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Are Marketers Responsible for the Use of Harmful Products in Society? sample essay

Mattel Toys is currently in the process of withdrawing millions of toys released in the market following disclosures that the toys have substantially high elements of lead in their paint. Excess lead can be harmful if ingested by children and can cause mental retardation, a fact that senior managers at Mattel would have been well aware of. With the blame game on and Mattel managers assuming the role of well intentioned victims of callous suppliers, consumers can do little but wait for the next big scandal.

The Mattel incident is just another sordid episode in the history of marketers being responsible for the use of harmful products in society. Whilst many people consider ethical marketing to be an oxymoron, there also exists a body of thinkers who feel that marketers contribute to social and economic development, are largely ethical and sell products that fulfil customer needs and are of use to society. The issue, while discussed at great length by business experts, social researchers and marketing academics remains topical and an issue that is far from resolution.

The concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) enjoins business firms to consider social and community interests by taking responsibility for the effect of their actions on customers, shareholders, the community, and the environment in all areas of work. This concept extends beyond the scope of existing legislation and encompasses voluntary actions to ensure well being and improvement of quality of life of all stakeholders and the community at large. Milton Friedman, as is well known, had something very different to say.

In his words, “In a free economy, there is one and only one social responsibility of business … to use its resources … to increase its profits … as long as it stays within the rules of the game”’ (Lantos, 2001, p 603) Friedman goes on to emphasise “few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundation of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.

This is a fundamentally subversive doctrine” (Anderson, 1989, p. 3) Friedman is not alone in such thoughts and there appear to be a number of experts who share such views. Donaldson, for example states that corporate executives who do not seek profits above all else are irresponsible in performing their functions. (Mascarenhas, 1995, p 46)Even while CSR is becoming a common enough flourish on corporate websites, many corporations, as is evidenced by the Mattel case still firmly believe in Friedman’s wisdom..

Whilst the protection and furtherance of customer interest is obviously among the foremost objectives of the CSR strategy of business corporations, corporate history is studded with scandals involving company wrongdoing in areas of marketing, finance, tax evasion, environmental degradation, and community activity. CSR tenets demand firms to sell products that are, in the first instance, safe and non injurious to consumers, the immediate community, the society at large and the environment, regardless of profitability considerations or perceived customer value.

Notwithstanding the current obsession with CSR (evidenced among other things by the growing Fair Trade movement), history makes a strong case for its consistent and widespread denial by marketers and is replete with instances of companies not only introducing harmful goods in the market but also making strenuous efforts to ensure its widespread use and proliferation.

Marketing has, during the past few decades become the most critical function of the modern day corporation. Even as the constant practice of marketing strategy has led to the enormous expansion of businesses, a number of ethical issues have manifested themselves in western nations, first as general concerns, and later as clear enunciations by various experts. Most of these issues relate to the introduction and propagation of products that harm and disempower consumers and communities. Marketing activity, according to these experts, can be damaging to the personal choice and autonomy of the buyer, manipulative of social values, and deceptive in its message.

In an article on “Is there more to Ethical Marketing than Marketing Ethics” Michel Brennan (1991, p 10) argues that the ultimate goal in a commercial venture is some sort of profit achievement. The needs and wants of consumers as well as the wider concerns for their impact on society become relevant only to the extent of their effect on the profitability of the organisation. With marketers following this approach many inequities have crept into the practice of marketing.

It is particularly seen to be biased against minorities like gays and ethnic groups, guilty of unethical practices against the elderly, who are targeted with products related to time shares, and living trusts, exploitative of children, who are influenced at impressionable stages to consume unhealthy food and drinks, and buy undesirable fashion ware, derogatory towards women, who are used to elicit judgements on sexuality rather than product attributes, and cynically manipulative of the developing world, which is made the dumping ground for unnecessary, and often harmful, goods.

George Ritzer, in his celebrated book “The McDonaldization of Society”, (1993, p 37) illustrates in graphic detail the all pervasive and malevolent impact that mass marketing can have on humankind. Ritzer argues that McDonaldization refers to a process wherein the principles of the fast-food industry, namely efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control through technology are applied to numerous sectors of society on a global basis.

