Ethical Issues in Marketing Research

Marketing research benefits both the sponsoring company and its consumers. Through marketing research, companies learn more about consumers’ needs, resulting in more- satisfying products and services. However, the misuse of marketing research can also harm or annoy consumers. Two major public policy and ethic issues in marketing research are intrusions on consumer privacy and the misuse of research findings.

Consumer Privacy

The most important area of ethical marketing research is about consumers’ privacy. Many consumers feel positively about marketing research and believe that it serves a useful purpose. Some actually enjoy being interviewed and giving their opinions. However, some may very strongly resent or even mistrust marketing research. A few consumers fear that researchers might use sophisticated techniques to probe their deepest feelings and then use this knowledge to manipulate their buying. Or they worry that marketers are building huge data bases full of personal information about customers.

Other consumers may have been taken in by previous research surveys that actually turned out to be attempts to sell them something. Still other consumers confuse legitimate marketing research studies with telemarketing efforts and say ‘no’ before the interviewer can even begin. Most, however simply resent the intrusion. They dislike mail or telephone surveys that are too long or too personal or that interrupt them at inconvenient times. Increasing customer resentment has become a major problem for the research industry.

Any business that deals with consumers’ information has to take privacy issues seriously. Some companies view privacy as way to gain competitive advantage as something that leads consumers to choose one company over another. The best approach is for researchers to ask only for the information they need, to use it responsibly to provide value, and to avoid sharing information without customers’ permission.

Misuse of Research Data and Findings

Second important area of ethical marketing research is misuse of research data and findings. Research studies can be powerful persuasion tools; companies often use study results as claims in their advertising and promotion. Today, however, many research studies appear to be little more than vehicles for pitching the sponsor’s products. In fact, in some cases, the research surveys appear to have been designed just to produce the intended effect. Few advertisers openly rig their research designs or blatantly misrepresent the findings; most abuses tend to be subtle stretches. Subtle manipulations of the study’s sample or the choice or wording of questions can greatly affect the conclusions reached.

In other cases, so-called independent research studies are actually paid for by companies with an interest in the outcome. Small changes in the study assumptions or in how results are interpreted can subtly affect the direction of the results.

Recognizing that surveys can be abused, several associations in United States have developed codes of research ethics and standards of conduct. However, unethical or inappropriate actions cannot simply be regulated away. Each company must accept responsibility for policing the conduct and reporting of its own marketing research to protect consumers’ best interests and its own.

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