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What are Marketing Ethics?

Mary McMahon
Updated: Jan 31, 2024

Marketing ethics are ethical standards which pertain to marketing. Marketing is a field which is often viewed as inherently unethical, but it is in fact governed by law and standards of conduct just like any other field. People who actively work in the marketing field are expected to study and abide by the ethical standards of the industry, and academics interested in the study of marketing also look at how ethics are applied. Awareness of ethical standards is heavily promoted at many colleges and universities which teach marketing practices, and some institutions even have student associations dedicated to the development and promotion of ethical practices in business, including the marketing field.

There are a number of areas of ethical concern in marketing. The purpose of marketing is to sell products, services, and ideas to people, and this can be done in a variety of ways, not all of which are ethical. Marketers have to be careful about how they run campaigns to avoid running afoul of the law, and to address ethical gray areas which may not be covered by the law.

For example, there are strict laws in place about marketing to children in many regions of the world. Such laws are not in place to cover marketing to minorities, some of whom can be very vulnerable to certain types of marketing campaigns. Ethical marketers consider issues specific to the populations they are marketing to in order to avoid misleading people. Professional organizations remind members that they must incorporate concepts like transparency, respect, fairness, and responsibility into their campaigns.

Many consumers are aware that the ethics of marketing have shifted radically. In the mid-20th century, for example, advertisers made claims which simply were not true about the products they sold. Marketing ethics today frowns upon this practice, as does the law. Marketers are encouraged to find ways to promote products and services in a way which makes them appeal without being deceptive or coercive, and marketing ethics also includes professional relationships such as those between marketers and their clients.

Marketing ethics plays into corporate ethics and media ethics, both of which connect with marketing on many levels. Ethical business practices are an increasing cause for concern in many areas of the world as consumers become more active about identifying and pushing back against practices which they feel cross ethical lines. As a result, marketing ethics started to become more clearly defined at the close of the 20th century, and marketers began devising ethical standards which they could utilize as guidelines for the industry.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon301711 — On Nov 05, 2012

Ethics are a fundamental aspects of a successful business. They represent actions taken by businesses to act responsible corporate citizens within the community.

By parmnparsley — On Oct 09, 2010

@ Istria- I have a couple unethical marketing tactics from some of the marketing courses I took a few years ago. These tactics deal mostly with internet and buzz marketing, but they are unethical just the same because they prey on the vulnerability of a customer.

A common tactic that happens all the time is infiltration. This is when a company sends "agents" to take over the discussion boards and forums of competitors in order to promote their products and bad mouth the company's products. This is probably most common in product reviews, and can be very damaging to a company.

Another good example you could use is spamming and comment spam. Spamming is sending unsolicited emails to people without getting their voluntary permission. Comment spamming often happens on news comment where someone will create a comment bot that places unrelated messages on comment threads.

By highlighter — On Oct 09, 2010

@ Istria- I remember a few from my college marketing course. The common marketing techniques that raise ethical questions are techniques that involve indirectly marketing adult products to children. These techniques often play on the psychological effects a message will have, so they are hard to regulate and enforce legally. An example would be creating a sugary energy drink that is alcoholic and placing it closest to the soda cooler that has sugary energy drinks that are favorites with kids and teens.

Another shady marketing tactic is defacing property for marketing purposes. A guerrilla marketing campaign that spray paints a company's logo on a competitors store would qualify as defacement, as would plastering stickers on the drive through windows of a competitors fast food restaurant.

By istria — On Oct 08, 2010

I am doing a project on marketing social responsibility and I need some examples of unethical marketing practices to use in my project. Can anyone give me a few examples of unethical marketing practices? I only need four or five, and I would appreciate it if someone could help me out.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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