Marketing ethics is an area that deals with the moral principles behind marketing. Ethics in marketing applies to different spheres such as in advertising, promotion, pricing. However, for purposes of this essay, the ethics of advertisements will be dealt with especially in relation to children. (Mohandeep, 2001))
Many marketers and analysts have agreed that children are marketer’s best friend. This is backed up by evidence from watch groups such as Media Channel. In the year 2007, they highlighted the fact that in the United States, close to two billion dollars was spent on advertisements to children. It was also revealed that children greatly affect the commodities their parents buy. Estimates done in this field show that projects tailored for children in the year 2006 totalled fifty two billion dollars. (McGee and Heubusch, 1997)
Regardless of all this potential returns that children can give manufacturers and their marketers, there are key ethical issues that arise in the discussion. For example, do children have the capability of understanding some of the intricate marketing tactics? Do children posses the final buying power? Do marketers need to get permission from their parents? And do children understand the negative effects of some of the products advertised to them? These key questions will be analysed in relation to business pressures then recommendations will be made.
Key ethical issues in marketing to children
Involving psychologists in market research
Some companies have become notorious for the utilisation of psychologists in their advertising and marketing campaigns. Normally what such companies do is that when trying to create marketing strategy, they will involve psychologist to tell them about tactics that they can use to influence children. Since psychologists understand the way child’s mind works, they can help marketers create campaigns that will be directly aimed at them and those ones that can easily influence their choices. This trend has becoming so alarming that the American Psychological Association has raised an alarm about it. They have set up a committee to estimate the effect that the involvement of psychologists in the marketing process of children’s products has on them. The group has asserted that no psychological principles should be used when marketing to children. They are also recommending that there should be some sort of strategy to protect the young ones from exploitation though the use of psychological ploys. (Beder, 1998)
The basic framework which steers marketing ethics revolves around three main issues. These are;
Marketing ethics that are done on a value inclined framework are those one that involve the analysis of the kind of value that the marketing idea creates. So advertisements may instil in their target audiences positive or negative attributes. This all depends on their implementation. For example, an advertising targeting a child may become a problem if it violates the right to privacy, transparency, honesty or autonomy. By using psychologists in the process of creating advertisements for children, marketers are imposing upon children’s right to autonomy and transparency. They try studying children’s behavioural trends and then use this to exploit those children. This is quite unethical.
The process oriented framework in marketing ethics is founded on the basis of analysing marketing ethics through the categories that marketers use. For example research, promotion and placement must be done in an ethical manner. This is something that marketers have chosen to ignore because their research is not done in an ethical manner. Their research involves using psychological experts who may use their knowledge to take advantage of children who belong to vulnerable groups (Lizabeth, 2001)
Targeting children alone
Marketers who create marketing campaigns that are just directed towards children only are engaging in unethical marketing practices. This is because children are naive. They are at a stage of development called proximal development. At this stage, children simply take up elements of what they perceive in the world around them and then use it in various aspects of their lives. There is a certain level of trust that children have over and above than one of adults. They lack the ability to weigh arguments in a sober and even sometimes a cynical way. Consequently, this makes them very vulnerable to exploitation. (Murphy et al, 2004)
Examples of advertisements that are directed towards children alone are those ones that have cartoon characters and are seen as specifically meant for children. At that point, children will feel like they are the only ones with the ability of purchasing the item yet it is their parents who have to foot the bill. Unethical advertisements are those ones that do not involve getting consent from parents. Most of the time such advertisements are usually aired in the afternoon during kid’s programming sessions. They usually create desires in children to have those advertisements at all costs. When advertising is done without parental consent; that is when children are watching shows on their own then it become unethical. Children are too young to realise the manipulations that are going on through television or media advertisements. They also do not realise the financial pressures that come with the purchase of items. It would therefore be unethical for marketers to leave parents out of their marketing strategies. Normally, ethical advertisements are those ones that require children to get their parents involved in the marketing place. This can be achieved by stating it directly in the advertisement. It can also be achieved by limiting some children’s products in parental magazines or targeting families in general instead of just children. (Waymack, 2000)
Advertisements targeting children alone have shown their effects in a number of ways. In the year 2007, it was found that about fifty eight percent of all the items purchased by children (through their allowances) are sweets and toys were the next highest items to be purchased by children. This took up a whooping thirty percent. Toys and candy are all items that are advertised directly children hence the staggering statistics. (Davidson, 2002)
Advertising to children alone brings out very fundamental ethical issue. It highlights the power analysis issue in marketing. Any form of marketing that claims to be ethical must adhere to the power balance principle. The scales must not be tipped towards the consumer neither should they favour the marketer either. When marketers target vulnerable markets, they tend to make the situation favour them. This is what is called caveat emptor in marketing. It is an unfair scenario and is also exploitative in nature. (McGee and Heubusch, 1997)
Types of products, manner of advertisements and other qualities can indicate whether or not an advertisement is targeting children. It should be noted that there are certain elements that if conducted by marketers may be deemed unethical for example, when an advertisement is made in such a manner as to imply that it is meant for children. Some elements to watch out for are;
These are all elements that are meant to draw on children’s attention. Besides this, there may be certain activities expected to captivate children such a drawing, then those advertisements may be meant for them. Besides that, some advertisements may have characters that are designed for that demographic group. Sometimes some advertisements may be placed in publications that are usually read by children alone. They may also be placed in areas that have children. (Murphy et al, 2004)
All these features can be deemed unethical if they will be seen or heard by children exclusively, For example, if the advertisement is placed in a publication that is read by children alone then this is unethical because there is not parental consent there or if it is broadcast at times when children could be watching without parental consent. (Lizabeth, 2001)
Sometimes the kind of content in the advertisements matters too. Advertisements that are created in such ways as to make children feel less about themselves if they lack that product may be deemed unethical. Also advertisements that will promote harmful products to children are also unethical. For example, there were certain toys from China that had an excess of chemical elements and exposed certain risks to children who were playing with them. If advertisements posses those characteristics, then they may be considered unethical.
