Ethics and Marketing Communication: Stereotyping, Targeting Vulnerable customer20th February 2021
Stereotype marketing ideologies might focus too much on one group and ignore another equally, or even more important. For example, target only kids for (non-PC) video games and lose access to millions of customers. Nearly a quarter of all video games are purchased by consumers aged 40 and older, and women make 38 percent of all video game sales.
The advertising world is inundated with with different types of stereotypes, ranging from gender and race to socioeconomic roles. Gender roles in commercials are especially prominent. Advertising often shapes cultural views and creates norms by introducing a product or service alongside an idea that makes that product desirable. In many cases, stereotypes are used simply because they are known to drive results for the company behind the advertisement. In other cases, stereotypes are used for legal reasons or to create an advertisement that is neutral and least likely to offend. Stereotypes can offer a safe solution for the advertiser in some cases, but increasing scrutiny can also lead to gender and cultural groups delivering negative feedback based on some common stereotypes in ads. Stereotypes in advertising are a sensitive subject, and they can deliver positive or negative results for the advertiser. Ultimately, stereotypes are judged on context; advertisers must proceed with caution when exploring messaging.
Stereotyping, by definition, is the oversimplification of something that is more complex than it’s portrayed. In most cases, stereotypes apply to things or people, and they are excessively common in advertising. In reality, people are complex and cannot be defined by single role. In advertising, labels are commonly used to portray an individual or group of people in a very specific light. Gender stereotypes are among the most common in advertising. Pay attention to advertisements for cleaning supplies and you are likely to see a female playing the lead role. The “housewife” gender role that was common in the 1950s is still being displayed in many modern advertisements.
Common examples of stereotyping in marketing include gender roles, racial stereotypes and stereotypes involving children. The way groups of people are portrayed in an advertisement does not always fully represent reality. Cause-based advertising does exist, but there is also a gap in this market. Some companies approach cause-based advertising with genuine intent to breakdown stereotypes while supporting a cause, while others capitalize on a movement simply to capture the audience. This disingenuous approach often draws heavy criticism and takes advantage of the grassroots work within the movement.
A lighthearted ad can often get away with common stereotypes without much in the way of negative consequences, but advertisements tackling socially sensitive subject matter in their campaigns can easily offend different genders and cultural groups through stereotypes. Common stereotypes include the housewife, the single African American friend in a group of Caucasians, the white businessman, blonde hair and blue-eyed girl, the suburban white family, etc. There are no shortages of stereotypes in society and they are present in the world of advertising.
Brands approach each advertising campaign with a specific goal in mind. They have a budget and expect to see a return on that investment through an increase in sales. If it’s not profitable, the brand has no reason to advertise. Stereotypes play into the equation because the brand or advertising agency responsible for the campaign is speaking to a specific demographic. The brand for a cleaning product like a vacuum may have a historic profile of their previous customers. They can generate an audience profile and target demographic based on historic appeal. When the brand knows the primary audience and decision maker for a new vacuum purchase is a female between the ages of 25 and 50, it will cater to that audience. The stereotype becomes appealing at that point because it represents the customer base, despite the fact that a percentage of that customer base is also males in their early 30s or retired couples in their 60s. Ultimately, the stereotype for the audience with the most buying power will win out. In the specific housewife scenario for a vacuum cleaner, the stereotype risks alienating a large portion of a modern audience because it implies that the role for women is in the house with the responsibilities of cleaning and cooking. That gender role is ever-evolving, and many modern campaigns still misrepresent a large portion of the population.
Stereotypes aside, brands remain focused on advertising campaigns that sell products or services. It ultimately comes down to a message they are delivering to their audience to drive sales. If the group of people represented in the stereotype wants to see a change in the messaging, the brand is most likely to change when the buying power shifts away from that brand. Shopping strategically and buying from brands that represent a diverse population of people in a positive manner is the only way to effectively change the way stereotypes are used in advertising.
The role of digital advertising and the ability for new brands to launch quickly is also changing the use of stereotypes in advertising. A micro-climate exists in which brands can focus on a really tight niche and audience. With an ultra-focused niche, stereotypes are avoidable, because the audience is really well defined and the brand is selling a very specific product or small group of products.
Children are often portrayed as cute and happy in advertising. Unlike gender and racial stereotypes, kids are often portrayed in a way that appeals to their parents, the decision makers. Products and services are positioned to solve a problem for the parents. For example, a diaper that changes colors when wet does not necessarily appeal to the child but it does solve a problem for the parent. The child in the advertisement will often have a smile and broad appeal. The perfect family with a happy child and dog in a suburban house is a common stereotype used to target the middle class in general.
More important than how children are portrayed in advertising is the effect of stereotypes in advertising as seen through the lens of a child. Children see advertising on billboards, television, online and in print, and they hear radio advertisements. They are learning stereotypes through these mediums and have no way to really avoid viewing advertising with bias and stereotypes. Advertising crosses their paths intentionally in some scenarios like commercial breaks on a cartoon network, and unintentionally when family members are watching television and adult-targeted ads are displayed.
Word of Mouth
Customers can be your best or worst source of advertising. Word of mouth referrals, especially in the age of the Internet, should not be undervalued. And, since consumers are more likely to complain than to compliment, it pays to have customer-friendly and trustworthy complaint resolution practices in place.
