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Ethical battle lines of Marketing

Marketing has been a core component of business since probably a second after business was invented. At its core Marketing aims to deliver a message to a specific group of people and that message often tries to persuade those individuals to consider purchasing the product or service in question. Competition in the marketplace makes Marketing a vital business function. After all, even if your company makes the best product, but nobody knows about it, chances are that your competitors will be able to reap greater rewards. Under competitive pressure it is often essential for marketers to promote the product to its potential, but they cannot cross the line into misleading. In the US misleading advertisements are often termed “false advertisement” or “deceptive advertisement” and are regulated by the Federal  Trade Commission. Other countries have similar laws and regulatory bodies, some initiatives that aim to protect consumers are www.isitfair.eu in EU and Australian Competition & Consumer Commission in Australia.

It is clear that you can advertise in a deceptive way and that there are regulatory and consumer bodies set up to protect the world from such practices. But what exactly is deceptive? Over the course of history and with the help of the legislative system certain marketing practices became accepted as deceptive. For example, marketing one product and substituting it for something else, creating a pyramid scheme or forging trust marks. These examples are numerous, but they came about and became accepted as deceptive because injured parties sought compensation in court in the years past. But what if the matter is so minor and legal process so expensive that nobody bothers to seek compensation? Or what if deception cannot be easily proven? I would speculate that there remains a subset of marketing practices that could be called dubious, while regulatory bodies are too busy policing more serious cases.

Just how prevalent these practices are? How used are we to them? I will include several examples below, but feel free to add additional illustrations into the comments.

1. That food looks so good on TV, but not so well in real life. Actually there are companies that specialise in replicating popular menu items in plastic. One such company is www.fake-foods.com. Not all replicated foods are used in tv commercials, some are used as restaurant displays and children toys, but some  do end up being stars of 30-second movies. Using plastic props in commercials makes perfect sense, since they don’t spoil or wither with time and able to tolerate high-powered  stage lights without melting. But is that deceptive? After all, the food I buy at the store is not plastic and would look quite different on TV.

2. People that look good on TV and look well in real life, but never used the product advertised to achieve their results. I’ll let the actual ad prove my point. Is that deceptive? Those people are in great shape, but they probably achieved such physique either genetically or by going to the gym, an exact opposite of what ad claims it can do for you. Could it be that it’s just natural to get models for your commercial? And since everyone does it is would be against industry practice try to do otherwise. Besides consumers are aware enough to understand distinction between marketing and reality. To address these arguments, I would like you to have a look at this ad. Did those people used the actual product to achieve their results? Do you think they had hairdressers on the set when filming the commercial? Another example can be seen here.

3. Perfume is all about the smell right? Perfume ads are an interesting example. On one hand what is sold is a fragrance, a physical product, that has nothing to do with the model on the ad or the shape of the bottle. In fact, very few people would be able to connect the ad and the smell of the product. So is it deception to use pretty models to sell your product? Should you not include testers in every magazine ad? Not quite, while how perfume is advertised has little or nothing to do with the actual smell, something else is sold along with it. That something is value created by the add itself solely in the mind of the consumer. By looking at the model, the elegance of the bottle some consumers derive satisfaction because they are able to imagine themselves as belonging to that lifestyle image. The feeling that consumers buys along with the perfume is purely subjective, created only in his/her mind, but it is real and paid for.

Danger with some of these practices is that we become used to them and as the result transpose marketing reality into our actual lives. Any other examples?


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