Ethical Concerns in Marketing Research

Jane Sojka, Washington State University
Eric R. Spangenberg, Washington State University
ABSTRACT - Although ethical issues in the discipline of marketing have been previously addressed , the expanding domain of the field of consumer research mandates that ethical issues be re-examined. By increasing the scope of consumer research to include social issues, and by utilizing qualitative research methods, researchers are finding themselves closer to their subjects: both in terms of physical proximity and level of intimacy. This paper examines how disciplines outside of marketing have handled sensitive ethical issues and offers general guidelines for consumer researchers to consider when faced with decisions regarding research ethics.
[ to cite ]:
Jane Sojka and Eric R. Spangenberg (1994) ,"Ethical Concerns in Marketing Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 392-396.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 392-396


Jane Sojka, Washington State University

Eric R. Spangenberg, Washington State University


Although ethical issues in the discipline of marketing have been previously addressed , the expanding domain of the field of consumer research mandates that ethical issues be re-examined. By increasing the scope of consumer research to include social issues, and by utilizing qualitative research methods, researchers are finding themselves closer to their subjects: both in terms of physical proximity and level of intimacy. This paper examines how disciplines outside of marketing have handled sensitive ethical issues and offers general guidelines for consumer researchers to consider when faced with decisions regarding research ethics.


Picture this: As a diligent consumer researcher, you have taken the plea for socially responsible consumer research to heart and are studying people who overspend. In dutifully looking out for your respondents' best interests, you have, of course guaranteed confidentiality of all information exchanged in the interview process. As you interview one respondent, the subject casually mentions that in frustration over his spending habits and indebtedness, he frequently "cuts loose" and takes his frustration out physically upon his child. You find yourself in the uncomfortable and possibly illegal position of knowing more than you want to know. According to the law, you must report child abuse; at the same time you have promised your respondent confidentiality in return for his willingness to share sensitive information. What do you do now?

Consumer researchers may wish the above scenario was a vision from the twilight zone and nothing close to a situation they might encounter. However, non-positivistic paradigms as well as exploration of non-traditional consumer behavior topics have expanded the domain of consumer research. The reality of current consumer research suggests that if researchers have not already experienced similar situations, they soon may. Hence, concerns about ethical research practices which were irrelevant to consumer researchers in the past, should now be addressed.

Leaders in the field of consumer behavior have pleaded for research that will benefit society and its consumers (e.g., Belk 1987). As a result, consumer researchers have actively begun examining social issues such as drug addiction (Hirschman 1992), illicit drug consumption (Rose, Bearden and Teel 1992), homeless people (Hill 1992), and compulsive buying (O'Guinn and Faber 1989). In addition to including social issues, consumer researchers have also begun to utilize a wide cadre of research methods relatively new to our discipline. For example, ethnographic reports (e.g., Wallendorf and Arnould 1991), in-depth interviews (e.g., Schouten 1991), and field research (e.g., Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry 1989)-all well established research methods in other disciplines-have been used to explore new content areas in consumer research.

The effect of both topic and method expansion in consumer research is that researchers are becoming closer-in terms of intimacy as well as physical proximity-to their respondents. It is fairly simple to ask a woman what kind of laundry detergent she uses; it is quite a different matter, however, to ask her why she chose to have breast implants. In this example, the research topic changes the level of intimacy between the consumer researcher and respondent(s). The physical proximity of the respondent-researcher relationship changes as well. Instead of encoding a survey from an anonymous student at a large university, researchers come face-to-face with respondents in a variety of situations. Field work and in-depth interviews usually require interviewing or observing participants on more than one occasion; hence, subjects are viewed less as a sample population and considered co-workers in the investigation of a research question. Hirschman (1993) provides an interesting perspective on this notion in a study examining feminism.

It is beyond the scope of any single paper to generate prescriptions for the ethical dilemmas now facing consumer researchers. Ethical decisions are essentially value judgements which researchers must face according to their own standards. It is our hope, however, that by raising the issues and examining how more mature disciplines (specifically sociology, psychology and anthropology) have addressed similar situations, the field of consumer behavior will benefit in several ways. First, it is important that consumer researchers address ethical issues within the discipline before outsiders-such as the government, or university administrations-address them (Twedt 1963). Second, good research design entails anticipating outcomes: ethical questions arising in the research process should be no exception. By examining how other researchers have handled ethical elements in their work, consumer researchers will begin questioning ethical implications of their own research. Finally, our paper presents ethical guidelines for researchers to consider when designing research. While far from encompassing every situation a researcher may encounter, these guidelines might at least encourage researchers to ask "what if...?," thus raising the awareness of ethical issues in consumer research.


