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Businesses possess a variety of responsibilities that require balancing to protect the interest of different stakeholders. These stakeholders include owners (shareholders), customers, management, and employees among others. Current marketing concepts look at the functions of marketing in the society. Ethical interrogatives in the marketing of branded products for children and youths emanate from the argument that they experience challenges while assessing the information provided to them as the foundation of making safe decisions.
Disagreements exist on the ethical marketing practices for branded products that target children and youths. Safety, fitness of use, elimination of conflicts of interest, misguiding and deceptive marketing strategies, and observance of integrity by avoiding product misrepresentation comprise the major issues in the debate. Such misunderstandings develop based on the different ethical schools of thought. The current paper deploys utilitarian, natural law, and Machiavellian ethical perspectives in advancing the debate on ethical marketing while targeting the youth and children audience.
The utilitarian philosophical school of thought claims that all conducts of people within organisations or in the larger society must ensure an optimal gain to the larger number of people. All marketing efforts must then ensure that the target audience gains the greatest good from the products, whether they are for the youths, children, or adults. According to Simon (2007, p. 128), ethical matters in marketing comprise the ‘principles and standards that define the acceptable conduct in the market place’. This definition implies that ethical marketing constitutes all practices, which have the capacity to result in the greatest happiness among all people.
Some of the marketing practices that are hypothetically considered unethical entail attempts, which are openly meant to deceive and take advantage of a given situation for individualistic or group gains. Different nations have ethical rules and regulations to control the marketing of branded products that target children and the youths. This inclusion highlights the significance of considering marketing ethics from the perspectives of the natural law. This paper critically evaluates the marketing of branded products that are aimed at children and young people with reference to the utilitarian ethical perspectives, natural law (deontology), and Machiavellians’ viewpoints.
Managing Expectations, Perceptions, and Evaluations
When making marketing decisions, a myriad of issues are considered such as customer expectations and perceptions. These issues call for thorough decisions in terms of the products that are offered in the market for sale, the place for sale, pricing, and even the promotion and evaluation techniques. In this processes, ethical issues in marketing are crucial in every stage of promotion planning strategy (Menon1999). From the dimension of consumers, considering consumer ethics influences the marketing efforts for branded products that target the youths and children. Any marketing effort must deliver value to them.
For instance, in case of the fast-food industry, it is unethical to market a product claiming that it is a healthy food while it comprises additional calories that have the capacity to interfere with consumers’ health. Any attempt to solicit consumers to purchase products with the intentions of deceiving them in terms of abnormal pricing or through selling poor quality products is considered an unethical act of marketing (Caldwell & Karri 2005).
In marketing, when attempting to place a new product as part of consumer ethics, an organisation must evaluate the capacity of the new products to meet the need of the esteemed consumers. The claim here is that goods and services that are offered for sale must deliver utmost good to consumers. The manner of products or service representation is another important aspect of marketing moral codes. It affects the marketing of branded products that are meant for youths and children. In this regard, Yelkur (2000) asserts that ethical marketing seeks to determine whether factual together with honest representation of the product is executed in a manner that is consistent with social values and cultural framework. In marketing, this claim means that the need to incorporate customer ethics calls for the designing of socially responsible marketing strategies.
Marketing efforts for branded products are mainly focused on the market segments that are likely to have the largest sales volume (Kotler 2009). This perhaps makes the move to target children and youths immensely attractive due to the size of this market segments. While designing marketing positioning strategies, marketers of branded products look for strategies that easily woo people into buying (Rust, Zeithaml & Lemon 2008). The main interrogative that arises in marketing decision-making processes is how to engineer marketing strategies to ensure compliance with moral and ethical responsibilities of an organisation to the stakeholders who include customers. Utilitarian, natural law (deontology), and Machiavellian ethical perspectives may perhaps help answer this interrogative.
