Law classes may have given you fits in college, but as far as many instructors are concerned, it's ethics classes that are tougher to teach. Whereas the law is often a matter of black and white – right and wrong – ethics often encompass a fuzzy gray area, shaded by subjective judgments but informed by an “I know it when I see it” sensibility.
Examples of unethical behavior can helpfully define the gray areas, especially when it comes to unethical practices in marketing. When you're a small business owner, chances are good that at least one of two events will darken your doorstep over the lifespan of your business: a shady marketer will try to lure you into participating in unethical sales practices or you will be rendered apoplectic by a competitor who engages in them to undercut your business. For these reasons, it's wise to deepen your understanding of both ethical and unethical practices in marketing and cement this information by learning some common unethical marketing examples. You owe it to yourself and your small business to elevate ethics above the helpful notion that many instructors plant in the minds of their students on the first day of class – that ethics is sometimes best defined by the behavior people would engage in only if their mother were looking over their shoulder.
The AMA's Unethical Marketing Definition
The American Marketing Association is more than a steward and advocate of marketing ethics in society; right from its preamble, you might assume that the people who outlined the association's ethics had some discerning mothers.
The AMA plunges into the ethics definition pool by invoking values, which it says “serve as the criteria for evaluating our own personal actions and the 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).”
The AMA identifies the core values as honesty, responsibility, fairness, respect, transparency and citizenship. It's worth learning how the AMA explains how to achieve these ends. But in broad brushstrokes, it sets the stage for these values by defining them as:
- Honesty, or being forthright in dealings with customers and stakeholders. Responsibility, or accepting the consequences of marketing decisions and strategies. Fairness, or balancing justly the needs of the buyer with the interests of the seller.* Respect, or acknowledging the basic human dignity of all stakeholders.
- Transparency, or creating a spirit of openness in marketing operations.
- Citizenship, or fulfilling the economic, legal, philanthropic and societal responsibilities that serve stakeholders.
Profitable Venture compares the pursuit of these values to unethical practices in marketing, and weighs the consequences by saying that:
- “Ethical marketing entails making honest claims and satisfying the needs of potential and existing customers. It boosts credibility and trust, develops brand loyalty, increases customer retention and prompts customers to spread the word about the products or services you’re marketing.”* “Unethical marketing, on the other hand, can send wrong signals about your products and services, destroy your brand’s reputation and possibly lead to legal problems. This explains why you should avoid them like a plague.”
Unethical Practices in Marketing
Avoiding unethical marketing practices can also help a business avoid other consequences, such as losing the good faith and loyalty of customers, and jeopardizing profitability. The worst practices of the bunch are:
- *Misleading statements, which can land a business in legal trouble with the Federal Trade Commission and its truth in advertising provision. The FTC expects advertising claims to be supported by evidence, which proved to be a tough standard for some cigarette manufacturers when they originally promoted their products as being “healthy.” Of course, not all claims are provable, and this is where some marketers deliberately try to blur the line with exaggerated claims and puffery, which are other forms of unethical marketing. Consumers may turn a deaf ear to a product that claims to be “the best,” and they're known to disdain marketing that promises to “transform their life” or “make them the envy of all their friends.”Distorting facts to intentionally confuse or mislead consumers. A classic example: stamping a product as sugar- or calorie-free when it does in fact contain some sugar and calories, or touting a product as “healthy” when it is loaded with carbohydrates and sodium.
- Making false or deceptive comparisons about a rival product. Much more prevalent 20 years ago among general consumer products, you still might see this crop up in the tech sector. (Think smartphones.) Competition tends to be fierce when rivals resort to side-by-side comparisons. And consumers may find such a technique helpful, as long as the information is accurate and truthful.
- *Inciting* fear or applying unnecessary pressure. “Limited time offers” are notorious for the latter, which is fine if a deadline really exists and the tone doesn't sound threatening.
- Exploiting emotions or a news event. Such instances pop up every once in a while, then make a quick exit when consumers complain about feeling manipulated. Such was the case after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when some advertisers tried to evoke sympathy – for New Yorkers, firefighters and survivors – while also selling their products.
- Stereotyping or depicting women as sex symbols merely to draw attention to a product. "While it might be intuitive to use models in adverts for beauty products and cosmetics, having half-naked models in adverts for generators, heavy machinery, smartphones and other products not strongly related to women is both nonsensical and unethical,” says Profitable Venture.
*Disparaging references to age, gender, race or religion. Many professional comics have learned the hard way that the line between humor and bad taste can be painfully thin. It might be easier to see if the humor packs an insult or a put-down that makes you grimace.*Doctoring photos or using photos that are not authentic representations. Most people expect professional photographers and videographers to make the most of lighting and close-ups. But the finished products should be accurate depictions that are free of touch-ups and other enhancement techniques that are designed to mislead.*Plagiarizing* a competitor. For a small-business owner, discovering that a competitor has copied or impinged on a tagline, blog post or promotion can be painful –
or infuriating. The reality is, plagiarism probably happens more often than most businesspeople will ever know, because of the internet. *Spamming, or sending unsolicited emails to potential customers. The FTC allows a business one such opportunity. After that, a business violates the CAN-SPAM act. In effect since 1993, the act also prohibits false or misleading header information and deceptive subject lines.
Today's enlightened consumers do more than register a disapproving “Tsk-tsk” over such unethical practices in marketing. Ninety percent of consumers in a 10,000-person survey conducted by Cone Communications said they would boycott a company if they learned it was engaging in unethical or irresponsible behavior. And about the same percentage said they expect companies to “operate responsibly” – perhaps much like their own mothers taught them.
About the Author
Mary Wroblewski earned a master's degree with high honors in communications and has worked as a reporter and editor in two Chicago newsrooms. Then she launched her own small business, which specialized in assisting small business owners with “all things marketing” – from drafting a marketing plan and writing website copy to crafting media plans and developing email campaigns. Mary writes extensively about small business issues and especially “all things marketing.”
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