Whether you are involved in marketing, advertising, or public relations, it will be necessary to conduct research involving the public at large. In public relations, opinion polls may play a major role in planning a public relations strategy. In all three disciplines, companies may want to pretest ads and strategies by using focus groups, questionnaires, or interviews. The ethical issues in this area are not limited to the conduct of research. As you will see there are issues with who you choose to target for your campaigns and why. Some of these issues are legal as well as ethical. We will discuss the legal issues of marketing in another module; our focus here will be primarily on the ethical implications of marketing research activities. In 2018, Facebook announced that as many as 87 million of its users had their data accessed – allegedly most without their knowledge or consent – by the research firm Cambridge Analytica (Kang & Frenkel, 2018). Did this violate the law, was it unethical, or was it appropriate research practice? In response, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has launched an investigation of Facebook (FTC, 2018) and the CEO of a marketing research industry group issued a statement discussing the allegations against Cambridge Analytica and the ethics of its handling of Facebook consumer data (Almy, 2018). There are a number of organizations that have relevant research codes of ethics. Some are specialized to a type of research, such as mobile (see, Mobile Marketing Research Association, n.d.). The primary industry group in the United States is the Insights Association, a group that was formed with the 2017 merger of the MRA (Market Research Association) and CASRO (the Council of American Survey Research Organization). Insights Association’s Code of Standards and Ethics for Market Research and Data Analytics is one of your readings for this week. As you can see, ethical issues in marketing research are highly relevant and still-developing topics.
Schneider (as cited in Murphy, Laczniak, Bowie & Klein, 2005) has grouped ethical issues into three categories: 1. Deceptive Practices a. Unrealized promise of anonymity b. Falsified sponsor identification c. Selling under the guise of research d. Misrepresenting research procedures e. Intrusive questionnaire or interview length f. Possible follow-up contacts g. Unspecified purpose of study h. Questionable use of results i. Undelivered compensation (premiums, summaries of results) j. Nondisclosure of research procedures (sample, follow-up, purpose, response rate) 2. Invasion of Privacy a. Observation studies without informed consent b. Use of controversial qualitative research techniques c. Use of “cookies” in online research d. Merging data from several sources e. Overly personal questions and topics 3. Lack of Concern for the Respondent a. Contacting respondents at inconvenient times b. Incompetent or insensitive interviewers c. Failure to debrief after deception or disguise d. Research producing depressing effect on respondents e. Too frequent use of public in research and opinion polling f. Misrepresentation of time commitment (Murphy, Laczniak, Bowie & Klein, 2005, p.52). The first two categories probably are the ones most marketers, advertisers, and public relations professionals are likely to encounter. Under deceptive practices, the issue of anonymity seems to loom the largest. What promises of anonymity can be made and kept to a respondent? If the researcher has agreed to provide personally identifiable information to the client, then the answer seem to be clear that the researcher cannot promise anonymity when the promise cannot be kept. Also, keep in mind that subjects will often respond differently if they think their answer is anonymous rather than personally identifiable. What if the data the researcher turns over is not in of itself personally identifiable, but through data mining techniques actually could identify the respondent? Would a promise of anonymity be justified?