Unlike some professions, there is no ethical code for marketing professionals. But that does not mean that marketers can ignore the impact their powerful message has on others. In recent years, marketers have been criticized for making unhealthy pastimes attractive (such as eating fast food and smoking cigarettes) as well as marketing to vulnerable populations such as adolescents and children who cannot distinguish advertising from information. On one hand, in a free society, marketers have relatively free rein in terms of what they can transmit, so long as they do not outright lie. On the other hand, there have been calls to regulate advertising and marketing because of fears of its negative social impact. Companies that have violated ethical guidelines have been faced with legal sanctions and boycotts. Nutella, a sugary hazelnut spread that was pitched as part of a nutritious breakfast for childrenthe company was sued, ultimately reimbursing up to $20 to anyone who bought Nutella products for this reason (De Mers 1).
Marketers thus must tread a delicate balance between respecting the needs of the brand and not being dishonest. They are in particularly difficult ethical circumstances when selling a product which has known, negative effects. Of course, cigarettes and prescription drugs carry warnings but these warnings are often counterbalanced by the attractive image of the product. While savvy consumers may feel that they have the necessary cognitive tools to filter out advertising puffery and exaggeration, they may overestimate their ability to do so and many advertisements have a subliminal effect upon a viewer.
Furthermore, in todays age of Internet marketing, quite often an advertisement will appear to be a piece of objective or informative content, such as a review by a blogger of a product she seems to like, even though the blogger is being sponsored by the maker of the item. Unlike a traditional advertisement, this approach, and other guerrilla social media use of marketing, gives the appearance of not being marketing at all but spontaneous content generated by a user. Online, it can be very difficult to know if reviewers are honest and while people may be more suspicious of traditional advertising in modernity, social media promoted posts and compensated spokespersons who use their own accounts to talk about products may be difficult for even the most astute observer to recognize.
A different form of unethical marketing is one which deliberately stirs up negative feelings to promote a product. For example, fashion and beauty advertisements which make women feel bad about themselves to purchase unnecessarily expensive clothing and makeup. Advertisers may also exploit images of historically discriminated-against groups to stir up controversy or to look edgy; the problem arises that they are using such groups in an objectifying way which simplifies the groups culture or controversies surrounding that group, such as using Native Americans to sell environmentally-friendly products. Pepsi made this mistake recently when they tried to use an ad to introduce their product into a Black Lives Matter protest (De Mers 2). Other companies may exploit the safety concerns of parents or the elderly to encourage these consumer demographics to buy products of dubious value. Again, it can be very difficult to separate the ethics of selling certain products at all that have dubious utility from the fear-based marketing techniques used to promote them.
De Mers, Jayson. 5 Common Unethical Marketing Practices: Are You Guilty? Forbes.
7 Feb 2018. Web. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jaysondemers/2017/05/17/5-common- unethical-marketing-practices-are-you-guilty/
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