marketing ethics

What is Marketing Ethics?

Having an understanding of ethical theories in marketing plays two important roles; 1) it ensures that the business is following ethical practices when making marketing decisions, and 2) ethics plays an important role in personal decision making and this can serve as a strategic benefit when marketing. Ethical beliefs have a tendency to provide consistent decision making patterns.

A persons belief system can be an attribute to identify a target market, and based on this, marketing approaches can be designed to reach these specific beliefs. While this isn't an all inclusive list, there are five primary ethical theories that can be applied in marketing:

1. Deontology
2. Utilitarianism
3. Casuist
4. Moral Relativist
5. Virtue Ethics



Deontology is an ethical theory based on the idea that people should be fully committed to their obligations and duties when assessing an ethical dilemma. For example, an individual that follows a deontological belief system will remain committed to a promise they made with a friend and they are law abiding citizens. Based on this sense of responsibility to duty, this type of person will consistently make decisions based on their believed set of duties and obligations. A marketing strategy that promotes corporate social responsibility would appeal to customers that maintain this ethical belief system.



This is the classic belief system based on making a choice that provides the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. A decision based on utility is said to serve the greatest good for the greatest number. A benefit of this approach in ethics is that it can be supported by quantified results; it can be an objective approach. Statistics can be used to support, validate, and substantiate not only a claim, but appeal to the greatest number of people. However, a flaw in this position is that often the numbers are based on projected results and projections can be wrong. Additionally, this ethical theory seeks to compare various consequences of an action and no one can truly consider all the variations that may occur as a result of an action/decision.


The pharmaceutical industry provides a hotbed of arguments that fall under this ethical theory. For example, millions of dollars could be spent developing a new medication that causes 20% of patients to have heart failure (this is theoretical and arbitrary), but the manufacturer may argue that 80% of the patients that take this medication are 'cured' of their ailment. With a utilitarian perspective this medication would be justified due to it benefiting the greatest number of people and those that are negatively affected should not be considered... and off to the races we go entering into an argument of what is right and wrong, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical, all based on the various perspectives that each person maintains in the argument.



Taking a casuist approach to an ethical dilemma, one would look at the current dilemma and find examples of past similar dilemmas. While this seeks to remedy a dilemma by comparing outcomes, a person may be inclined to find similar situations that serve as an extreme example. This extreme example may be used to leverage there personal position to justify the means to an end. Additionally, there may not be existing similar dilemmas, and if there are it is assumed that the results based on the examples will be the same for the current issue. When dealing with ethics, particularly in social issues, there is no way to take into consideration all the variables and there is no way to predict that the outcome for the current issue will be the same as the previous issue; people are unpredictable and there are numerous variables that can influence and change circumstances.


For example, with the somewhat recent events that occured in Ferguson, Mo, a white police officer shot an unarmed black man for what seemed to be no apparent reason, killing the black man. While I don't have statistics, the media initially communicated this situation as though it was a "normal" occurence. The response from the police department seemed to be a standard response, based on previous similar situations. However, due to many social variables this situation did not result with a standard reaction. The community broke out in violence to protest this action and there was such strong support for this situation that the "Black Lives Matter" campaign gained a lot of attention and recognition. This situation illustrates how the use of past similar dilemmas cannot always predict outcomes of a current dilemma.


Moral Relativist

A moral relativist believes that ethics should be based on an individual and groups of individuals that maintain the ethical beliefs. In short, it is up to the individual (or group) and the circumstances of that individual, to define what is ethical behavior. For example, under this theory if a parent has a starving child and they steal food to feed that child (because they can't afford to buy food), then the decision is within ethical standards. Moral relativists believe that ethics rest upon the individual based on the time and place where the decision or behavior is made. This is a very lenient perspective that takes the situation into consideration to attempt to justify the means to an end.


Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics is based on the idea that what is virtuous is ethical. Virtues are character traits that are practiced, maintained, and agreed upon (typically from a social perspective) as being 'good' traits. Some examples of virtues are: self-discipline, caring, compassion, courage, friendliness, and trust. A person that places an emphasis on maintaining virtuous behavior is practicing virtue ethics.