What is ethical internet marketing? Laura RoganIntroductionWhile the development of the internet as a marketing vehicle has expanded significantly since theadvent of the internet, there are many ethical issues that continue to develop without any clearguidelines as to what is acceptable internet marketing behavior from an ethical perspective. As a resultof the advanced speed with which changes online occur; at a speed that is unprecedented in history, asa society, we have had little time to absorb the significance of these changes for our lives (Palmer,2005). Thus, online techniques are transforming the nature of the relationship between marketers andconsumers (Palmer, 2005). This paper contends to determine whether the concept of ‘ethical internetmarketing’ actually exists, whether online advertising practices can be clearly defined as ethical andunethical or whether an expanding ‘grey’ area lies between ethical and unethical internet marketingpractices.This will be done firstly by defining the concept of ethical marketing generally, as well as what is meantby ‘online’ internet marketing, as well as ‘offline’ marketing. Secondly, it will compare and contrastoffline marketing ethical issues versus online marketing ethical issues to determine whether any newethical issues exist, or whether the degree of existing ethical issues with offline marketing has simplyincreased or been magnified with online marketing. Finally, the paper will examine whether it is possibleto overcome any gap that exists in the current landscape or do changes need to be made: will the ethicalframework required for the internet evolve naturally with the fast paced environment of the internet,are we waiting for the ethical framework to eventually ‘catch-up’ or are government intervention andregulations required?TheoryEthics can be defined generally as a means of systemizing how individuals should live in a manner ofgoodwill towards each other by conceptualizing what is right and what is wrong (Kraut, 2010).Marketing or advertising ethics can be more specifically defined as “what is right or good in the conductof the advertising function. It is concerned with questions of what ought to be done, not with whatlegally must be done” (Cunninghan, 1999). However, this is a definition of ethics in the context oftraditional advertising and marketing practices that was published over 10 years ago when the internet,and its marketing potential and capabilities, were in their infancy. It can be argued that there is currentlya gap in the literature for a specific definition for advertising or marketing ethics in the context of theinternet, rather traditional definitions are currently being applied to the internet context, and whetherthis is appropriate. Therefore, the terms ‘online’ and offline’ marketing will be explained in order todistinguish between the different applications of this definition. For the purpose of this paper, ‘online’marketing shall refer to all marketing and advertising practices conducted via the internet; be theydirectly through company websites, blogs, viral marketing, email or pop-up advertisements or indirectlythrough passive devices such as adware, cookies, spyware and web bugs. ‘Offline’ marketing shall bedefined as all marketing and advertising practices conducted by any other means apart from theinternet; whether they are traditional means (newspaper, radio or television advertising) or non-traditional means (product placement, guerilla advertising, celebrity endorsement or direct marketing).
What is ethical internet marketing? Laura RoganDiscussionThough the advent of new technology has enabled new media to explode (Drumwright and Murphy,2009), this has been done through augmenting traditional mass media advertising approaches with non-traditional approaches. While there have been many changes with the arrival of new technology in themarketing world, there are many similarities that exist. While Huang (2009) argues that the internetallows advertisers to disguise advertisements online as other forms of messages so that consumers arenot aware they are being advertised to; which is reiterated by Turow et al (2008) who state “consumersare more vulnerable with respect to online marketing than they are traditional marketing channels”,Milne et al (2009) explain that “the fact that marketers have found stealth ways to communicate withconsumers is not new, however, the online context creates new possibilities to interact with consumersin a non-transparent manner”. This paper argues that both perspectives are correct to an extent;however a distinction needs to be made between the marketing capabilities and techniques that theonline environment provides and the regulation (or lack thereof) that controls its content and practices.Capabilities and techniquesIt is evident that there are many marketing techniques that remain consistent across both the onlineand offline marketing environments. As Drumwright and Murphy (2009) explain many of the concernsand criticisms of advertising have persisted through many decades and into the twenty first century.Practices seen to be ethically questionable such as product placement, celebrity endorsement,disguising advertisements as news stories, feeding the media info using PR, bribing journalists andguerilla advertising techniques can be seen in different forms across both in both online and offlinecontexts, supporting Drumwright and Murphy’s argument that many of these strategies are not moreethical