Ethical issues in marketing research are certainly not new. In 1963, when marketing was "still enough of an art so that it is unlikely that any two practitioners . . . would proceed exactly alike" (p.48), Twedt (1963) proposed a code of ethics. Although directed primarily at marketing practitioners rather than academicians, the code was prompted by three main issues: (1) the desire to maintain public confidence in marketing research procedures; (2) the need to self-regulate the discipline before outsiders decided marketing research needed regulation; and (3) the concern to maintain a positive public image of marketing in general. Also encouraging ethical research practices, the first volume of The Journal of Marketing Research devoted space to an article addressing ethical concerns in marketing research (Blankenship 1964).

Indeed, initial concern about marketing ethics and the reputation of the marketing discipline were probably valid. Steiner (1976) noted that prejudices against marketing date back as far as ancient Greece. Although Farmer (1987) recanted pieces of his criticism of marketing ethics in an international context, the two earlier works in his trilogy were based on the premise that the discipline was largely unethical and unresponsive to major world needs (Farmer 1967; 1977). He lamented that there are still "large numbers of vociferous critics who see nothing good in a field that tries to figure out, among other things, how to influence 10-year olds to demand something they do not need and cannot even use" (Farmer 1987, p. 111). Hence, improving the public image of the marketing discipline is still of concern to marketing professionals: both in industry and academia.

Other ethical issues-such as confidentiality and deceptionre-levant to current research were also addressed in early literature on marketing ethics (Tybout and Zaltman 1974). However, the changing context of current consumer research raises new implications for both of these issues. Assuming and maintaining respondent confidentiality on even sensitive topics is fairly straightforward; withholding illegal information is an entirely different matter.

Likewise, deceptive research in a laboratory situation is common in consumer research. However, the use of deception in the field poses a different set of issues. Deceptive field research might include quasi-experimental designs such as having a confederate pose as a shoplifter to see how other shoppers react. While existing ethical guidelines frown upon deceit in general, Twedt's (1963) marketing guidelines did not consider deceptive field research. Hence, the broadened domain of consumer research makes it necessary to look beyond marketing guidelines alone for prescriptions to ethical questions.


Deceptive research, where the true purpose of the experiment is masked, is not only frequently used, but may in fact be necessary in the laboratory to avoid demand artifacts which could influence results (Sawyer 1975). Kelman (1967), however, noted ethical problems in controlled laboratory studies by Bramel (1962; 1963) for example, in which male undergraduates were led to believe they were sexually aroused by photographs of men. Kelman rightly noted that for many persons in this age group, sexual identity is a sensitive issue; self-doubts raised by this experiment could cause lingering effects on the participants in spite of adequate debriefing. Further example of this type of ethical dilemma includes the infamous "Milgram Studies" of the early sixties (e.g., Milgram 1963) involving subjects who thought they had administered electrical shocks to the point of "killing" confederates posing as subjects. Indeed this program of research served as an impetus for psychologists to confront many of the ethical issues now before consumer researchers.

Continuous use of deceptive practices may influence subject pools and ultimately effect research results. In studying how experimental subjects view their responsibility in a research project, Epstein, Suedfeld and Silverstein (1973) found that a higher percentage of subjects who had never participated in an experiment were more concerned about honesty. The authors surmised that previous experience with deceptive research practices may have resulted in experienced subjects less willing to be honest in subsequent research. Hence, even in a laboratory situation, deceptive research techniques may lead to a general distrust of researchers and cast a disparaging tone on the discipline undertaking such work. In consumer research using student populations, for example, we must ask ourselves if the "extra-credit for participation" is in reality a course requirement due to the professor's implicit pressure in acquiring subjects.

The problem of deception becomes more crucial in a field setting where respondents may not be aware of their participation in research. Whether or not researchers choose to reveal their purpose depends upon the research topic, design, and the observed population. In Humphrey's (1970) study of homosexual behavior in public restrooms, it is unlikely he would have obtained the same level of information by revealing his motives. Rather, by posing as a "watch queen," he was able to become part of the group and publish new insights into homosexual behavior.

Some social science researchers maintain that deception is necessary to further the progress of science. Barnes (1979) argued that deception is an integral part of all social relations. For example, individuals don't necessarily "bare their souls" to casual acquaintances. Rather, deception by way of not revealing all details about one's self is an accepted part of human relations.

