Marketing Ethics is a subset of business ethics. Ethics in marketing deals with the principles, values and/or ideals by which marketers (and marketing institutions) ought to act. Marketing ethics too, like its parent discipline, is a contested terrain. Discussions of marketing ethics are focused around two major concerns: one is the concern from political philosophy and the other is from the transaction-focused business practice. On the one side, following ideologists like Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, it is argued that the only ethics in marketing is maximizing profit for the shareholder. On the other side it is argued that market is responsible to the consumers and other proximate as well as remote stakeholders as much as, if not less, it is responsible to its shareholders. The ethical prudence of targeting vulnerable sections for consumption of redundant or dangerous products/services, being transparent about the source of labour (child labour, sweatshop labour, fair labour remuneration), declaration regarding fair treatment and fair pay to the employees, being fair and transparent about the environmental risks, the ethical issues of product or service transparency (being transparent about the ingredients used in the product/service – use of genetically modified organisms, content, ‘source code’ in the case of software), appropriate labelling, the ethics of declaration of the risks in using the product/service (health risks, financial risks, security risks, etc.), product/service safety and liability, respect for stakeholder privacy and autonomy, the issues of outsmarting rival business through unethical business tactics etc., advertising truthfulness and honesty, fairness in pricing & distribution, and forthrightness in selling, etc., are few among the issues debated among people concerned about ethics of marketing practice.
Ethical discussion in marketing is still in its nascent stage. Marketing Ethics came of age only as late as 1990s. As it is the case with business ethics in general, marketing ethics too is approached from ethical perspectives of virtue, deontology, consequentialism, pragmatism and also from relativist positions. However, there are extremely few articles published from the perspective of 20th or 21st century philosophy of ethics.
One impediment in defining marketing ethics is the difficulty of pointing out the agency responsible for the practice of ethics. Competition, rivalry among the firms, lack of autonomy of the persons at different levels of marketing hierarchy, nature of the products marketed, nature of the persons to whom products are marketed, the profit margin claimed, and everything relating the marketing field does make the agency of a marketing person just a cog in the wheel. Deprived of agency, the hierarchy of marketing hardly lets one with an opportunity to autonomously decide to be ethical. Without one having agency, one is deprived of the ethical choices.
Marketing ethics is not restricted to the field of marketing alone, rather its influence spread across all fields of life and most importantly construction of ‘socially salient identities for people’ and “affect some people’s morally significant perceptions of and interactions with other people, and if they can contribute to those perceptions or interactions going seriously wrong, these activities have bearing on fundamental ethical questions”. Marketing, especially its visual communication, it is observed, serve as an instrument of epistemic closure. restricting worldviews within stereotypes of gender, class and race relationships.
• Pricing: price fixing, price discrimination, price skimming.
• Anti-competitive practices: these include but go beyond pricing tactics to cover issues such as manipulation of loyalty and supply chains. See: anti-competitive practices, antitrust law.
• Specific marketing strategies: green wash, bait and switch, shill, viral marketing, spam (electronic), pyramid scheme, planned obsolescence.
• Content of advertisements: attack ads, subliminal messages, sex in advertising, products regarded as immoral or harmful
• Children and marketing: marketing in schools.
• Black markets, grey markets.