Ethical Challenges of Social Marketing
George G. Brenkert
Social marketing was developed more than three decades ago to combat social problems such as overpopulation, drug abuse, mistreatment of woman, use of tobacco products, and behaviors that increase the chances of heart disease. As a form of marketing, social marketing faces several recognized moral problems, including manipulation, dishonesty, fairness, and intrusiveness. However, in contrast to commercial marketing, social marketing faces another set of ethical problems quite different from these common ethical problems. It is the ethical problems that are specific to social marketing on which this article focuses.
First, the ends that social marketing promotes in resolving social problems cannot be justified in the same manner in which the ends of commercial marketing are justified. Instead of appealing to the fulfillment of the wants and needs of the people they target, social marketers must develop an objective theory of social welfare that justifies those ends. As such, social marketing focuses on welfare exchanges, in contrast to the market exchanges on which commercial marketing focuses. If social marketers are to respect the people they target, transparency should be a prime value for social marketers. In seeking to change the behavior of people with social problems, social marketers must be candid about the ends sought, the evidence that links those ends to the welfare of the people targeted, the means used to bring about those ends, and the sources of funding.
Second, social marketing’s analysis of social problems may unwittingly substitute a marketing rationale of self-centered benefits and the effectiveness of marketing appeals for relevant rationales involving other-regarding reasons and ethical reasoning. Furthermore, segmenting social problems may have the consequence that social marketers do not focus on the background and structural features that underlie the social problems they attack. Accordingly, social marketers must be wary that they can only offer temporary solutions, which may not significantly affect the underlying problems.
Third, using marketing techniques may have the consequence of not giving those whose behavior is to be changed a rights-based voice in matters of significant concern to them. Therefore, social marketers must address the effects of social marketing on self-determination and democracy. Social marketers must consider the implications for the loyalty, gratitude, and commitment of people whose problems are resolved through private, rather than public, undertakings. This may lead to a greater impoverishment of the public realm.
In drawing attention to these special ethical issues, the author does not question the integrity or goodwill of people engaged in social marketing. Instead, the author describes a special set of ethical challenges for social marketing and affirms the need for the ethical justification of social marketing actions with regard to them. Social marketing is to be viewed not as a neutral, technical enterprise but as a form of social activism. This is part of the recognition of the ethical nature of social marketing. Directly addressing the special ethical challenges identified in this article should be part of the further development of social marketing.
George G. Brenkert is Professor of Business Ethics, McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University, where he is also Director of the Georgetown Business Ethics Institute. He is Editor-in-Chief of Business Ethics Quarterly and a member of the Executive Committee of the Society for Business Ethics. He specializes in the areas of ethics, business ethics, and social and political philosophy. He has published a book titled Political Freedom, as well as several articles in such journals as Public Affairs Quarterly, Philosophy & Public Affairs, Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, Business Ethics Quarterly, Journal of Business Ethics, and Business & Professional Ethics Journal. Among his current research projects are a book on marketing ethics and an article on ethical issues related to corruption as faced by multinational businesses and developing countries. He earned a B.A. from Colgate University and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from University of Michigan.