The role of ethics in modern marketing practices | Sunday Observer

The role of ethics in modern marketing practices

14 May, 2021

The Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court Potter Stewart once said, “Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have the right to do and what is right to do.” Ethics are a collection of sincere moral principles an organisation practices when engaged in business. Marketing ethics are being practiced by organisations by intentionally applying standards of fairness and honesty.  

In a market economy, as that exists in Sri Lanka, businesses are expected to act in the best interest of their sustainability and growth. Therefore, to create a competitive advantage, marketing strategies are being used. The purpose is to make the customers aware that the company is doing better than its competitors in satisfying the needs of the clientele. 

Successful commercial organisations focus on adhering to ethical values rather than simply providing products or services for two key reasons. Primarily, it is tested and proven that when organisations behave ethically in the market, customers develop a positive impression toward the organisation, its products, or services. 

On the other hand, ignoring ethical standards can lead to mistrust, dissatisfaction, unfavorable publicity, and so forth. Hence, most commercial organisations treat marketing ethics as an extremely sensitive area in their respective businesses. 

Second, ethical misbehaviour leads to social pressure with greater demands on social responsibility. Professional associations and other consumer interest groups can exert influence on customers that can be damaging to the goodwill of a business. Hence, apart from the moral obligations, organisations are compelled to conform to the guidelines and related laws of regulatory authorities on consumer protection.  

Successful organisations look at ethical marketing practices not only as a policy but also as a philosophy.  This includes everything from advertising campaigns to the final delivery of goods or services, to be honest, and trustworthy. The intention is to build a strong relationship with the clientele with a set of shared values. Organisations with an ethical marketing approach usually base their decisions on business strategies with an emphasis on moral values and obligations.  


Unfair and deceptive practices, not only in marketing but also in other functions of the business, can influence customers to abandon the products and the company. Deception can take a form of misrepresentation, omission, and bad practice can take place in any element of the marketing mix. 

With the availability of a vast amount of information that can be accessed easily, the modern customers are knowledgeable and the probability of finding out an unethical practice by an organisation is high.  It is also common around the world that customers are often skeptical of marketing claims or selling messages. Often they look at those messages with some mistrust. Thus, if the message is deceptive or misleading, customers go elsewhere for their needs.  

The use of offensive material in events, television programs, promotional material, or publications can create strong negative reactions in the market.  For example, if a television advertisement appears challenging cultural values, customs, or traditions, such advertisement can be perceived as offensive, and the possibility of rejection can be elevated in the well-informed Sri Lankan market. 

When people feel that the appeals are offensive and threatening to the values they believe in, they can move out of products and move in with competitors. For example, television channels break for advertisements during programs every fifteen minutes to announce the time. This is completely offensive to many viewers. Particularly, when this happens in the middle of an appealing program, a negative reaction about the advertiser and the product is inevitable. Nevertheless, marketers continue to stick to this unethical practice.  

Being transparent whenever a product is released to the market is an exceedingly important function in ethical marketing practices. With the introduction of e-commerce, thousands of online marketers appeared in the marketplace. It is a big question whether these online stores offer adequate information about the products they sell online. Many customers have fallen victims to this mushroom online racket where they have received the wrong product after making payments through online payment gateways. 


Goods are marketed to satisfy customers in their literal sense. Therefore, committing to sustainability and protecting the rights of  customers is part of ethical marketing. Being honest in providing correct information without exaggeration is identified as a good marketing practice. Often customers come across products in the market with inadequate information on ingredients, composition, or components. 

Products are seen in the market with false comparisons with inaccurate and misleading claims about competitor’s products. In this writer’s opinion, with over forty years of experience in selling, it is a cinch that whether such statements are true or false, it can leave a bad imprint in the customer›s mind. Therefore, marketers should be extremely careful when they compare their products with those of their competitors. Comparison is a dangerous game and must be done only if it is unavoidable.  

There are many products, particularly related to skincare and beauty products, without any scientific evidence to back up on quality and chemical composition. Products marketed for skin whitening are an example of a popular and fast-selling product with unverified claims. Now and then, news reports appear in the media where users have undergone adverse results after using such products. This is not only unethical but also a blatant violation of human privileges.   

Organisations create strategies to obtain emotional reactions from customers as one of the most effective ways to create interest in a product. However, exploiting emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness in an unethical manner is bad practice. Generating response is important only when it is done without manipulating customers.  

Bad habits

An important marketing segment for certain products is children. In Sri Lanka, there are no regulatory authorities to monitor unethical marketing or advertising practices.  Whilst, some products target their marketing campaigns with a direct emphasis on children, some others address parents for certain product lines. For example, infant milk powder campaigns concentrate on parents whilst candy or fast food campaigns are directed at children as the target segment. 

Children are more susceptible to psychological influence and strong creative messages. Therefore, they are often exposed to questionable tactics if practiced with unethical strategies. Using children in unethical advertising is taking place in Sri Lanka. For example, a television advertisement showing a child licking fingers after taking food (finger licking is considered a bad habit in Sri Lankan society) can lead other children to follow the bad habit. This is identified as challenging the good cultural practices instilled for generations in Sri Lanka.  

No living soul in the world likes to be misled, cheated, or deceived. If an unscrupulous marketer tries this practice, sooner or later, customers get to know that they had been taken for a ride. In this context, the marketer’s message can be varied from slightly exaggerated statements to blatant lies and everything in between. This is unethical marketing and it never succeeds in the long run.   

Therefore, business entities must be aware of what they communicate to customers. If their strategies and practices are not sincere and unethical, customers may walk out. Customers can create more damage to the business, product, or brand if they talk to others about the negative acts. 

In this internet era, a Facebook post or a distasteful comment about the company or the product can go viral and generate a devastating chain reaction. Unethical marketing messages can destroy the reputation of a business instantly. Therefore, the key component is to be transparent and practice good ethics that have moral values.