Ethics is the set of moral principles or values that guides behavior. There is a general recognition that many, if not most, business decisions involve some ethical judgment.
Each party in a marketing transaction brings a set of expectations regarding how the business relationship will exist and how transactions should be conducted. For example, when you as a consumer wish to purchase something from a retailer, you bring the following expectations about the transaction: (a) you want to be treated fairly by the salesperson, (b) you want to pay a reasonable price, (c) you want the product to be available as advertised and in the indicated condition, and (d) you want it to perform as promised. Unfortunately, your expectations might not be in agreement with those of the retailer. The retail salesperson may not “have time for you,” or the retailer’s notion of a “reasonable” price may be higher than yours, or the advertising for the product may be misleading. These differences in expectations can lead to ethical questions that are sometimes difficult to analyze.
To create greater clarity for marketing professionals, the American Marketing Association has created the American Marketing Association Statement of Ethics. It’s helpful to review this short document in order to understand the scope of issues that marketing professionals face. The preamble of the document defines a number of key terms and explains why ethics are of particular importance to marketers:
The American Marketing Association commits itself to promoting the highest standard of professional ethical norms and values for its members (practitioners, academics, and students). Norms are established standards of conduct that are expected and maintained by society and/or professional organizations. Values represent the collective conception of what communities find desirable, important, and morally proper. Values also serve as the criteria for evaluating our own personal actions andthe actions of others. As marketers, we recognize that we not only serve our organizations but also act as stewards of society in creating, facilitating, and executing the transactions that are part of the greater economy. In this role, marketers are expected to embrace the highest professional ethical norms and the ethical values implied by our responsibility toward multiple stakeholders (e.g., customers, employees, investors,peers,channel members, regulators and the host community).1https://archive.ama.org/archive/AboutAMA/Pages/Statement%20of%20Ethics.aspx
The exchange process between an organization and a customer is based on a relationship of trust. The Statement of Ethics aims to protect that trust.
Marketing professionals face regularly face questions of this kind. Where the organization appreciates a close partnership with a client, a thank-you gift may well be appropriate. The challenge is to choose one of the right size that expresses appreciation but doesn’t compromise the integrity of the client or the marketing organization.
Below is a list that shows how marketing professionals responded to a survey on the most difficult ethical issues they face.2Lawrence B. Chonko and Shelby D. Hunt, “Ethics and Marketing Management: An Empirical Examination,” Journal of Business Research, Vol. 13, 1985, pp. 339–359
Most Difficult Ethical Issues Marketing Professionals Face
- 15% of marketing professionals say bribery is the most difficult ethical issue
- Gifts from outside vendors, payment of questionable commissions, “money under the table”
- 14% of marketing professionals say fairness is the most difficult ethical issue
- Unfairly placing company interests over family obligations, taking credit for the work of others, inducing customers to use services not needed, manipulation of others
- 12% of marketing professionals say honesty is the most difficult ethical issue
- Lying to customers to obtain orders, misrepresenting services and capabilities
- 12% of marketing professionals say price is the most difficult ethical issue
- Differential pricing, charging higher prices than firms with similar products while claiming superiority
- 11% of marketing professionals say product is the most difficult ethical issue
- Product safety, product and brand infringement, exaggerated performance claims, products that do not benefit consumers
- 10% of marketing professionals say personnel is the most difficult ethical issue
- Firing, hiring, employee evaluation
- 5% of marketing professionals say confidentiality is the most difficult ethical issue
- Temptations to use or obtain classified, secret, or competitive information
- 4% of marketing professionals say advertising is the most difficult ethical issue
- Crossing the line between exaggeration and misrepresentation, misleading customers
- 4% of marketing professionals say manipulation of data is the most difficult ethical issue
- Falsifying figures or misusing statistics or information, distortion
Notice that many of the responses include watchwords like “questionable,” “exaggerated,” “distortion,” and “crossing the line.” In marketing, the greatest challenge is to influence the behavior of the target customer (by getting them to buy) without violating the customer’s trust or acting unethically. With the rise of social media, customers are in a much better position to share frank evaluations of products and services publicly, and this gives marketers a new means of capturing unbiased customer feedback. (It also opens the door to the problem of “fake customer reviews,” but that’s another issue.)