been
demonstrated by the creation, in the past
century, of significant regulations and regulatory
bodies to oversee marketing activities, for
example the Food and Drug Administration,
the Federal Communications Commission,
and the Federal Trade Commission. The
development of these agencies has been, in
part, a response to concerns about the ethics
of marketing. A marketing ethics will provide
a basis whereby the actions (or omissions)
Revista Cultura Económica
41
of such agencies and regulations may be
appraised. It will also, however, furnish the
grounds upon which those in marketing,
those who are the targets of marketing, and
society more generally, may morally judge the
activities and relations marketing engenders.
I. Ethics and marketing: initial distinctions
A marketing ethics will not be a simple thing.
To emphasize this, some initial distinctions
concerning both ethics and marketing will
be useful. When people speak of the ethics
of marketing, they refer most generally, to
the principles, values and/or ideals by which
marketers (and marketing institutions) ought
to act. Arguably, these “norms” are the core of
a marketing ethics, since we are interested in
how marketing morally ought to be organized
and undertaken. As such, a marketing ethics
is a normative ethics. It tells marketers how
they morally ought to act. However, this leaves
empirical and analytical (or meta-ethical)
discussions of marketing ethics, which are
crucial to its normative ethics, without a home.
It would be better to use the rubric “marketing
ethics” more broadly to encompass:
• descriptive (or empirical) studies of the moral
values, beliefs and practices of marketing
• analytical studies of the nature of ethically
relevant marketing concepts and the kinds
of justifications which can be offered for
normative ethical marketing claims
• normative studies of the values, principles,
and ideals to which marketers should be held.
Though descriptive and analytical studies
can be engaged in for their own sakes,
ultimately they should serve to enhance our
development of a normative ethics. “Marketing
ethics” then, refers to this comprehensive
study of the ethics of marketing from these
three different directions. To develop such a
marketing ethics would be to respond to the
call by Murphy and Laczniak (1981: 262) for
a “global theory of ethics”. Unfortunately,
these distinctions are not often made, with
the result that the same discussion may move
seamlessly from one approach to marketing
ethics to another. The article by Laczniak
and Murphy (1991) nicely illustrates the
seamlessness by which discussions of marketing
ethics may move from descriptive marketing
42
Año XXIX • Nº 80 • Agosto 2011
ethics, to normative and analytical marketing
ethics without particular notice being given
of the transitions involved. The danger is
that the criteria which are appropriate for
one area may not be similarly appropriate to
discussions in other areas of marketing ethics.
Thus, for example, the standards by which we
would judge a discussion of what we mean (or
should mean) by “honesty,” “confidentiality,”
“privacy,” or “vulnerability”, will differ from
those we would use in judging whether a
marketing researcher who secretly codes
survey forms so as to identify respondents,
have done something morally permissible or
morally wrong.
Since we are interested in the ethics of
marketing, it is also appropriate to say
something, briefly, about the nature of
marketing. The nature of marketing was the
source of considerable dispute, particularly
during the 1960s and 1970s. Battles raged over
whether marketing must necessarily be linked
simply with market exchanges (Luck, 1969),
as opposed to whether it may be conceived
to include transactions and exchanges of
a much broader nature (Kotler and Levy,
1969). What is clear is that those in favor of
broadening marketing to include the marketing
of traditional non-business activities, such as
religion, education and politics, have prevailed.
As such, the American Marketing Association
has defined marketing to refer quite broadly
to activities involved in conceiving, pricing,
promoting and distributing ideas, goods and
services so as to create exchanges that satisfy
individual and organizational objectives. For
the American Marketing Association’s definition
of marketing, see Assael (1993: N-l).
Two ethical implications of this development
are worth noting. First, the ethics of marketing
today encompasses a much wider range of
activities than before. When religion, politicians
and education (among other traditional
non-market arenas) are viewed as products
or services to be marketed, the range of
ethical questions regarding the ways in which
marketers’ skills and knowledge may benefit
(or harm) its objects is greatly extended.
Accordingly, marketers must address standard
ethical questions regarding (for example)
manipulation, truth-telling and freedom over a
much wider and more diverse area than in the
past. Second, the broadening of marketing’s
reach also raises ethical questions concerning
whether these areas, heretofore outside
marketing, are being transformed through
marketing into forms of markets, subject to the
values, standards and expectations of markets.
Thus, questions concerning the “selling” of
ideas, the “packaging” of politicians, and the
commercialization of religion, raise significant
ethical issues in their own rights about the
moral integrity of these domains. In short, the
nature or scope of marketing may not simply
raise particular moral questions regarding
the instrumental support that marketing
may give to other areas, but also important
ethical questions about the transformation
of the areas to which marketing is extended.
