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Marketing Communication: The Role of Ethics

 

1. Introduction and Objective

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Marketing communication as a profession has, over the years, matured into one of the most desirable careers available for young men and women, not just in the USA but all over the world. Numerous colleges produce fresh faced young graduates in marketing, sales, marketing research, advertising, public relations, event management, marketing and sales promotions and other related discipline. The profession is inclusive in the sense that a person, engaged in any function connected to the sales and marketing function, needs to be involved in marketing communication. Both the CEO of a large soaps company and the fresh faced entrant in the copy room of a small town ad agency need to be effective marketing communicators.

The broad range of people who belong to or are associated with marketing communication, as well as the profession’s integral relationship with sales and marketing make it a work area that provides strong opportunities for rapid career growth within business organizations. In addition to work prospects within organizations, marketing communication professionals service industry through large advertising, public relations and media companies or by working as independent consultants. The profession also attracts people because of the intrinsic nature of work, which is thought to be people friendly, mentally stimulating and to a great extent free of tedium and everyday drudgery. While working hours are long, the money is good and opportunities for travel being plentiful; career counsellors are often eloquent in recommending it to young people as an attractive career opportunity.

Marketing communications is a fun profession. You have a wonderful opportunity to work hands on with exciting ideas in an effort to bring them to life. Through a well-chosen marketing communications curriculum, you are sure to take the first steps toward an exciting and lucrative career. (Daflos, 2004)

The profession is thriving and attracting new entrants globally. Continuous enrichment of the global resource pool also results in ideas, research, case analyses, substantial interaction by professionals on multi-industry, multi-functional and multi-environment parameters and  professional bodies working on ways and means to improve different aspects of the profession. An area of concern in today’s post Enron scenario is the issue of ethics in all areas of corporate responsibility. While the issue of ethics in marketing communication has always occupied centerstage, global citizenry today needs much more transparency from marketing communicators with respect to disclosures that can affect all stakeholders in the business including investors, bankers, suppliers, employees and customers.

It is the purpose of this essay to study different dimensions of the marketing communication profession and the services its members render to clients in an increasingly fragmented market. The researcher will also take up the challenges which face the profession in today’s rapidly changing and globalised business scenario with particular reference to the issue of ethics, the ways in which the profession is trying to deal with the issue and what still needs to be done. The researcher has depended extensively on the literature and text available on the subject and on internet sources for current developments. Use of on line libraries like Questia have provided access to a number of books,  journals and magazine articles, all of which have been listed in the bibliography.

 

 

2. The Marketing Communication Profession

The marketing communication profession provides the best opportunities to college graduates with a strong level of creativity, excellent written and spoken communication skills, computer friendliness and an ability to think out of the box. While the area is extremely competitive and requires long hours of focused work it provides high earnings and potential for local and international travel.

The primary objective of a business organization being the marketing and selling of its products and services marketing communication professionals engage in a multitude of tasks within the organization and from outside as specialized service providers to aid this effort. Experts in different specialisations work towards coordinating market research, marketing strategy, sales, advertising, promotions and public relation activities. While in smaller companies many of these activities. While in smaller companies many of these functions are handled by the owner or a senior manager with external professional help, larger companies generally have different senior level managers handling these functions. The profession also has a number of specialised firms in the form of advertising agencies, market research organizatons, public relations companies and outfits that handle promotions and manage events who give specialised external support to large and small corporations. In fact, specialised companies are able to offer a quality of service which is not available within organizations and form a vital part of the profession.

The rapid increase and phenomenal reach of the internet has added a completely new dimension to marketing communication and reaching out via the internet through specialised websites and emails has led to a new area of specialization occupied by creative and focused marketers with excellent internet communication skills. Within the broad spectrum of marketing communication different sectors need sector specific expertise which though thrusted by basic college education is enhanced by experience, assignments handled, focused training courses ad personal development.

