Ethical Dilemma* in Marketing

A society can usually be viewed as comprising of three sectors- government, business and social sectors. These are no disjoint groups. Nonetheless, they exhibit a lot of heterogeneity across each other and homogeneity among themselves. The interface between the three varies across societies and nations, yet all the three have a common pursuit- the benefit of the people. The ways and means adopted by these three are different, sometimes even in conflict with each other. The interplay of the actions of these three groups provides the social dynamism.

The interface between government and business gives rise to regulatory frameworks. Between social sector and government, the issues are political and legislative. The interface between social sector and business gives rise to ethical issues. The differences across societies lead to typical cases making ethical issues subjective to a society.

Marketing efforts face dilemmas some common, others different, across societies. A typical example is where pressures of social sector forces government to regulate advertising messages from marketing enterprises in public media. Similarly social sector doesn’t let Gujarat government to lift prohibition in the state for the last 70 years in spite of loss to the exchequer and innumerable incidents of bootlegging. So far, so good. In both of these instances, social sector used its interface with government to ensure that the government uses its interface with business and regulate the business behaviour.


In situations where, things do not work out this way in which the government regulates business at the behest of social sector, the business-social sector interface becomes critical. This interface creates both opportunities and threats. Opportunities arise for corporate image building by business through supporting social causes. Charities, philanthropy, endowments, social marketing all are some of the few ways that business uses these opportunities. Threats arise when marketing actions are not perceived as socially correct by the social sector. What is socially correct may usually be a matter of perception and debate and lead to disagreements.

Take for instance, a simple example of a tip to a nursing sister in a hospital by the sales representative of a pharmaceutical product company, who tipped her for her support to the products that he promotes. The basis of such dilemma is the thin line between a harmless tip for expressing gratitude and clear inducement money or bribe to seek unreasonable advantage over competing products. Who draws this line and where this line is drawn is very subjective and prone to disagreements.

Use of animal tallow in making of hydrogenated vegetable oils, a practice adopted internationally, becomes a moral and ethical issue in India for its social context. Using vigour, strength, vitality and success, as the stereotypes for promoting a known health hazard like cigarettes is an ethical issue. Promotion of baby milk powders in competition with breast-feed is an issue.

Such issues become marketing dilemmas since it is possible for any marketing effort to be well within the legal and regulatory framework yet being totally out of sync with the expectations of the social sector. In these situations, the social sector likes to fight back. It has two ways of handling such situations; use its interface with the government and let government bear down upon business through government-business interface; or create a social backlash against the marketing efforts. Social backlash is wielded through pressure groups, media, public opinion and simple boycotts.

Marketing managers have only two options in cases of such ethical dilemmas. Proactively make corrections to suit the context and avoid any retaliation from the social sector. Any confrontation from the social sector can only lead to tarnished image, loss of business and intervention from government. The other alternative is to build a favourable social perception for its marketing practices. This route is slow, difficult and expensive. It may not always succeed. If it works, new marketing opportunities may be created. Further this route may not be in exclusion to the first route; it may compliment the first one.



Existing Research:

Jamnik, A. (August 2011), “The Question of Ethical Decision in Marketing and Ethics” Revista Cultura Económica, (Journal of Pontificia Universidad Catolica Argentina – the Catholic University of Argentina) 29(80), pp 41-53.


Refresher for the academically inclined:

Marketers are routinely confronted with ethical dilemmas in practice.

Situations that are uncomfortable but that don’t require a choice are not ethical dilemmas. For example, Salesmen are required to be under the supervision of their appropriately credentialed superior. Therefore, because there is no choice in the matter, there is no ethical violation or breach of confidentiality when a salesman discusses confidential customer information with the superior.

There are three conditions that must be present for a situation to be considered an ethical dilemma. The first condition occurs in situations when an individual, must make a decision about which course of action is best. The second condition for ethical dilemma is that there must be different courses of action to choose from. Third, in an ethical dilemma, no matter what course of action is taken, some ethical principle is compromised. In other words, there is no perfect solution.


In determining what constitutes an ethical dilemma, it is necessary to make a distinction between ethics, values, morals, and laws and policies. Ethics are prepositional statements (standards) that are used by members of a profession or group to determine what the right course of action in a situation is. Ethics rely on logical and rational criteria to reach a decision, an essentially cognitive process. Values, on the other hand, describe ideas that we value or prize. To value something means that we hold it dear and feel it has worth to us. As such, there is often a feeling or affective component associated with values.

Finally, laws and company policies are often involved in most cases.

It is also essential that the distinction be made between personal and professional ethics and values. Conflicts between personal and professional values should not be considered ethical dilemmas for a number of reasons. Because values involve feelings and are personal, the rational process used for resolving ethical dilemmas cannot be applied to values conflicts. Further, when an individual elects to become a member of a profession, he or she is agreeing to comply with the standards of the profession, including its Code of Ethics and values.


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Published by

Mukul Gupta

*Educator, researcher, author and a friendly contrarian* Professor@MDIGurgaon

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