The Top 10 Ethical Issues for Marketers in 2024

Stay ahead of the curve in ethical marketing practice with this comprehensive guide from TrinityP3 to the top ethical issues facing the industry and how to navigate them with integrity.

What is ethical marketing and why does it matter?

Here is what Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, has to say about ethics in marketing and business in general:

“What really defines ‘success’ in today’s business world? Is it just about growth, profits and market dominance? Or is it about what good we do for our people and the planet? Should we aim for profit or to be prophets?”

The marketing function is as much about business success and profit as any other business function, if not more so. But Marc Benioff has long been at the head of a global trend towards more ethical behaviour from businesses, and marketing leaders need to be aware of the issues that this raises for their day-to-day activities. Ethical marketing is something that is here for the long term. Although many would argue that ethics have always been an important behaviour guide, marketing leaders now need to understand the issues that it raises and work within consistent guidelines.

There is no universal code to work to, and many issues must be considered. Broadly speaking, ethics in marketing refers to the practice of conducting marketing activities in a manner that aligns with moral principles, societal values, and legal standards. It involves the promotion of transparency, honesty, fairness, and social responsibility throughout the entire marketing process. This is doubly relevant for marketers because it not only contributes to the overall trust and credibility of the business, but also upholds the well-being and rights of consumers – whose rights and interests marketers are responsible for representing within the organisation.

Ultimately, ethical marketing ensures that businesses act as responsible corporate citizens, positively impacting communities, society and the planet. In the absence of a formal code, here are what we at TrinityP3 see as the Top 10 ethical issues in marketing and their day-to-day impact on marketing behaviour.

1. AI and automation

As AI and automation play a growing role in marketing, marketers should ensure their use is transparent and ethical.

Primarily, marketers should seek to avoid discriminatory practices and biases arising from the indiscriminate use of AI algorithms. There is an onus to promote fairness and equal opportunities consistently, and you need to remember that transparency, accountability, and consumer privacy protection might be threatened if there is a lack of human oversight of AI-driven brand activity. For example, monitoring and addressing any unintended consequences arising from automated systems, most obviously through unintentional misinformation, is important.

2. Cultural sensitivity

As the world becomes more interconnected, marketers must be mindful of cultural differences and avoid offensive or insensitive marketing messages.

Cultural sensitivity in marketing entails understanding and respecting different cultures’ values, beliefs, customs and preferences and tailoring marketing strategies accordingly. Recognizing unique cultural nuances and avoiding stereotypes or cultural appropriation can help to build more genuine connections with audiences. It helps to demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inclusion in an increasingly multicultural world.

3. Data ethics

Marketers should be transparent about the data they collect from consumers and ensure that it is used ethically and securely.

Adhering to data ethics principles means (amongst other legal requirements) obtaining informed consent from consumers, providing clear opt-out options, and safeguarding data against breaches or any form of exploitation. It also involves using data analytics responsibly, avoiding discriminatory targeting or profiling, and ensuring the security and anonymity of personal information.

4. Environmental sustainability

With growing environmental concerns, marketers need to consider the impact of their products and marketing practices on the planet.

Environmental sustainability specifically in marketing, involves adopting practices that minimize the negative impact of marketing activities on the planet. This should ideally include policies to reduce carbon emissions (which needs to include those from indirectly controlled suppliers such as media owners); the promotion of eco-friendly products and services, and advocacy of responsible consumption. Good sustainable marketing practices entail incorporating sustainable materials, packaging, and manufacturing processes and encouraging recycling and waste reduction throughout the product lifecycle. Aligning marketing efforts with environmental values helps to ensure that businesses contribute to the preservation of the environment and has the additional benefit of helping to enhance brand reputation with increasing numbers of customers and other stakeholders.

5. Fair pricing

Marketers should avoid using pricing practices that discriminate against certain groups of consumers.

A fair pricing policy should involve setting reasonable, justifiable, and aligned with the value provided to customers. This entails avoiding price discrimination based on factors such as race or gender and ensuring that pricing strategies do not exploit vulnerable or disadvantaged individuals. Businesses committed to fair pricing use open communication about pricing structures and avoid deceptive pricing tactics.

