Ethical Issues in Cross-Cultural Marketing

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Context is everything – but should it be?

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Effective cross-cultural marketing requires an understanding, sensitivity and respect for alternative cultures, customs and beliefs. Failure to take these differences into consideration will not only render many marketing efforts ineffective or even counter-productive, but may also result in offending and alienating whole groups of people.

Ethics with regard to the business environment refers to rules of conduct that guide actions in the marketplace. These notions about right and wrong differ among individuals, organizations, and cultures. For example, some businesses believe it is acceptable to engage in any type of persuasive techniques even if it means giving the prospective customer false information, while others adhere to a policy of total honesty. Likewise, the acceptance of various levels of what some would classify as “bribery” in business transactions varies widely among cultures. Because each culture has its own set of values, beliefs and customs, ethical business behavior can be defined quite differently around the world.

Whether intentional or not, some marketers violate trust and/or principles of ethical behavior when engaging in product or service promotion. In some cases these actions may even be illegal in some areas – such as when a manufacturer deliberately mislabels the contents of a package or makes false claims about the qualities or benefits of a product. Another common, but questionable tactic is the bait-and-switch selling strategy where customers are lured by inexpensive products with the underlying intent of persuading them to switch to higher-priced goods.

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In other cases, marketing practices can have detrimental effects upon a society or group of people even though they are not explicitly illegal – e.g., erecting billboards or engaging in other types of marketing for alcohol and tobacco in low-income neighborhoods or to other vulnerable populations (e.g., Western products to less developed countries and less sophisticated consumers); sponsoring advertisements depicting certain groups of people in an unfavorable light.

These ethical issues are particularly volatile and controversial with respect to the marketing of potentially harmful products. Advocates of consumer protection charge that this behavior is unethical and exploitative. Conversely, proponents of unregulated marketing argue that restrictions upon promotion practices afford minorities and special populations a form of special protection which they deem “offensive, paternalistic and condescending” (Teinowitz, 1998, p. 16). Clearly, ethical issues in general are complex and contentious. However, they become even more divisive when cross-cultural issues are involved.

Reference

Teinowitz, I. (1998). Lawsuit: Menthol smokes illegally targeted to blacks. Advertising Age, 18.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY
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