Thus, advertising professionals need to be strong in creative work, brand management, and media planning. Promotion experts, on the other hand implement programs that combine advertising with incentives to increase sales or heighten awareness through the use of a number of routes to access dealers, distributors or end users through direct mail, catalogs, newspapers, television, in-store displays and the internet. Public relations management is increasingly playing a larger role in marketing communications and PR specialists often work at implementing programs targeted at specific audiences and are the first ones to move into action in crisis situations involving the firm’s reputation. They need to keep track of social, economic and political trends and work on enhancing the firm’s reputation on the basis of new changes in these areas.

The range of educational backgrounds that can help a person to succeed in marketing communication is largely eclectic but apart from a management education, a liberal arts background, in topics like sociology, literature and philosophy is quite acceptable. Specialised experience is needed for senior level assignments. Apart from a good education and developed experience marketing communicators also need some specific personality traits.

Persons interested in becoming advertising, marketing, promotions, public relations, and sales managers should be mature, creative, highly motivated, resistant to stress, flexible, and decisive. The ability to communicate persuasively, both orally and in writing, with other managers, staff, and the public is vital. These managers also need tact, good judgment, and exceptional ability to establish and maintain effective personal relationships with supervisory and professional staff members and client firms. (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2006)

3. Current Thinking and Challenges in Marketing Communication

The area of marketing communication has been under detailed study for ages now by experts of the stature of Peter Drucker.

As far back as 1954, Peter Drucker said that any business has two basic requirements: marketing and innovation. Marketing assumes the task of guaranteeing the conditions of communication and information that allow demand for need fulfilment to be met through production of goods and services. Managers have long realized that it is as important to organize the demand as it is to organize the supply. Thus, straight away we can see the significance of managed communication – exchange relationships are needed and ideas must be generated and deployed. Ultimately, customers (buyers and users) determine the nature of the businesses that can operate.  (Varey, 2001, p. 1)

However, over time the concept of marketing communication has changed significantly. It is now a much bigger area than it was previously and occupies the top mind space of all customer-focused companies.

Marketing communication was traditionally thought of to comprise of efforts to promote a product or service to a defined audience to achieve a specific response. It was the accepted idea that producers communicate and buyers receive the communication. Further as the communicator, the producer would give more priority to the presentation of the communication than to the apprehensions of the customer and work on the premise that desired responses would be obtained.

 

In fact, the area however becomes much wider if we accept the current thinking that buyers and sellers together form a market and have to communicate with each other to buy and sell. It thus becomes the responsibility of the management to put systems in place to facilitate the adherence of promises.

As Professor Grönroos points out: ‘everything communicates something about a firm and its good and services – regardless of whether the marketer accepts this and acts upon it or not’ (Grönroos, 2000:264). Let us add that both buyer and seller may initiate marketing activity, and communication may be unplanned. (Varey, 2001, p. 12)
In addition to the fact that marketing communication is now thought of as a two way process, the business scenario has over the last two decades, and especially with the proliferation of the internet started changing as never before. Globalisation and the emergence of new strongly competitive economies like China and India, who have much lesser overheads but adequately similar skills in production and lower level services, has introduced a new dimension of competitiveness in the market. Some key changes in the global market that can be enumerated are as follows.
·         The global market is polarizing around common economic and political goals

·         Around five hundred companies control half of the world’s trade.

·         Markets are fragmenting rapidly and the same communication methods cannot be used for different fragments.

·         Markets are becoming important factors in the regulation of society.

·         The retailing boom has seen retailers moving in between producers and customers and pushing producers out of contact with the customers.

·         Practically all areas of business have more producers than customers and there is a continuous hunt on for less saturated markets.

·         The rapid pace of technological development is leading to rapid obsolescence and the impracticality of planning long-term marketing plans for most products, be they already established or even new in the shops.
Most management thinkers including Philip Kotler (1999) feel that the IT and internet revolution will increasingly take over as the driving force and radically different practices for marketing will influence marketing communication practices significantly. The emergence of the global consumer, the usage of integrated marketing communication, localized direct and database marketing will progressively become more important than blanket TV and print advertising, and each of these, in addition to newer developments will continue to affect marketing communication needs.