This process, while being immensely profitable to businesses, has the potential to cause great harm to society. In McDonald’s, customers entering fast food outlets are manipulated to pay for their food items before tasting them, collect their orders from common distribution points, choose from a restricted and unimaginative range of unhealthy and high calorie foods, sit on uncomfortable chairs, (thus being urged to gobble their food and vacate their places fast enough), and put their trays into the garbage on their way out.

Similar practices, with the help of mass advertising and focussed promotions, have enveloped and controlled society in numerous ways. A recent study on confectionery retailing and merchandising by revealed that merchandising decisions were driven more by issues like space maximisation, profitability and customer pressure rather than by social responsibility. (Piacentinin, MacFadyen and Eadie 2000, p 463)

The role of advertising in marketing has also come under severe attack by critics who feel that several harmful values like conspicuous consumption, greed, envy, emulation and self-centredness, to name a few, get reinforced by advertising. Whilst reactions like these do carry elements of self righteous extremism, the argument that advertising can be more restrained and less blatantly aggressive in promoting consumption, particularly for products that appear to be harmful to vulnerable segments of society, is also valid.

Developments in technology, consumer response and behaviour, and marketing thought have led to the introduction of a number of variables that have altered both the practice of marketing and its perception in the eyes of practitioners, theoreticians and students. Progress in communication and internet technology has created a proliferation of information and provided consumers with an array of choices. Not all of these developments have been positive. Computer and electronic communication technology have made it possible for large organisations to capture and store personal and some times very private data, on huge scales, thus leading to intrusions into the personal space and security of individuals.

Recent trends in the west have reflected the emergence of a different line of thinking, namely postmodernism, in most areas of human thought and endeavour. Whilst modern marketing thought, exemplified by the McDonaldized society, follows extols the superiority of mechanised working, as well as extreme standardisation, and works on the achievement of progressive debasement of humans post modernism bewilders with its plurality of currents and styles, characterised by the juxtaposition of opposing thoughts.

In marketing situations, the emergence of post modernism is reflected by the fragmentation of society, the rise of individuals, greater awareness in marketers of their ethical responsibilities and the development of movements like that of Fair Trade. The concept of QOL (Quality of Life) marketing is also rapidly gaining ground. QOL concepts broadly require marketers to enhance customer well being and satisfaction without harming either the community or the various stakeholders. (Sirgy, and Dong-Jin, 1996, p22) QOL, by its very scope, is applicable to many marketing decisions and especially to the selling of harmful products.

While post modernist thinkers like Stephen Brown have been vehement in their criticism of modern marketing thought, especially on the irrelevance of mass marketing in an increasingly fragmented and more informed society, the larger corporate response favours staying with accepted marketing dictum and, of late, tweaking the marketing mix to include ethical concerns.

Thus whilst there is an appreciation of the changed environment, its demands are yet to be addressed sufficiently in the absence of concretised strategies that can be applied to maintain and wrest competitive advantage. Intensive research will no doubt provide strategies that can cope with the changed realities in the marketplace and enable marketing to work towards social good.

In summation it would appear that while the movement to bring in ethics into the marketing of products is gaining headway much work still needs to be done and marketers need to internalise the tenets of corporate social responsibility in their working attitudes. CSR objectives would be very well served if marketers, even as they strive for competitive advantage and business profits also take care to observe time held values like honesty and exactitude, gratitude, justice, and protection of the health and safety of others.


Brennan, M, 1991, Is there more to ethical marketing than marketing ethics, Marketing Bulletin, Vol. 2, Pgs 8 to 17

Mascarenhas, OAJ. 1995, ‘Exonerating unethical marketing executive behaviours: A diagnostic framework’, Journal of Marketing, Vol.59, No.2, 43-57.

Lantos, GP. 2001, ‘The boundaries of strategic corporate responsibility’, Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol.18, No.7, 595-630

Nantel, J, 1996, Marketing ethics, Is there more to it than the utilitarian approach?, European Journal of Marketing, Vol.30, No. 5, Pgs 9 to 19

Piacentinin, M, MacFadyen, L., & Eadie, D. 2000, ‘Corporate social responsibility in food retailing’, International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 28, No.11, 459-469.

Ritzer, G, 1993, The McDonaldization of Society, Pine Forge Press; Revised edition (September 1995)

Sirgy, MJ. & Dong-Jin, L. 1996, ‘Setting socially responsible marketing objectives: A quality-of-life approach’, European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 30, No. 5, 20-34.

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