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Marketing Ethics 101

In the world of marketing there are a set of codes responsible marketers must uphold. The American Marketing Association (1) has defined the ethical code of marketers as follows:

As Marketers, we must:

Do no harm. This means consciously avoiding harmful actions or omissions by embodying high ethical standards and adhering to all applicable laws and regulations in the choices we make. Foster trust in the marketing system. This means striving for good faith and fair dealing so as to contribute toward the efficacy of the exchange process as well as avoiding deception in product design, pricing, communication, and delivery of distribution. Embrace ethical values. This means building relationships and enhancing consumer confidence in the integrity of marketing by affirming these core values: honesty, responsibility, fairness, respect, transparency and citizenship.  American Marketing Association

What exactly does that mean in today’s marketing world? In my opinion, there are three major components to marketing that the modern-day marketer must be acutely aware: audience data, discrimination or prejudice, and claims.

Let’s start with audience data. In today’s world, it is not secret that digital media and online marketing has taken over the advertising industry. Along with the rise in digital media consumption, the demand, curation, and utilization of audience data has sharply risen as well. As marketers, we must be certain that the data we use to reach our audience is ethically obtained and used. Let’s look at an example that demonstrate what not to do.

This example is multi-facet and complicated, but all boils down to an unethical acquisition and exploitation of audience data. A political consulting firm named Cambridge Analytica was hired to help during Trump’s 2016 Presidential Campaign. The firm allegedly obtained voter data via a third-party. The problem? The third-party had obtained that data under the premise of doing scientific, psychological research and not for political purposes. Ultimately, the ensuing scandal and investigations led the firm to close its doors–permanently–in 2018 (2).

Discrimination and prejudice is unfortunately a common topic in today’s world. There are examples all over the world, in many industries, organizations, and societies. Examples of discrimination and prejudice can be found in marketing as well, and with dire consequences.

H&M found itself in the spotlight after releasing an ad for a product modeled by a young black child saying “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” A public outcry reached celebrity-status and the brand lost influential brand ambassadors, the Weeknd and G-Easy. With everyone’s critical eyes on the brand, other accusations surfaced spotlighting clothing waste, cultural appropriation, racial insensitivity, and human rights labor violations. While H&M has kept its doors open in the midst of the brand’s bad rap, it will take many years to regain the trust and admiration of their once-loyal customers.

The last major watch-out for today’s savvy marketers is false advertising or false claims. Any message you put out into the world to your customers must be true. While there is a thin line in marketing language called ‘puffery,’ when you state a fact or make a claim about your product it is prudent to not play with that line. Let’s look at an example where the cold medicine brand, Airborne, found itself deep in false claim litigation.

Airborne was a popular over-the-counter cold prevention and treatment remedy, or so they claimed. Evidence was obtained that revealed the “scientific” studies conducted on Airborne’s product were not only paid for and sponsored by Airborne, but also not conducted by scientists or doctors. A class action lawsuit was brought against Airborne for making false claims they could not legitimately substantiate. The Federal Trade Commission ruling stated the following:

“There is no credible evidence that Airborne products, taken as directed, will reduce the severity or duration of colds, or provide any tangible benefit for people who are exposed to germs in crowded places.”

Lydia Parnes, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Airborne settled the class action suit owing $30 million dollars in restitution for the customers it had mislead (3). Despite being a costly and potentially brand-ending scandal, the Airborne products live on (with altered messaging on all of its products).

Of course there are probably many more examples or categories of ethical concerns in Marketing, but the three we discussed today are critical for any marketer to be aware of and give due diligence to avoid.

(1) AMA Statement of Ethics. AMA Online Portal. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2022, from https://myama.my.site.com/s/article/AMA-Statement-of-Ethics

(2) Rosenberg, M., Confessore, N., & Cadwalladr, C. (2018, March 17). How trump consultants exploited the Facebook data of Millions. The New York Times. Retrieved December 7, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/17/us/politics/cambridge-analytica-trump-campaign.html

(3) Staff, the P. N. O., & Staff, D. P. I. P. and C. T. O. (2008, August 14). Makers of airborne settle FTC charges of deceptive advertising; agreement brings total settlement funds to $30 million. Federal Trade Commission. Retrieved December 7, 2022, from https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/news/press-releases/2008/08/makers-airborne-settle-ftc-charges-deceptive-advertising-agreement-brings-total-settlement-funds-30

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