offline than they are online, however while these issues may remain consistent in kind,Drumwright and Murphy claim that ‘new’ issues in business and advertising ethics differ in degree ratherthan kind.This can be illustrated when looking at the ethical issues of transparency and security. There arenumerous offline practices that can be considered ethically questionable in terms of transparency.Covert marketing, which involves making efforts not directly linked to the marketer by the consumer(Kaikati and Kaikati, 2004) is a tactic that originally began with product placements (Balasubramanian,1994). Beginning in the 1930s, Proctor & Gamble broadcasted on the radio its "soap operas" featuringits soap powders. Also, television and film were used by the tobacco companies to lend glamour and the"right attitude" to smoking (Williams et al, 2011). Furthermore, celebrity endorsements in an offlinesetting can be seen by consumers as marketers not being transparent. “When an advertisement doesnot look like an advertisement, consumers can easily be misled” (Feinman, 2011). By the late 1930s,celebrity endorsements were widespread among the stars of the screen, radio and stage, for exampleGeneral Mills used photos of athletes on Wheaties boxes to sell products (Feinman, 2011). When wecompare this to practices online, such as the “surreptitious” used by companies to gather consumerinformation by posing as customers and users on online blogs, forums an chat rooms (Milne et al, 2009)it may be argued that consumer trust has been broken equally in both settings: the message presentedis not that of the messenger, when the consumer is lead to believe that it is. “The internet is more
What is ethical internet marketing? Laura Roganaffordable than any other medium and makes it difficult for audiences to verify the real identitiesbehind the messages” (Grazioli and Jarvenpaa, 2003 as cited in Huang, 2009). This was illustrated byWal-Mart (Gillin, 2006 as cited in Huang, 2009), one of the biggest merchandising companies in theUnited States, that was making use of the virtual environment and persuading bloggers to write positivearticles about the company whilst on a road trip by paying for the flights, the RV, gas, and the blogentries, without that information being disclosed on the blog itself. The same ethical issue is present inboth the online and offline contexts, however it can be argued the degree to which the onlineenvironment in unethical is greater due to the fact it is reaching a larger audience and information isdisseminated more quickly, but mainly due to the increased level of anonymity that the internet brings,as well as the lack of disclosure it requires. When we compare this to other online techniques, such ascovert cookie collection (Miyazaki, 2008), it can be argued that lack of transparency in this setting hasmore far reaching consequences due to the type of information that can be obtained. While marketersmay contend that “advertisers argue profiling [users] results in greater efficiency, because consumersare only sent ads that interest them” (Stead and Gilbert, 2001), many would consider the trust that hasbeen broken in this setting to be far worse as individuals would not be comfortable with certainconfidential information being collected and compromised without their permission, particularly as“currently, there are no legal limits on how cookies are used” (Stead and Gilbert, 2001). As Palmer(2005) states “what we are finding is that businesses now have fundamentally new ways of interactingwith consumers that raise serious and largely new questions for our understanding of…[marketing]ethics”. With matters of information and security it is evident that the degree of the effect andtherefore the degree to which the technique moves towards being unethical is far greater, as a result of“the temptations [being] greater, and the risks and rewards are higher” (Drumwright and Murphy,2009).RegulationWhile there are both similarities and differences in terms of content and technique across online andoffline contexts, there are distinct differences between the level of regulation in online and offlinecontexts, with technologically driven new media characterized as a context in which the regulations,guidelines, and controls of traditional media are absent (Drumwright and Murphy, 2009). However, wecan still see that “recent regulatory and legal activity are testament to the fact that ethical problems canand do persist in traditional media…Constant vigilance in traditional media is warranted” (Drumwrightand Murphy, 2009). Therefore where does that gap lie between offline media and online media, if bothmediums present questionably ethical behavior? Why do some authors view the online setting as more‘dangerous’ or ‘deceitful’ to consumers (Huang, 2009)? The question also remains as to whether or notthe internet can be regulated. “The internet differs from traditional information outlets. The barriers oftime and distance are minimized in terms of marketers’ ability to create databases and the consumers’ability to selectively obtain information…These unique characteristics make the internet difficult toregulate” (Cronin, 1994 as cited in Bush et al, 2000). Ogburn’s idea of “cultural lag” used to representthe condition in which material culture advances more rapidly than non-material culture is applied byMarshall and Swartwout (2006) to the internet to illustrate “the gap that exists between the newtechnology and the development of ethics to guide its application, and thus the potential unethical, or at
