First of all, ethics has become extremely subjective in the world of marketing and consumerism.
Even though there is the ability to develop, construct, and reinvent psychological experiments in the real world that would be virtually impossible to do in a clinical setting, the ethical guidelines for creating tactics in marketing have much looser standards and far different from the ethic committees of the clinical world.
Many experiments that are done in the world of marketing and consumer psychology have a tendency to attract controversy because of the need for the subjects (your customers) to be deceived in one way or another. Although it has come to our attention and others in our industry that our use of psychology in marketing has concerns for customers in not knowing they are being manipulated or controlled. This links ethical concern, attitudes toward the brand and the organization, and purchase intentions. This brings us to “ethical purchase behavior” (the individual’s moral judgement in his or her purchase) and if it would even exist. A great but sometimes heated conversation.
Ethical decision-making and purchase behavior has received relatively little attention from consumer behavior researchers because of the ethics of testing within the controlled college environment. Most colleges and research labs have strict rules about how much information the study participant needs to know, most of the time with too much knowledge of what is trying to be done, the research becomes tainted and fallible.
Where does that leave us?
Surrogate Advertising – In certain places there are laws against advertising products like cigarettes or alcohol. Surrogate advertising finds ways to remind consumers of these products without referencing them directly.
Exaggeration – Some advertisers use false claims about a product’s quality or popularity. A Slogan like “get coverage everywhere on earth” advertises features that cannot be delivered.
Puffery – When an advertiser relies on subjective rather than objective claims, they are puffing up their products. Statements like “the best tasting coffee” cannot be confirmed objectively.
Unverified Claims – Many products promise to deliver results without providing any scientific evidence. Shampoo commercials that promise stronger, shinier hair do so without telling consumers why or how.
Stereotyping Women – Women in advertising have often been portrayed as sex objects or domestic servants. This type of advertising traffics in negative stereotypes and contributes to a sexist culture.
False brand comparisons – Any time a company makes false or misleading claims about their competitors they are spreading misinformation.
Children in advertising – Children consume huge amounts of advertising without being able to evaluate it objectively. Exploiting this innocence is one of the most common unethical marketing practices.
Making Claims in PseudoScience – Magic is not real. Reading minds is fake. There are no spirits or super powers out to get you. Making these type of claims is not only unethical, it is dangerous.
Companies realize the importance of acting in more ethical way, and broadcasting this transformation to their customers. However, there is a need to put the product and services in front of them in a way to maximize sales and benefit the bottom line, just make sure to do it in a way not to have to rely on your public relations manager to keep the company afloat.
It is impossible to claim that any company is completely ethical or unethical. Ethics resides in a gray area with many fine lines and shifting boundaries. Many companies behave ethically in one aspect of their advertising and unethically in another.
That being said, the first step is to look at your needs and brainstorm the things that the world of Consumer Psychology can do for you and how we can Ethically Engineer it so everyone involved can sleep at night.