II. Descriptive marketing ethics
A complete marketing ethics, as I have
indicated above, would include a descriptive, a
normative and an analytical ethics. Normative
moral discussions of marketing depend,
either directly or indirectly, on empirical
matters. Consider the following hypothetical:
suppose that it is morally wrong to advertise
to children, if they are unable to discern
the nature and purpose of the advertising
directed at them; suppose that, if various
marketing activities unnecessarily promote
environmental degradation or cause the poor
to pay more for their products and services,
those activities are morally wrong.
The hypotheticals in these claims involve
empirical questions. It is of no small import­ance,
then, for marketers to address such crucial
empirical issues as follows.
• In what ways do advertisements influence
people?
• What cognitive conditions are required
for an individual to discern the purpose(s)
of advertisements?
• What moral problems do marketers and
consumers believe they face?
• What are the effects of marketing on
economic development, the environment
and the poor?
• What processes do marketers go through
when they seek to make ethical decisions?
• How do customers or marketers morally
rationalize unethical behavior in the market?
•What different moral beliefs regarding
marketing do societies such as the US and
India maintain?
It should be obvious that a wide range
of marketing descriptive studies may fall
within this category. Such studies empirically
investigate a moral value, belief or principle
people hold, or they investigate empirical
conditions which bear directly on the realization
of moral values or principles. Accordingly, a
brief summary of such studies is impossible
to provide.
However, there is one area of descriptive
marketing ethics which is particularly worthy
of more detailed consideration, due to the
attention it received within the last twenty
years. This is the empirical study of ethical
decision making in marketing. These studies
take two major forms, which are not always
distinguishable. On the one hand, some have
investigated various influences on the ethical
decision-making behavior of marketers. On
the other hand, researchers have tried to
devise models which will describe and/or
explain the ethical decisions marketers make.
Among the former, the influences on
individual ethical decision behavior have
been divided into two rough categories:
individual and situational. The individual
category includes variables associated with
the individual decision maker such as
sex, nationality, education, religion, age,
employment, personality, attitudes, and values.
The results of these studies are many times
mixed. For example, some find that there is no
distinction between men and women when it
comes to various modes of moral reasoning in
organizations (Derry, 1989; Schminke, 1997),
while others find that gender is a significant
factor (Fritzsche, 1988; Konovsky and Jaster,
1989). Fritzsche, for example, reported that
male respondents are less likely to pay a bribe
than female respondents, but more likely
to ask for a bribe than female respondents
(Singhapakdi et al., 1996: 638). Chonko and
Hunt (1985) found that female marketers are
more likely to perceive ethical problems than
male marketers. However, Singhapakdi and
Vitell (1991) found no relationship between
the gender of a sales professional and his or
her perception of an ethical problem. The
role of gender in moral decision making
remains one of the more hotly contested
disputes regarding influences on individual
ethical decision behavior.
Revista Cultura Económica
43
Situational factors include peer group
influence, organizational climate and/or
culture, top management influence, codes
of ethics, corporate ethical values, rewards,
sanctions, organization size and level, and
various industry factors such as industry type
and competitiveness (Ford and Richardson,
1994; Akaah, 1996: 605). For example, Akaah
looked at organizational rank and role as
ethics correlates, and found that “marketing
professionals of lower organizational rank
do not differ significantly from marketing
professionals of upper organizational rank in
ethical judgments”. However, he also found
that “marketing professionals of executive
role reflect higher ethical judgments than
marketing professionals of research role”
(Akaah 1996: 612).
One concern in such studies is that the
factors whose correlations are examined
are truly empirically separate, rather than
conceptually linked. It is not obvious that this
point is always recognized. It is the distinction
between descriptive ethics and analytical
ethics. Thus, when Singhapakdi et al. (1996:
641) claim that “our survey results generally
indicate that professional values do influence
a service professional’s ethical perceptions in
a positive way as hypothesized”, one might
wonder whether an individual having certain
professional values necessarily or conceptually
(rather than empirically) involves having
certain ethical perceptions. Suppose, for
instance, that the individuals in this study had
not had the appropriate ethical perceptions.
Would the investigators conclude that they
nevertheless had those professional values but
simply did not see the scenarios as involving
ethical problems, or (instead) that they did
not have those professional values?