The issue of marketing itself has two main components. The first group is made up of the abolitionists and the second are the libertarians. The abolitionists believe that all advertising to children is wrong and that it should be completely eliminated. But this is something that is unrealistic and cannot be feasible in today’s fast paced and commercial world. The other extreme is held by the liberalists who believe that advertisements to children should be left as they are. They insist that society shapes advertisements and that advertisements do not change moral values. But this is denying the obvious. The fact that children in the UK and even in other parts of the world spend the largest portion of their leisure time watching television implies that they will pick up some of the habits depicted on their screens. (Waymack, 2000)
In light of the above facts, it is important to come up with a compromise on the issue through taking up responsible marketing. Children can still be considered as a target audience for marketing of retail products, however, this should be conducted in such a responsible and socially sustainable manner.
There are three main alternatives available for marketers targeting children and these are;
- viewing children as docile consumers
- viewing children as non- consumers
- viewing children as informed consumers
Choosing the non-consumer part would not be very market friendly because as it has been seen from earlier parts of the essay; children have substantial levels of buyer power. It is would therefore be uneconomical not to tap this very valuable market resource. On the other hand, viewing children as docile consumers causes a lot of ethical controversies that have been raised earlier. Consequently, the most sustainable form of marketing should be viewing children as informed consumers. Marketers need to advertise and market their products in such a way that there will still be room for them in the future. This will be effectively achieved by informing children about marketing ideas. This will enlighten them and give them a very valuable asset; choice. (McGee and Heubusch, 1997)
Informing children about the intricacies of marketing at an early age will go a long way in ensuring that children can understand the fundamentals of the commercial world. It will mean that children’s naivety will not be taken advantage of and that they will have the power to decide for themselves whether or not products are good for them. The ethical issues that have been brought forward stem from the fact that children are too young to understand the main reasons behind marketing displays. Informing them about this will drastically reduce those ethical concerns and will at the same time still allow marketers to go about marketing their products. (Beder, 1998)
It should be noted that some countries like Sweden have argued that children can understand the effects of commercial marketing after reaching the age of twelve; some have suggested four and others ten. They claim that at that point, be it 4, 10, or 12, children can understand the commercial world and the exploitation tendencies that their worlds present them. Consequently, human rights groups claim that marketers should not target children that fall below that group. But that debate can be eliminated if children below those established ages are made aware of the commercial world.
This is something that is already in place, but still needs more emphasis. Advertisements should not be aired during children’s programming as they are likely to be unsupervised at that point. Governments should institute statutory regulations on television advertisements. Advertisements should also be edited such that they do not seem to appeal to the child directly. They should be made in such a way that they will involve the parent or family. (Mohandeep, 2001))
Advertisements to children have sparked off lot of controversy resulting in various reactions in various countries. However, experts agree that unethical marketing occurs when advertisements are directly aimed at children without getting consent from parents. Organisations can go about this issue through regulating their content, changing their times and embarking on a consumer education to make their young audiences aware. (Waymack, 2000)
Beder, S. (1998): Marketing to Children, University of Wollongong Journal
Lizabeth E. (2001): Marketing With A Conscience: Sales and Ethics; Journal for the US Dept. of State
Mohandeep S. (2001): Ethics in Marketing; Encyclopedia of Business and Finance
Davidson, D. (2002): The Moral Dimension of Marketing; South-Western Educational Journal
Murphy, P. et al (2004): Ethical Marketing; Prentice Hall
Waymack, M. (2000): The ethics of selectively marketing the Health Maintenance Organization, Journal of Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, Issue 8, Volume 11, Pages 301-309
McGee, T. and Heubusch, K. (1997): Getting Inside Kids’ Heads; American Demographics, Vol. 19, No. 1