6. Influencer marketing

With the rise of influencer marketing, marketers should ensure that influencers are transparent about their relationships with brands and disclose any sponsored content.

Marketers need to be careful about the selection of influencers. Find those who align with your brand’s values and target audience, and ensure their content is genuine and truthful. Responsible influencer marketing also involves transparency in disclosing sponsored partnerships clearly and prominently. It also emphasises the importance of promoting responsible messaging and avoiding promoting harmful or unethical products.

7. Misleading advertising

As has always been the case in marketing, ethical marketing stresses avoiding false or exaggerated claims that could mislead consumers. All advertising claims must be accurate, supported by evidence, and not exaggerated. So, of course, you should thoroughly research and fact-check information before making any claims to avoid creating any false expectations.

Using unambiguous language helps accurately represent the features, the benefits and the performance of the product or service. Providing sufficient disclosures (such as fine print or disclaimers) when necessary is also important to prevent any potential misinterpretations. Don’t forget to regularly review and update advertising materials to align with changing circumstances.

8. Privacy concerns

With the increase in high-profile data breaches and the use of personal information for marketing purposes, consumers are becoming more aware of their privacy rights.

Maintaining consumer privacy in marketing is fundamental to ethical and responsible practices. Respecting consumer privacy entails safeguarding personal information collected during marketing activities and ensuring secure storage and usage. Marketers should be transparent about the data they collect, why, and how it will be used. It is important to obtain explicit consent from individuals before collecting and utilizing their personal data. Marketing teams should consider implementing robust data protection measures, such as encryption and secure databases, which help to prevent unauthorized access or breaches. Other points of ethical behaviour concerning customer data include refraining from sharing or selling it to third parties without explicit consent; regularly updating privacy policies; providing accessible opt-out mechanisms; and promptly addressing consumer inquiries and concerns about data privacy.

9. Social responsibility

There is little doubt that consumers are increasingly looking for brands that align with their values and contribute to social causes.

Social responsibility in marketing encompasses the ethical obligation of businesses to consider the broader impact of their marketing activities on society. It involves integrating social and environmental considerations into marketing strategies to promote positive change and to address societal issues.

Socially responsible marketing practices also include the fundamental good practice of avoiding misleading or deceptive advertising. Marketers could also consider the role of their products or services in benefiting society (not just their role in fulfilling individual customer needs); engaging in cause-related marketing initiatives; supporting diversity and inclusion; treating employees and suppliers fairly; and minimizing the environmental footprint of marketing activities. It’s a growing list that needs constant review to help create a more sustainable and equitable future.

10. Targeting vulnerable populations

Marketers should avoid targeting vulnerable populations, such as children or the elderly, with marketing messages that could be harmful or exploitative.

Targeting vulnerable populations can lead to unfair and potentially harmful outcomes, such as encouraging excessive consumption, promoting unhealthy behaviours, or creating financial strain. So marketers must consider consumer well-being, respect boundaries, and ensure that their advertising provides accurate and helpful information.

So how can businesses ensure that their marketing practices are ethical?

The key to monitoring the effectiveness of ethical marketing practices is through the measurement of results.

As a priority, businesses should establish a robust ethical framework guiding marketing decisions and actions. This framework needs to align with the values identified earlier in this article and enable the marketing team to review all activity in the context of ethical marketing before it goes live.

Once it has run, actual performance in the marketplace can be monitored through customer reaction and feedback and through regular research on its impact against pre-identified criteria. Marketing leaders must stay aware that it is easy for attention to move elsewhere driven by other business imperatives, so measures must be taken to ensure the focus is maintained. For example, an objective retrospective review of marketing activity run on a monthly or quarterly regular basis where findings are shared with the marketing team and with agencies and suppliers involved in the work.

How can TrinityP3 help?

The TrinityP3 team is experienced in advising on all aspects of ethical marketing. Ultimately, no two businesses or marketing organisations are alike; each has its own requirements and imperatives for its marketing programmes. It’s important to take the principles we have described here and apply them to specific client situations, their infrastructures and markets.

Please contact us to explore the issues identified here in more depth.