The Utilitarian Ethical Perspective
Bentham Jeremy developed the utilitarian ethical perspective in the 18th century. Later, Stuart Mill refined it. It postulates that people need to look far beyond their individualist gains and interests in an effort to enhance utmost good for all people who are likely to be affected by their actions (Ketz 2006). In the context of marketing ethics, it emphasises the significance of evaluating marketing decisions to ensure that they do not harm parties who are subject to the consequences of the made decisions. In this sense, when marketing branded products that are meant for youths and children consumption, considering the consequences of the marketing advertisements on the general good of the target audience in terms of its health remains incredibly important, especially where an organisation operates in an industry whose products receive criticism for degrading consumer health.
The utilitarian ethical perspective is perhaps more important while marketing branded products to a target audience, which can be easily lured into buying without considering the implications of its decisions. The responsibility for ensuring that the products consumed by children and youths are healthy and/or can deliver utmost good in their lives falls in the hands of manufacturers and the product marketers.
Caldwell, Hayes, and Long (2010) assert that young people and children usually lack the experience and critical sense when making purchasing decisions. From a utilitarian perspective, marketers have an ethical responsibility to consider this susceptibility when targeting them (young people and children) with branded products. The capacity of a marketing strategy that targets youths and children to deliver benefits to the wider number of people who comprise the target segments relies on the examination of the possible harms that are likely to affect the larger portion of the target segment.
Harm in the marketing of branded products that target the youths and children may emanate from lack of clarity or disguise in the communication of the value of the product. Hawkes (2007) supports this assertion by adding that the communication of branded products that are directed to the youths and children require the possession of utmost transparency together with straightforwardness. For instance, a commercial advertisement that displays youths as ones who possess immense energy in sporting after consuming a given product compared to those who have not consumed it, yet the product has negative effects on consumers’ health, is inappropriate. Targets made to children and youths should have the ability to distinguish products through the provision of undisguised information (Gerry, Kevan & Whittington 2005). This claim highlights the importance of simplifying marketing communication to make information easier to decode.
Perhaps the most ethical action in the marketing of branded products that are meant for youths and children consumption entails adopting marketing strategies, which clearly reflect the purpose of advertising. When marketing to adults, this purpose entails attracting mass appeal for a product to induce high sales levels (Kotler 2009). This claim suggests that products may not have actual utility levels as portrayed in the marketing advertisements over media. The advertisement is designed as such to enhance competitive advantage of an organisation in comparison with its competitors through high sales levels as an indicator of profitability.
The utilitarian ethical perspective maintains that the best way of determining the appropriateness of an action is through an examination of the benefits and costs. By so doing, it becomes possible to determine the actions that are right or wrong. Brenkert (2010, p. 705) supports this claim by asserting, ‘utilitarian principle holds that an action is right if, and only if, the sum of utilities produced by that action is greater than the sum of utilities from any other possible act’. This underlines the principle of ‘Act Utilitarian’. The principle states that people need to select an action from a set of possible actions that result in overall good for the largest number of people (Ketz 2006).
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In this sense, the only branded products that require promotion to youths and children are the ones whose utilities correspond genuinely and precisely with the content of the marketing information. Such marketing and promotional advertisements should not be deceptive, misguiding, and/or developed to boost sales volumes of organisations while exploiting youths and children.
Organisations serve the interests of different stakeholders. They must deliver products and services that have the highest utilities to customers, which cannot harm them. However, investors of organisations that manufacture branded products that are meant for children and youth consumption also need to benefit from increased returns on their investments. This claim implies that high sales volumes are important for higher profitability levels. Consequently, using utilitarian ethical perspectives in evaluating the appropriate procedure of marketing branded products that aim at the youths and children may translate into suboptimal good for the minority.
In fact, ensuring benefits to all stakeholders or organisations that manufacture branded products for youths and children requires compliance with fundamental rights. Hence, it is crucial to balance the benefits and harms among all stakeholders while at the same time developing marketing decisions for such organisations. This goal can be realised by deploying the deontological school of thought while marketing children and youth branded products.
