Around 1970s-1980s many have focused on marketing ethics, there has been a flow of activity by marketers and scholars who have tried to evaluate the nature and role of it, coming up with ethical philosophies, directions, normative guides and advises for making marketing behavior more ethical (Carrigan, Marinova and Szmigin, 2005). The following paragraphs of this section are intended to describe why this focus emerged and some of the factors that enabled unethical marketing communications.
As Kliatchko (2009) states, given the extensive research and study about marketing contribution made by Wilkie and Moore in 1999, it was found that the rise of the ethical concern was due to the current issues and criticisms about marketing communications. Some of the major issues at the time- that might be still present today to a lesser extend-, were the promotion of materialism, enforcement of stereotypes, targeting vulnerable groups like children, intrusive and deceptive advertising, racism, advertising controversial products, etc. To illustrate, some of the criticisms were made to companies like Kellogg’s who provided false information about the benefits of the cereal and in some occasions created stereotypes around women (see appendix B as an example), Schlitz beer with the controversial tagline “Don’t worry darling, you didn’t burn the beer” , Abercrombie & Fitch which in 2006 communicated it did not want ‘fat’ or ‘not so cool’ people wearing the brand, Camel’s cigarettes which was accused of false advertising in 1948 by using fake “doctor endorsements” manipulating science to support its product, and even more recent, Volkswagen who between 2009 and 2015 sold cars supported by a marketing campaign announcing its cars’ low emotions but in fact cheated pollution emissions governmental test, among others.
Now, why did this happen? What do these communications had in common? By analyzing some of the major changes in the world such as the transition from traditional media to digital media and the fact that people have become less verbal and more visual, we may find some insights. Marketing communications used to be delivered only by traditional media, TV, radio, magazines, newspapers; a push mass model that transferred content to consumers whether they have asked for it or not, a one-way model that did not allow consumers to interact, participate or provide any feedback, and that was mainly profit-driven, besides, most of these marketing communications were reinforced visually which led to an “image economy” as Schroeder and Borgerson (2005) describe it. Serving as stimuli or representations, images in marketing communication play both, a pedagogical role and a persuasive role; they hold the power to affect what people think and how they respond to the world, and they can help to develop certain attitudes towards products consumers have not even tried by creating a sense of familiarity, in the case of cigarettes for instance, visual representations of beautiful and charming people showing no signs of addiction or health issues can sustain a positive vision of smoking (Schroeder and Borgerson, 2005). Thus, the most common ethical issue companies have been facing have to do with creating honest and socially responsive communications, within the traditional communication model, it was enough for companies to send a message intended to attract consumers and generate profits, most of the times the organizational culture within the companies also encouraged and supported unethical actions, however, things have changed and is now their responsibility to follow and measure the impact their communications may have on consumers, companies are called to address in an ethical way the concerns their ‘images’ (corporate image, product image, brand image, etc.) evoke.