Marketing’s Ethical Blind Spot: Catering to Consumer Preferences
45 Pages Posted: 24 Aug 2019 Last revised: 26 Sep 2019
Date Written: August 22, 2019
Marketers are guided by a longstanding mantra: Consumers preferences are king. In many ways, to be the best marketer is to create products and services that are directly aligned with consumer preferences. This paper focuses on the potential ethical issues associated with blindly catering to consumer preferences. The preoccupation with consumer preferences leads marketers to prioritize them, even if the preferences are perverse. This preoccupation can trigger a kind of cultural, group based harm. Marketers and business ethicists alike have historically understood consumer harm narrowly. Traditional accounts of marketing and business ethics have used the theories of John Rawls to argue that certain practices are unethical because they harm individuals. (Rawls 1971)
This paper seeks instead to use Iris Marion Young’s criticism of John Rawls to expand the scope of harms to which businesses should be attuned. Her account focuses on harms that reinforce cultural norms while stereotyping minorities, females, the LGBT community and other under-represented cultural groups — so called “cultural imperialism.” (Young 1990). Turning our attention to this kind of group-based harm has two ethical implications for marketers. First, marketers should not cater to customer preferences in ways that create these harms by reinforcing social hierarchies and stereotypes. And second, marketers may even have a positive obligation to counteract and mitigate this kind of cultural harm by promoting cultural diversity in their marketing activities, even if this means going against consumer preferences. The article concludes with a working applicable framework for marketing managers to analyze the potential cultural harms of their activities.
Keywords: marketing, business ethics, gender, race, cultural harms
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