Deontological Ethical Perspective
Alternatively referred as rule-and-duty or natural law, the deontological school of thought is associated with Immanuel Kant. It reveals that having intention to comply with the right set of rule and guidelines stands out as a better mechanism of determining the appropriate course of action, as opposed to overreliance on achieving the most desired impacts (Ketz 2006). Under the guidance of the deontological ethical perspectives, marketers for branded products that target children and youths contend that ethical actions emanate from executing one’s duty that is defined by rationality in the evaluation of the action. With reference to Kant’s arguments, duties are universal and owed to all people (Simon 2007). This suggests that a marketer needs to universalise his or her marketing actions to ensure equality among all stakeholders.
As revealed before, children and youths lack experience and critical sense while arriving at buying decisions. Thus, unclear representation of information about a product in a manner that requires critical analysis to determine its usefulness in the context of one’s need is inappropriate. However, it is equally important to note that markets must place a large number of products in the marketplace to increase the profitability of their organisations. Profitability is important to deliver optimal benefits to owners (shareholders) (Armstrong 2001). These concerns open the moral dilemma of whether marketers of branded products need to design promotional strategies in a manner that is clear and reflective of the actual utility of products without exaggerations, even though such utility may result in attracting few youths and children buyers.
Although marketers may attain large volumes of sales by misrepresentation, such an act may be unethical from a deontological school of thought. Kant held that people have a collective duty to treat other people equally. Therefore, an ethical and morally justified action is the one, which is propelled by perspectives of the obligation to engage in an act simply not to foster the realisation of individualised interests (Ketz 2006, p.165). This suggests that while marketing branded products that are meant for children and youths, the main concern should be engaging in actions that are just and beneficial to all people who are affected by them to enhance their equality. While making a decision on whether to misrepresent product information to win the attention of youths and children who are incapable to see through advertisements, consideration of the reversibility of the decision becomes incredibly important.
Reversibility requires taking an assumption that the marketer is one of the youths or children who are likely to be affected by branded products that are sold to them. In case the marketers rationally evaluate the marketing or advertising strategy and find that it will lure him or her into buying without any critical evaluation of the implications of the strategy while assuming the position of the youths or children, such marketing strategies are unethical. Universalising actions to determine their ethicalness while making marketing decisions preludes the principle of doing what the marketer expects another party in the same position as a marketer to do. In this sense, amid the existence of ethical guidelines and laws to regulate ethical marketing of branded products in different nations, following the deontological perspectives will ensure that marketers segregate marketing actions, which are ethical and those that are unethical when targeting children and youths with branded products.
In the light of the above suppositions and considering the principle of reversibility as developed by deontological ethical perspectives, markets need to consider any marketing strategy for branded products that are meant for consumption by children. They need to filter any strategy that takes advantage of children’s loyalty and susceptibility to accomplish unethical acts. The strategies should also not encourage deviant behaviours such as violence, drug and substance abuse, or over indulgence in spending (Dohnt & Tiggemann 2006). In this context, marketing should not have any implication of harming young consumers morally, physically, and mentally.
Logical and rational evaluations of marketing strategies from the perspective of its designer may also reveal that the designer cannot also want to consume the product, which harms him or her morally, mentally, and physically. In this context, it is inappropriate to display children in unsafe or dangerous environments in making advertisement for branded products. This case may create an impression that product utility is best realised when consumed in such an environment. Similar reasoning may also apply in designing marketing strategies for products that are likely to translate into violation of social values such as increasing the impression that the use of products places youths or children at a better psychological, physical, or even social position compared to their peers (Hawkes 2007, p.318).
Machiavellian Ethical Perspective
Marketing involves manipulation of people’s decision-making processes to favour a given product. This necessity highlights the importance of evaluating the marketing of branded products to children and youths from the Machiavellian perspective. Singhapakdi (2003, p. 407) asserts that Machiavellianism constitutes personality orientation that can be defined as ‘person’s general strategy for dealing with people, especially the degree to which he or she feels other people can be manipulated in interpersonal situations’. The ethical perspective originated from Machiavelli’s works, namely The Prince and The Discourses.