Targeting Vulnerable customer
The vulnerable customer groups include children, elderly, certain minorities, and religious groups. These customers may be influenced comparatively more easily as they have either less knowledge about these practices or they are vulnerable in terms of their minority or religion. Children have always been important marketing target for certain kind of products. However, in recent times more and more marketing efforts are being focused on children. Children have great influencing power while making any purchase decision. But, generally, their knowledge is less developed and limited about the products, media, advertisements, and the selling strategies adopted by the firms. Due to these reasons, they are more likely to be attracted to the strong images projected towards them and the psychological appeals directed towards them.
Ethical questions arise in such environment when children are exposed to questionable practices e.g. advertisements attracting them towards products which are potentially harmful like alcohol and tobacco. The advent of Internet and direct marketing practices to market the products to children has become a major ethical issue in today’s environment. There are very less, almost negligible, controls which can supervise the content which goes over the web sites. The marketers can present objectionable and misleading material to the minors without any regulation. Due to all these issues, there is increasing need to control the content being presented to children. It requires higher levels of regulations for marketing to children.
Major ethical problems in international marketing are as follows:
Small- or large-scale bribery: Bribery is mostly considered to be an unethical practice. However, in some countries it may be acceptable to get some work done or speed up the process.
Gifts/Favors/Entertainment: These include items like gifts, personal travels etc. which may be intended to get some job done. However, it may be considered just as a gift in some cultures, it may also be considered as being a source of influence in other cultures.
Pricing: The ethical issues regarding this include unfair price differentials, pricing to eliminate local competition by selling products at prices which are well below those in-home country, or adopting pricing practices which are illegal in-home country but are legal in host country like price fixing arrangements and forming cartels.
Products/Technology: This may involve ethical issue of selling the product/service which is banned in home country but not in the host country or which is inappropriate or unsuitable for people in host country to use.
Questionable commissions to Channel partners: This may include unethical practices like paying unreasonably high commissions to channel partners like dealers, distributors, sales personnel etc. to carry the products of this firm and restricting the products of competing firms.
Involvement in political affairs: This includes the issues of exertion of political influence by multinationals, or indulging in marketing practices in countries which are at war with the home country.
Cultural differences: There may be potential misunderstandings as some practices may be considered as right in one culture and immoral or even illegal in another.
Consumer Choice vs. Consumer Protection: Consumers should be given alternatives to choose from as per the consumer choice concept. Consumer protection says that the consumer should be protected from abuse. Consumers may not always choose the product which is good for them. This is especially true for consumers like children, elderly or poverty-stricken. Target marketing to such vulnerable consumers is an example where these two goals diverge. Target marketing is a core concept of marketing. However, when it involves vulnerable consumer segment, it may attract criticism. This raises a question that the product is serving the distinct needs of the segment or taking advantage of their vulnerability.
Consumer Satisfaction vs. Revenue Growth: Firms should increase their profits and they should also focus on delivering satisfaction to their customers. Most of the times these two objectives can go hand-in-hand. However, sometimes these objectives diverge because fulfilling the requirements and obligations of current customers may come in way of incremental revenue generation. E.g. If a firm discovers a fault in its product, should it recall it, offer free or discounted replacement or use the same resources for further revenue generation. If a recall is not done it may cause reduction in customer satisfaction. There have been several instances in which companies have forsaken their revenues for customer satisfaction. The latest example in this can be taken from Honda recalling almost 7 lakh Jazz and City cars globally due to a defect. However, there have also been the cases where companies chose not to act even after detecting the defect and the customers have suffered due to this.
Customer Participation vs. Total System Efficiency: As per the marketing theory, entire marketing process from product development to communication and distribution should be made as efficient as possible. It also says that the consumers should participate in the process. However, to gain more efficiency, the processes require standardization which may not be quite engaging for the customers.
Customer Welfare vs. Price Discrimination: In industries having high fixed costs and expiring capacities, like airlines, hotels etc., price discrimination is very important to maintain profitability. In such cases, the firms should try to capture the consumer surplus by exercising price discrimination. On the other hand, the firm should also contribute to consumer welfare and price discrimination is believed to reduce this consumer welfare as it results in increased price dispersion for the products/services.
Ethical issues such as predatory pricing occur due to this reason. Predatory pricing initially offers lower prices to the customers, but subsequently it leads to reduced innovation, variety and increased prices. Selling branded goods at price premium is also considered as being an ethical issue due to this particular reason.
Employee Satisfaction vs. Short-Term Profit: Employee satisfaction has often been related to customer satisfaction which in turn leads to the success of an organization. If the organization maintains conditions such as ethical climate in the organization, then it may lead to improved employee satisfaction and service quality. However, this may come in conflict with the profit goal of the organization to maintain its competitive advantage. This may lead to situations where companies take advantage of their employees, avoid safety and health standards and go against labor unionization. There have been cases when companies have put the health and safety of their employees just in order to maintain their profits and earnings.
Collaborative Supplier Relationships vs. Short-Term Cost Control: Longer term relationships with suppliers enhance the firm’s results. The smaller the number of suppliers, i.e. the more collaboration a company has with its suppliers, the better the results of a firm are. However, the mass merchandisers take so much margin out of small suppliers that the small suppliers are forced to leave the business.