Sagrin (1973), on the other hand, challenged researchers to respect the rights of people who do not wish to be researched. An extreme example was a group of Viet Nam era U.S. Army deserters given political asylum in Sweden. Although an analysis of the group might have made an interesting research article, they did not wish to cooperate with academic researchers. Their asylum was tentative and, if revoked, could result in dire consequences at the hands of U.S. military command.

Similarly, organizations open to the public (such as Alcholics Anonymous) who willingly welcome individuals trying to overcome addictions may not wish to be used as research venues. While anyone may attend an AA meeting as an addict, feelings and experiences revealed by participants within the context of a chapter meeting are to remain anonymous; the use of any information requires participants' permission (Bissell and Royce 1987). While it might be tempting for a researcher to pose as an addict or even to capitalize on an addiction to gain access to a group, using information gained from restricted organizations is, at best, ethically questionable.

When evaluating the use of deception in the field, researchers should consider several issues. First and foremost, subjects' needs and risks should be the overriding concern in every research project. The role of researchers, according to the American Anthropological Association, is "to do everything in [the researchers'] power to protect their [respondents'] physical, social, and psychological welfare and to honor and respect their dignity and privacy" (Spradley 1980, p. 21). Perhaps the first step for researchers in a phenomenological study should be to mentally reverse roles and ask how they would feel as a respondent participating in the proposed research.

A final point to consider is the effect field work might have on subjects' behavior (Kidder 1981). Will subjects alter their behavior as a result of a non-deceptive investigation? Will the project cause the subjects any inconvenience? Asking permission to observe customers while they shop might change their behavior as well as cause embarrassment. Thus, it might be best to observe them unobtrusively; it is less likely to cause any inconvenience or discomfort. In contrast, locating homosexuals by recording their license plate numbers while they are engaged in supposedly secret homosexual activity poses quite a different situation (Humphreys 1970).


Another issue particularly critical when addressing sensitive topics is respondent confidentiality. Confidentiality means that although the researcher knows who the respondent is, identity or information shared within the research context will not be revealed. Under anonymous data collection procedures, assuring confidentiality is assumed because the researcher is unaware of respondent identity. Obviously, as researchers venture forth into the field in search of more intimate information, maintaining confidentiality becomes more difficult.

Clearly, most researchers agree that the privacy of respondents should be respected (Hill 1993; Spradley 1980). Government legislation such as the 1974 Privacy Act limits the disclosure of records among federal agencies (Alexander 1983).

Furthermore, the success of non-survey research-such as participant observation, field work, and interviews-is largely based on trust between researcher and respondent. Studying social worker/client relations, Johnson (1975) found that establishing trust was one of the most difficult parts of a field project. At least initially, promises of confidentiality may be helpful in establishing trust with respondents so that meaningful and valid data is obtained.

Informed Consent

Informed consent is one method frequently used by researchers to assure respondents of confidentiality. In addition, informed consent is a prerequisite for obtaining funds from the U.S. Public Health Service (1969) and is strongly recommended in the "Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct" (APA 1992).

While it is possible to encourage respondents to share sensitive information about topics such as drinking and sexual behavior without an informed consent (Blair, Sudman, Bradburn, and Stocking 1977), it may be helpful in improving the probability of valid responses. Subsequent research suggests that offering an informed consent to respondents may prompt a halo effect; that is, respondents informed about the research prior to beginning the interview and assured of confidentiality through informed consent, tend toward more positive evaluations of the researcher and the research process in general (Singer 1978).

There are, however, exceptions to the positive effects of informed consent. In laboratory experiments, informed consent may induce biases influencing experimental results (e.g., Gardener 1978; Singer 1984). Also, informed consent may bias field research. For example, Reamer (1979), in a study of juvenile status offenders (youths who have committed offenses that would not be considered crimes if committed by adults, such as running away from home), found that assuring subjects of confidentiality resulted in fewer responses to information about sensitive topics. It appears that promising the youths confidentiality, "primed" them to become suspicious that the information would not remain confidential.

Alternative Approaches To Maintaining Confidentiality

Particularly when researching illegal activities or behaviors that might encourage illegal acts, protection of respondent confidentiality becomes an even thornier dilemma. While researchers want to honor their commitment of respect towards subjects' desire for confidentiality, knowledge of illegal activity may place the research and researchers in jeopardy. Van Maanen's (1983) field work on police activities, for example, resulted in court subpoena requesting his field notes. He reports being in "a moral fix" (p. 275). He could obey the subpoena and, via his notes, provide incriminating evidence of police brutality or he could refuse to comply, thus protecting patrol officers with whom he had worked. Had the case not been dropped before going to court, Van Maanen was to face contempt of court charges.

