Marketing is purposeful communication which depends utterly on trust. Trust is a valuable, precious commodity that has to be earned and maintained. Marketers can—and must—work to earn the trust of partners, businesses, and customers by employing sound, ethical business practices. On first blush, this seems to be simple. However, as the playing field of marketing continues to transform in the wake of ever-evolving technological platforms and tools, simply defining those ethical business practices has become a daunting challenge—and a matter of law.
Ethical actions in the traditional one-to-many context have been studied at length by the marketing industry. We are able to ascertain with relative ease the line between persuasion and manipulation in that context given our experience and familiarity with practices that have been found to cross that line and the resultant rectifying measures that have been put into place. It is no longer okay, for example, for pharmaceutical companies to advertise medications to the public without concomitant disclosures regarding side-effects and the need to consult with medical professionals about their use. And, tricks that can be pulled with technology such as use of subliminal flashing images or text in advertisements have long been identified and disallowed in traditional media.
In online social, digital, and virtual interactions, however, the mechanics of communication are brand-new and rapidly changing. Because of this, in our attention to the manner and modes of potential ethical abuse, we simply don’t have the advantage of a reliance on history for guidance. The ethical responsibly falls on marketing innovators and associations like WOMMA to serve a critical evaluation function and to sponsor a rich dialogue regarding the ethics to these new mechanics. In this era, marketers have the ability like never before to target consumers individually. If brands want to reach the next generation of consumers they’re going to have to reach them on their terms and in the environments in which those consumers are comfortable. At the same time, the public has become vastly more attuned to (and turned-off by) blatant and insensitive attempts to “market to” them on their home turf—Facebook pages and the like. Marketers must be wary not to poison these valuable communication channels. As such, the existence of clear ethical guidelines and an organization to assist in their enforcement is unquestionably critical to the ongoing success of the marketing industry at large.
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