Marketing is at the forefront of the change revolution that has been ushered in by globalization and a number of new challenges have arisen for marketing communication experts.
Customers are reached through complex overlapping means including global and national account teams; field sales including product and market specialists as well as territorial generalists; telesales and telemarketing; service specialists; distributors; dealers; value-added integrators, resellers and packagers; wholesalers; retailers; direct mail; and e-commerce (Shapiro, 2002)
Ways of doing business and management theories are changing rapidly and necessitating new and perceptive responses in line with the requirements of the global age. These changes in the business environment and marketing responses to meet these changes have posed a number of new challenges to the marketing communication industry. Most of these challenges relate to reaching out to remote and fragmented audiences where no omnibus communication strategy can be possible. The industry is responding to the challenges, of course, by upgrading the skills of professionals through course modifications in colleges and training institutes for new entrants, and through skill upgrading workshops and seminars. There is widespread realization about the challenges posed by the proliferation of the internet for two-way communication of messages and the need for websites that will listen to customers and other stakeholders as well as talk to them. An area, which has not been touched until now in this essay is the issue of ethics in marketing communication, especially with reference to the scandals that have rocked the corporate world in the last few years.

4. The Issue of Ethics in Marketing Communication

In the 1980s, Microsoft used a rather strange ploy to swamp its smaller competitors. It would announce that it was developing a great new product and refer to it in general terms without any significant detailing. This would result in customers staying away from buying the products of smaller suppliers and many would be hurt badly in the process. The tactic helped Microsoft consolidate its hold over the marketplace but also caused customer frustration and the gradual emergence of products like Linux who were able to work on customer resentment and establish themselves. The billions of dollars put into the Gates Foundation are undoubtedly working positively in enhancing the reputation of Mr Bill Gates but a number of people still remember the old days and the court cases the company had to face.

Coke and Pepsi have emerged as the largest fizzy drink manufacturers in India since the Indian government allowed them to set up shop. The two have simply steamrolled the entire indigenous soft drink industry into selling out or downing shutters. Very recently a local activist group published investigative reports revealing that pesticide levels in their bottled colas was far higher than international norms. Following the public furor products of both companies were banned in parts of the country and especially in school and college cafeterias. The companies responded with huge media responses, which involved the most popular movie stars, incorporated clips of their sterile production lines and played up their clean international reputations. In a couple of months the issue died down, things went back to normal, and consumption of colas climbed up to old levels. Despite all the promises made through the media both companies remained absolutely firm in not revealing the pesticide levels in their colas on cans and bottles. The soft drink giants have not been hurt financially but their reputation is not what it was. Lurking fears about unhealthy pesticide levels in their products remain, primarily because both companies refused to come clean in their communication with consumers.

The issue of ethics in marketing communication has always been a point of contention but is far more pronounced today after the collapse of Enron and the disappearance of Arthur Anderson from the accounting fraternity. While top officials of Enron were engaged in fraud and dishonest business practices, their communication to the market repeatedly stressed the brilliant successes of the company in their various areas of business. It was only after Enron collapsed that the world found out the extent of falsehood and deceit in their communication to the marketplace.
The issue facing the marketing communication industry is to formulate the best possible response to situations involving ethics and public good. Business environments will always be prone to scandals with some business leaders falling prey to the temptation of indulging in questionable business practices. It could be Microsoft, Pepsi, Coke, Enron or WorldCom. Each time a scandal surfaces justice is meted out and regulatory procedures tightened. The introduction of the Sarbanes Oxley Act is the most recent example of this. This is an ever-continuing process, which is independent from professional attempts to introduce more ethical business cultures.

