Is Target Marketing Ethical?

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Marketing to specific groups of consumers, or target marketing, is one of the most important concepts in marketing.

Marketers, through the ages, have identified who their customers are, and directed their efforts at influencing their buying decisions. That is their job.

In the last 30 years though, marketers have begun to identify potential buyers based on a number of factors, that make many people uncomfortable. Marketers now direct promotions at those of certain age groups, gender, race, marital status, gender preferences, and just about any other category you can place people in.

This makes many consumers and consumer advocates question the ethicality of these promotions:

Is it fair to direct ads at children when they do not have the understanding and/or capability to judge what is being presented to them?

Is it fair to target ads at elderly, living on fixed incomes, with products that they may not be able to afford?

Should companies be allowed to develop products that are specifically targeted at ethnic groups?

My answer to each of these questions, except the first one, would definitely be, Yes.

Why should a company be restricted from marketing a product to an independent, rationally thinking, adult?

Don’t I, as an adult, have the ability to determine for myself, with some exceptions, what I want to buy?

Now, if there are issues of mental incapacity we have a whole separate issue to address.

But, assuming that the consumer is able to make their own decisions; shouldn’t I as a marketer be able to present information that will help the consumer decide that my product is what they want?

Is targeting of minorities exploitative? Yes, it certainly is. But, so is almost every other kind of marketing. You are trying to exploit a need, a want and definitely a gap in a market that maybe has not been addressed.

Prior to the 1960’s most marketing ignored ethnic minority groups and concentrated on the vast buying power of larger demographic groups. An opportunity existed for companies to address a market, with significant buying power, that had not been addressed before. Is that inherently wrong? That is the way marketing works: Find a gap, develop a plan to address the gap, and then market to that gap. That is sound business practice. If companies do not take advantage of their opportunities they will fail.

Now, none of what I have said above gives companies a free license to do whatever they want, especially when it comes to my one, very absolute exception: Marketing to children and those who cannot be held accountable for their actions. Even as an adult, if I am not capable of making a choice as to the soundness of a buying decision, then I should not be subjected to marketing that may have unreasonable influence over me; And children are certainly not capable of making that decision. However, as an adult parent, I must assume some of the responsibility for buying products that are marketed to children. I must educate my children about what is right and what is wrong; what is a want versus what is a need; what is affordable versus what is not.

Companies who choose to direct their marketing efforts at specific market segments have a responsibility to consider the ethical implications of what they are doing. Socially responsible marketing calls for target marketing that serves not only the company’s interests, but also the interests of those targeted and the public in general.

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