What is ethical internet marketing? Laura Roganleast controversial, uses that may spread”. Therefore, we can conclude that while there is a gapbetween what is considered ethical and unethical in the minds of consumers and advertisers in both anonline and offline context, the gap in an offline context is smaller due to established norms andexpectations, as well as government regulations and advertising standards boards. The gap in an onlinesetting appears to be wider, due to a “cultural lag”, with which technology has moved at such as pacethat an ethical framework, norms and expectations have not had a chance to catch up with technology.Thus, will it be possible to overcome any gap that exists in the current landscape or do changes need tobe made? As Stead and Gilbert (2001) argue, “When [ethical issues] emerge, the internet spotlightsthem immediately. So we may conclude that some ethical issues will get swiftly resolved because ofboth the actual or perceived exposure and reaction from the public or market” (Stead and Gilbert,2001). However, given the degree to which ethical issues may be exacerbated online, will leaving ethicalissues to the democracy of internet users be too late, particularly if secure or confidential informationhas already been comprised? Furthermore, as the paper has highlighted, the online marketingenvironment presents issues of anonymity and that messages online may not be that of the messenger.Whilst the role of consumers has developed and increased in online marketing compared to that ofoffline marketing through the possibility of user generated content (UGC), ultimately responsibility forthe ethics of internet marketing lies with marketers and marketing industry to effectively “control” or“balance” these messages for the industry to remain self-regulated. If they do not, the integrity ofinternet commerce and information generally on the internet, which is dependent on trust andacceptance, will be compromised, and thus the effectiveness of online marketing will also becompromised (Marshall and Swartwout, 2006). As noted by Cronin (1994, as cited in Bush et al, 2000)above, given the nature of the internet, online marketing practices are difficult to regulate, and thus theindustry needs to impose appropriate self-regulation to reduce the gap between marketers andconsumers, finding a balance of what is considered ethical, in order to maintain the integrity andtherefore usefulness of online marketing practices.This can be highlighted by through the case study of Spotify (Ju, 2010), whereby with changed consumerexpectations, companies can change and adapt to move into an ethical landscape rather than remainingin the ethically questionable ‘grey’ area. P2P is a distributed network architecture which popularized byfile sharing. It changed the structure of human interaction and enable people to become both suppliersand consumers of Internet resources. It is also changing the way of music distribution and enjoyment.However, whether P2P technology breaks copyright law or brings benefits to the world has arousedbroad controversy. Previously applications such as Napster and Limewire drew criticism for breachingcopyright laws, however received praise from users for how it changed music distribution. “Spotify is theinitiator to legalize P2P technique. They have deals with all the major record labels to ensure that allartists who have music on Spotify are properly paid. A cooperating pattern is built, which is allocatingprofits reasonably between labels and artists”, as well as satisfying users expectations (Ju, 2010).
What is ethical internet marketing? Laura RoganThis scenario can be applied to online marketing. Instead of working within a grey or unethicallandscape, because the demands and expectations of consumers have changed, develop and adapt yourapproach to move within an ethical landscape.ConclusionIn conclusion, it can be found that while many ethical issues remain the same between “offline” and“online” marketing, there are specific ethical issues that arise in relation to internet marketing alone.Due to the fast-paced, developing industry of internet marketing, there is no consensus on what isethical behavior online, which subsequently widens the gap between marketers and society and createsa larger “grey” area than that which exists in an offline setting. Marshall and Swartwout’s (2006) use ofOgburn’s (1964, as cited in Marshall and Swartwout, 2006) “cultural lag” explains why this gap exists.However, while ethically questionable practices can be allocated to this gap, how do we overcome thegap between marketers and consumers’ expectations regarding ethical internet marketing in order toreach a consensus between the two parties as to what constitutes ethical internet marketing,withdrawing the gap and defining ethical boundaries?If the gap continues to widen and companies and marketers do not respond to this issue, we may expect“growing public distrust, dissension amount internet commerce practitioners, and the likelihood ofincreasing government intrusion and regulation” (Marshall and Swartwout, 2006). Therefore, as Spotifyhas dealt with ethical issues online in relation to the music industry, it is up to marketers and companiesto increase their level of self-regulation in line with consumers’ expectations in order to maintain theirtrust online and thus their business.
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