Marketing has historically been regarded as a dubious functional area of a business enterprise because of its history of manipulation and distortion of facts to shape customer wants, rather than meet customer needs through its communication strategy. In this context, the challenges that face marketing communication professionals are far sharper than those faced by internal departments like finance and operations who have much lesser interface with the outside world. Issues of ethics that arise in business firms can be of different types. These may involve deliberate steps taken by the company, which could range from the questionable to the downright illegal. Again, companies may be mired in situations of their own making where they are clearly in breach of ethical codes of conduct. In all such cases, the responsibility invariably falls upon the shoulders of marketing communicators, PR professionals, and advertising agencies to mitigate damage, and convey half-truths or downright falsehoods to stakeholders and customers of the company. In most cases communication professionals give in to pressure from managements or even willfully convey these messages of untruth to people who have stakes in the proper conduct of companies, but do not have access to correct facts.

Many of our informants (Advertising Professionals) reported few ethical concerns in their own work or in advertising in general. They exhibited “moral myopia,” a distortion of moral vision that prevents moral issues from coming into focus, and “moral muteness,” meaning that they rarely talk about ethical issues.(Drumwright, Patrick, Murphy, 2004)
The marketing communications profession is too large and varied to be brought under a composite body like the Institute of Chartered Accountants and while bodies like the American Marketing Association have drafted a code of ethics, (which is provided in Appendix A), the profession is self regulating to a great extent, It is thus upon the members of the profession to thus work out the rule of ethics that they will adhere to in the conduct of their duties. Most marketing professionals are categorical on the necessity of ensuring transparency and avoiding false statements and half-truths in the messages they send out to the stakeholders of the company. Advertising, PR and market research generally focus on different target groups and the ethical issues that arise are different. Advertising, which forms the largest chunk of marketing communication concerns issues that relate not only to the transparency and truthfulness of the message but also whether the message, even if truthful, should be relayed at all. This is especially relevant in case of products that could be health, age, gender or race sensitive or again where the advertising message could upset cultural, religious or social concerns. Very similarly, PR professionals are often faced with the moral dilemma of having to convey messages that they know lack transparency or provide distorted pictures of the actual position.

In most cases, the professionals involved are under pressure to commit acts, which are inimical to their mental inclinations, from either remunerative clients or generous employers, and  personal stakes outweigh the commitment to public responsibility.

 

 

5. Conclusion and Recommendations

There is broad agreement on the increasing importance to constantly work towards increasing the level of ethics in the marketing communication profession. While most reputed and large companies try to avoid the communication of messages that could misinform or deceive the recipient a number of cases have occurred in the recent past where gross distortion and misrepresentation of facts resulting in harm to the recipients of the messages. The cases of Enron, WorldCom and Arthur Anderson, all cases of communication fraud, come to mind first but the conduct of the cola and tobacco companies in the developing world is equally reprehensible.

The prime responsibility for verifying the truth and ethicality of the messages rests with the company in an increasingly deregulated environment and not with media vehicles or the government. The profession must thus take the responsibility to push for greater accountability and ethicality in marketing communication, both at the individual and collective level. Professionals working in organizations must try to build an atmosphere of truth and transparency from within through interaction with peers and seniors and push across the benefits of being perceived as truthful and transparent organizations. These processes of corporate transformation, especially in areas of thought, are essentially time expensive and will not succeed until the process is continuous and unrelenting. The professionals working towards this outcome will be able to breathe more easily only when decision makers also accept the commitment towards ethicality totally and furthermore, this becomes evident in corporate responses in different areas of communication, both internal and external.

At the collective level, professional associations of marketers, advertisers and PR professionals must decide on codes of conduct for their members and create awareness through publicized seminars and meetings to deliberate various aspects of ethics in marketing communication. A build up of ground swell will contribute significantly towards bringing about an attitudinal change in boardrooms and owner mindsets towards the necessity for ethics in marketing communication.

The members of the profession must therefore strive, individually and collectively to achieve a higher level of ethics in marketing communication. This by itself will go a long way towards increasing the level of credibility and respect for the profession, give it a bigger say in corporate matters and make it a more desirable area for entry by bright young professionals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appendices

Appendix A

AMA Statement of Ethics (2004)

October 3, 2006,

Available at: www.marketingpower.com/content435.php

ETHICAL NORMS AND VALUES FOR MARKETERS

Preamble

The American Marketing Association commits itself to promoting the highest standard of professional ethical norms and values for its members. Norms are established standards of conduct that are expected and maintained by society and/or professional organizations. Values represent the collective conception of what people find desirable, important and morally proper. Values serve as the criteria for evaluating the actions of others. Marketing practitioners must recognize that they not only serve their enterprises but also act as stewards of society in creating, facilitating and executing the efficient and effective transactions that are part of the greater economy. In this role, marketers should embrace the highest ethical norms of practicing professionals and the ethical values implied by their responsibility toward stakeholders (e.g., customers, employees, investors, channel members, regulators and the host community).