The other kind of study of individual ethical
decision making involves the development of
explanatory models and frameworks of ethical
decision making which seek to identify the
various steps involved in arriving at ethical
decisions. One of the more elaborate accounts
is that of Hunt and Vitell (1993), who take a
cognitive, multi-staged perspective:
1) An individual must, first, perceive an
ethical problem.
2) The individual seeks to identify various
alternative actions that might solve the
problem and what their consequences
would be.
44
Año XXIX • Nº 80 • Agosto 2011
3) Two kinds of evaluations take place:
one looks to the inherent Tightness or
wrong-ness of each alternative (deontological
considerations); and, one considers
the probability and desirability of the
consequences of each alternative as well as
the importance of the relevant stakeholders
(teleological considerations).
4) These two evaluations are merged to
form a single ethical judgment.
5) Such ethical judgments impact on a
person’s behavior through the intervening
variable of his or her intentions, which may,
however, differ (due to other preferred
consequences) from what he or she judged
to be ethical.
6) The resulting behavior may vary from
the individual’s prior intentions and ethical
judgments, depending on “the extent
to which the individual actually exerts
control in the enactment of an intention
in a particular situation” (Hunt and Vitell,
1993).
7) Personal characteristics, as well as
organizational, industrial, professional and
cultural environments directly influence
steps 1-3 above.
While the Hunt and Vitell model encompasses
many, if not most, of the factors which are
included in models of moral decision making,
others theorists emphasize some steps more
than others or introduce them at different
stages. In addition, other models inject
various decisions rules (Fritzsche, 1991),
ideological frameworks, or interpretations
of moral development which are not part
of the preceding model. In general, all such
theories move from the recognition of an
ethical problem, to the search for alternatives,
evaluation, choice and behavior. However,
the devil is in the details and here they go
their separate ways.
The descriptive studies of marketing ethics
noted above and empirical studies of ethical
decision making are useful for a marketing
ethics in a variety of ways. The former help
us to understand the effects of marketing
on various groups of people, as well as what
excuses are used to deflect moral criticism.
The latter help us to see more clearly how
ethical marketing decisions might actually be
made. The upshot of models of actual ethical
decision making may lead to the redesign of
organizational and strategic mechanisms for
improving ethical decision making (Laczniak
and Murphy, 1985). Ferrell and Gresham
(1985) claim that in making these changes,
individual, organizational and opportunity
variables will require attention. Further,
these models may reveal ethical conflicts and
tendencies which marketers would not have
otherwise suspected. As such, descriptive
marketing ethical studies can play a significant
role in directing the attention and research
of normative marketing ethical studies.
However, these studies do not always
recognize their own limitations. For example,
some descriptive studies conclude from the
diversity of moral decisions they survey,
that it is impossible to say what is right or
wrong (Ferrell and Fraedrich 1997: 105).
Similarly, on the basis of his empirical decision
model, Fritzsche (1991: 851) speculates that
decision makers are practicing situational
ethics rather than absolute ethics. However,
these conclusions do not follow simply from
such descriptive studies. Instead, they are
conclusions which can only follow from an
analytical marketing ethics, for instance, a
study of the forms of justification available
to marketing ethical judgments. In short,
though descriptive marketing ethics plays a
vital role in any general theory of marketing
ethics, its relation to normative and analytical
studies requires close attention.
III. Normative marketing ethics
Two broad streams of discussion – the
applied and the theoretical – address the
normative ethics of marketing. The former
uses various moral (and non-moral) values and
principles to evaluate marketing and to engage
in efforts to change those practices. These
accounts tend to mix, sometimes uncritically,
descriptive and normative considerations
regarding marketing.
Four basic sets of values are prominently
appealed to in these discussions – truth,
freedom, well-being, and justice – although
some marketers still speak of the main ethical
issues facing marketers as the “key values of
trust, honesty, respect and fairness” (Smith
and Quelch, 1993: 11). Most often, in applied
accounts, the values – truth, freedom, well-being
and justice – are used to criticize marketing
for various ethical failures. Accordingly, with
regard to truth, advertisements, purchase
agreements, and promotions have been attacked
for dishonesty or misleading customers (Carson
et al., 1985; Jackson, 1990). The nature and
limits of puffery (hyperbole) in advertising has
been a constant source of concern (Preston,
1975; Pollay, 1986). Marketing researchers
have been criticized for using hidden codes
to identify supposedly anonymous response
questionnaires, for sending undercover
investigators into stores to observe the
behavior of customers and employees, and for
not revealing the nature of their research to
their informants (Crawford 1970; Tybout and
Zaltman, 1974; Akaah and Riordan, 1989).
Studies of the ways and occasions on which
marketers have provided their customers with
correct information about their products …
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