A more radical form of assuring confidentiality offered by Adler and Adler (1993) involves self-censorship on the part of the researcher. While living next door to a drug dealer, the Adlers had opportunity for inside observation of the intricacies of drug marketing activities. Realizing that publication of their findings would legally jeopardize the drug-dealer who had become their friend, they elected to postpone publication of their work until their respondents had changed professions and the researchers had relocated.

Anticipation of potential consequences might also be an alternative to serving jail time. Knerr (1982) suggests researchers take the following precautions to minimize the threat of legal action: (1) desensitize the research through design and statistical techniques rendering the data useless to legal authorities, or (2) store the data with a researcher residing outside the U.S. He noted an ingenious sociologist studying drug peddlers. At the conclusion of each taped interview, the tape was dropped in a mailbox and sent to a researcher in Canada to be transcribed and analyzed; thus keeping the raw data out of reach of a U.S. subpoena.


Just as the "caveat emptor" philosophy in the early days of marketing has been replaced with consumer rights, the focus of ethical research concerns has changed. While early ethical concerns in marketing focused on protecting the image and rights of the marketer, the current emphasis is shifting toward protecting the rights and privacy of respondents. By examining research ethics from other disciplines, we see that there are few absolute answers when dealing with ethical questions; each research project needs to be considered on an individual basis.

One way in which researchers can help each other is by including ethical concerns in their publications. While empirical researchers are always careful to publish 'p' values establishing the "significance" of their results, ethical considerations should be of equal importance. Learning how other consumer researchers have confronted these difficult issues would be helpful for future research purposes and would contribute toward development of additional guidelines.

Below are general guidelines that consumer researchers might wish to consider prior to undertaking a project.

1. The Welfare of the Subject Takes Precedence Over All Other Research Decisions. Just as the marketing concept revolves around the customer, so too should consumer research focus on the welfare of the respondent. The simple heuristic-a subject should never be worse-off as a result of participating in a consumer research project-is a reasonable approach. To take this a step further, it would be admirable if researchers could say that their research leaves subjects better off than they were prior to engaging in the research. Perhaps consumer researchers should take a cue from addiction counselors who are strongly encouraged to donate a portion of counseling hours to clients who can't afford to pay. This donation is seen in counseling circles as restitution for making a living off of other people's misfortune. Consumer researchers might consider monetary or in-kind donations to groups who help them achieve personal or professional goals.

2. Anticipate Potential Ethical Conflicts Prior to Beginning the Research. When interviewing people on sensitive topics, the researcher needs to be as prepared as possible to handle difficult situations if they arise. For example, in the state of Washington, if child abuse is discovered, the researcher must report it to the police and to his/her supervisor within 24 hours. If a researcher is engaging in research that might uncover such information, alerting his/her department chair prior to the probability is advisable.

3. Consider the Cost/Benefit of the Research Project. Do the potential research benefits outweigh risks to the respondent and researcher? For example, if anticipating the possibility of uncovering illegal information, it might be wise to inform the respondent in advance about the researcher's legal obligation. While this might inhibit information flow, less information may be more valuable than contesting a court subpoena. Again, it depends on the research project and respondent pool.

4. When In Doubt: Pre-Test. Consumer research often includes pretesting to insure valid results; it is often equally feasible to pretest ethical concerns (Berscheid, Baron, Dermer, and Libman 1973). If unsure how the sample population might react to an experiment, the researcher could survey a sub-sample about ethical concerns. For example, researchers could ask addiction counselors (many of whom are recovering addicts) how they would feel if a researcher reported on an AA meeting.


Our suggestions are far from exhaustive; in fact, it is hoped that other researchers will challenge and expand this list of considerations. By raising ethical issues, the discipline of consumer behavior can hopefully continue to grow and expand to make a positive contribution towards peace: "the one which all thought, feeling and ultimately all scholarship should aspire" (Hirschman and Holbrook 1992, p.126). It would be a sad irony if, while striving to make a positive contribution, consumer researchers ethically violate the society they are attempting to improve. Perhaps if the researcher in the opening scenario had considered the issues raised above, he/she would not be wondering what to do now.


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