Singhapakdi (2003) confirms that the trend in the interpretation of the works from marketing perspectives has been labelling Machiavellianism as a negative epithet that suggests immoral mechanisms of manipulating people to achieve self-centric goals and objectives. Nevertheless, Cheung and Scherling (1997) hold an interpretation that seeking to equate Machiavellianism with deception and/or dishonesty is highly undesirable. This claim perhaps makes more sense in the approaches of marketing branded products for youths and children by noting that Machiavellians possess cool detachments. They have no emotional involvement in sensitive issues that touch on other people.
The goal of Machiavellians is to achieve a certain goal without necessarily getting emotionally involved with the outcomes of their acts on another party. Thus, ethical decisions are realised following Machiavellian perspectives subject to the existence of organisational influential factors such as values, Knowledge, and attitudes (Jones & Paulhus 2009). Hence, decisions are ethical if they do not violate these factors, which interact with individuals who make marketing decisions for the appropriate marketing strategies.
Therefore, the noble role of determining ethical marketing strategies for branded products for youths and children falls in the capacity of an organisation to establish a culture that influences marketers to comply with certain ethical perspectives. For instance, organisations need to be wary of the design of marketing strategies for various products that are meant for children and youth consumption if they intent to achieve their ethical goals and objectives.
Marketing calls for a large number of people to work together in a teamwork environment. During this activity, people who market branded products follow codes of actions while defining what needs to be done and/or what should not be done during marketing. Although it is important for marketers of branded products to place their products with success in the market, it is a violation of marketing codes of ethics to deceive in the attempt to make a sale. From utilitarian perspectives, deception may lead to denial of utmost good for the largest number of people who consume an organisation’s products and services.
From a Machiavellian perspective, while marketing branded products for youths and children, any strategy that leads to increased sales is ethical. Machiavellian marketers must be manipulative and influential to increase sales volumes for youths and children’s branded products. However, establishment of values and attitudes in an organisation to foster compliance with the guidelines that establish the goals and objectives of Machiavellian marketers is important.
This allows such marketers to deploy their manipulative powers to enhance consumption of products by first directing the attention of children on the implications of the products that are likely to harm them as it may be determined by utilitarian and natural law ethical perspectives. If the organisational culture encourages markets to engineer marketing strategies that encourage higher consumptions without the provision of guidelines and rules to foster ethical conduct, situations that are considered unethical from the utilitarian perspective may emanate. However, they are valid under the Machiavellian perspective.
Marketing of branded products for youths and children attracts conflicts of interest, especially on the content of the advertisement. One characteristic of a good advertisement is its capacity to influence the target audience to buy products. However, an advertisement should not misrepresent the utility of the product since such a situation may amount to deception. Compliance with these ethical aspects in the design of marketing and promotional strategies is more important when marketing products that are designed for youths and children consumption. Children and youths are easily susceptible to the influence of marketing when it comes to their consumption of a given product since they lack the ability to evaluate marketing communications in an effort to garner more information about to the utility of the product.
From the perspective of the natural law, marketers should put themselves in the position of youths and children who are targeted by marketing communications. In this capacity, they can evaluate the implications of their marketing efforts to them by considering that the youths as the designers of the marketing campaigns while they (marketers) assume the position of the consumers. If the marketing strategies lure them into consuming products with inferior qualities or misrepresented outcomes after their consumption, such marketing strategies are universally unethical. From a utilitarian perspective, the strategies cannot deliver maximum gain to the larger number of people. However, challenges emerge in the utilisation of this approach of determining the ethicalness of marketing branded products that are aimed at children and youths.
Marketers must push a large number of products to the market to ensure an optimal gain to the shareholders of the organisation that manufactures the products. In an attempt to ensure the optimal gain to the consumers of the branded products (children and the youths), applying the utilitarian ethical perspective in determining ethical marketing decisions may result in suboptimal gain to the minority interest groups. Blending different theories in making such decisions becomes important to ensure the balance of harms and benefits among various stakeholders.
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