General Norms

Marketers must do no harm. This means doing work for which they are appropriately trained or experienced so that they can actively add value to their organizations and customers. It also means adhering to all applicable laws and regulations and embodying high ethical standards in the choices they make.

Marketers must foster trust in the marketing system. This means that products are appropriate for their intended and promoted uses. It requires that marketing communications about goods and services are not intentionally deceptive or misleading. It suggests building relationships that provide for the equitable adjustment and/or redress of customer grievances. It implies striving for good faith and fair dealing so as to contribute toward the efficacy of the exchange process.

Marketers must embrace, communicate and practice the fundamental ethical values that will improve consumer confidence in the integrity of the marketing exchange system. These basic values are intentionally aspirational and include honesty, responsibility, fairness, respect, openness and citizenship.

Ethical Values

Honesty— to be truthful and forthright in our dealings with customers and stakeholders.

We will tell the truth in all situations and at all times.
We will offer products of value that do what we claim in our communications.
We will stand behind our products if they fail to deliver their claimed benefits.
We will honor our explicit and implicit commitments and promises.

Responsibility—to accept the consequences of our marketing decisions and strategies.
We will make strenuous efforts to serve the needs of our customers.
We will avoid using coercion with all stakeholders.
We will acknowledge the social obligations to stakeholders that come with increased marketing and economic power.
We will recognize our special commitments to economically vulnerable segments of the market such as children, the elderly and others who may be substantially disadvantaged.

Fairness—to try to balance justly the needs of the buyer with the interests of the seller.
We will represent our products in a clear way in selling, advertising and other forms of communication; this includes the avoidance of false, misleading and deceptive promotion.
We will reject manipulations and sales tactics that harm customer trust.
We will not engage in price fixing, predatory pricing, price gouging or “bait-and-switch” tactics.
We will not knowingly participate in material conflicts of interest.

Respect—to acknowledge the basic human dignity of all stakeholders.

We will value individual differences even as we avoid stereotyping customers or depicting demographic groups (e.g., gender, race, sexual orientation) in a negative or dehumanizing way in our promotions.
We will listen to the needs of our customers and make all reasonable efforts to monitor and improve their satisfaction on an ongoing basis.
We will make a special effort to understand suppliers, intermediaries and distributors from other cultures.
We will appropriately acknowledge the contributions of others, such as consultants, employees and coworkers, to our marketing endeavors.
Openness—to create transparency in our marketing operations.

We will strive to communicate clearly with all our constituencies.
We will accept constructive criticism from our customers and other stakeholders.
We will explain significant product or service risks, component substitutions or other foreseeable eventualities that could affect customers or their perception of the purchase decision.
We will fully disclose list prices and terms of financing as well as available price deals and adjustments.

Citizenship—to fulfill the economic, legal, philanthropic and societal responsibilities that serve stakeholders in a strategic manner.

We will strive to protect the natural environment in the execution of marketing campaigns.
We will give back to the community through volunteerism and charitable donations.
We will work to contribute to the overall betterment of marketing and its reputation.
We will encourage supply chain members to ensure that trade is fair for all participants, including producers in developing countries.

Implementation

Finally, we recognize that every industry sector and marketing subdiscipline (e.g., marketing research, e-commerce, direct selling, direct marketing, advertising) has its own specific ethical issues that require policies and commentary. An array of such codes can be accessed through links on the AMA Web site. We encourage all such groups to develop and/or refine their industry and discipline-specific codes of ethics to supplement these general norms and values.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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