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Marketing | Ethical rules every marketer should follow

If you are interested in this topic, take a look at our University of Cape Town Marketing course.

Marketers and consumers are constantly in conflict – with so many brands and products competing for the same pool of consumer spend, marketers run the risk of overwhelming customers and acting unethically to promote their goods, alienating customers entirely.

Acting ethically is not the same as acting legally; it is quite possible to work within the letter of the law and still appear to be outside moral bounds. Marketing ethics are largely defined by the culture and industry that they exist in, but it is possible to identify general ethical principles that any marketer should adhere to.

1. Respect customer rights
With the arrival of the Consumer Protection Act, this rule has never been more pertinent in South Africa. Your customers have the legal and ethical rights to privacy, information, fair treatment and choice. Don’t phone your potential leads when they are relaxing at home in the evening, share their personal details without permission, or hide pertinent product information until after they have made a purchase.

2. No means no
If a customer states that they are not interested, or that they want to unsubscribe from your marketing messages, respect their choice. Never hassle someone who has clearly declined your product. If someone unsubscribes, don’t put them back on your mailing list in future (unless they ask to be added again).

3. Be honest
Dishonesty has many faces: providing misleading information, omitting important facts, deceiving customers about actual value or benefits, or simply lying. Always be clear, genuine and transparent in all your dealings with customers; your dishonesty will be found out in the end, so it’s never worth it.


4. Be responsible
Take responsibility for the products and services you market – never try to sell someone something you know they cannot afford, don’t need or can’t use. Inform potential buyers clearly if you think a product or service simply isn’t a good fit; you’ll end up with fewer unsatisfied and disgruntled customers.

5. Persuade, don’t manipulate
There is a considerable gulf between marketing through persuasion (using convincing information and language to entice customers) and manipulation (coercing, scaring or deceiving someone into buying something). Take extra special care when marketing to vulnerable groups like children, poor people or the elderly.

6. Respect media ethics
If you want to gain media exposure, or if a media outlet has published some information about you, respect the ethics that good media practitioners follow. Never send bribes or “gifts”, respect their rights to express fair opinions about you, and don’t try to hide advertising material in the content you submit.

7. Avoid stereotyping and offending
Marketers often try to shock or amuse to get the market’s attention – but be very careful that you don’t end up stereotyping or offending your customers. Treat your market with respect and dignity and remember that you are selling to people, not target groups. Creating offensive messages will create negative associations for your brand and anger or hurt your potential customers.

One of the best ways to make sure that your marketing stays ethical is simply to be genuinely enthusiastic about what you are promoting. That way, you won’t feel the need to mislead, harass or cheat your customers – your belief in the product will speak for itself.

This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution license. 

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