Ethics in Consumer Research: an Overview and Prospectus

ABSTRACT - This paper develops a general conceptualization and typology of ethical issues in consumer research so as to identify four primary areas of concern: (A) Marketing Ethics, (B) Ethics in Marketing Research, (C) Consumer Ethics, and (D) Ethics in the Review Process. These four areas appear to have attracted different degrees of interest in the past. Hence, the paper argues (A) that questions of marketing ethics have been well explored; (B) that issues concerning scientific misconduct are helpfully addressed by the other papers in the present special topic session; (C) that emerging aspects of consumer ethics require more systematic conceptual development and empirical investigation; and (D) that ethical problems with the review process deserve increased attention.


Morris B. Holbrook (1994) ,"Ethics in Consumer Research: an Overview and Prospectus", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 566-571.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 566-571


Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University

[The author thanks Peter Paulis and Alex Simonson for their helpful suggestions. He also gratefully acknowledges the support of the Columbia Business School's Faculty Research Fund.]


This paper develops a general conceptualization and typology of ethical issues in consumer research so as to identify four primary areas of concern: (A) Marketing Ethics, (B) Ethics in Marketing Research, (C) Consumer Ethics, and (D) Ethics in the Review Process. These four areas appear to have attracted different degrees of interest in the past. Hence, the paper argues (A) that questions of marketing ethics have been well explored; (B) that issues concerning scientific misconduct are helpfully addressed by the other papers in the present special topic session; (C) that emerging aspects of consumer ethics require more systematic conceptual development and empirical investigation; and (D) that ethical problems with the review process deserve increased attention.


One approaches the topic of ethics in consumer research with trepidation. Though issues concerning ethics-distinguishing Good from Bad, pursuing Right versus Wrong, judging objects according to their Worth or Value-are as old as philosophy itself, ethics appears to be one of those areas in which knowledge does not so much progress as move in ever-widening circles that eventually return every investigator to the place where he or she began, a position characterized by deep doubts and unresolved uncertainties. Thus-with rare exceptions-we approach ethical issues in consumer research armed with no proven arsenal of scientific procedures, no instruments with accepted validity, no rigorously standardized tests, no generally accepted criteria. Instead, the main investigative tools we can bring to the task at hand are a little detachment and a lot of humility.

This essay applies a bit of abstract logical reasoning to the task of developing a conceptualization and typology of ethical issues in consumer research. Toward that end, I shall describe a general scheme for the demarcation of ethical issues pertaining to Character, Deontology, and Teleology. I shall illustrate that scheme by showing how it organizes the differences among nine types of ethical conduct of relevance to marketing. I shall then consider the ethical issues that arise in consumer research-proposing a typology to describe four aspects that appear to be logically distinct. These four logical types of ethical issues in consumer research have attracted different degrees of interest in the past. Hence, I shall indicate which areas have already received attention, which have begun to emerge, and which remain in a state of neglect.


At the level of ordinary language or linguistic usage, everybody knows that Ethics studies the "right" or "good" (Edel 1973, p. 173); that it concerns "morality, moral problems, and moral judgments" (Frankena 1973, p. 4); that it seeks "a method that will specify the conditions that any good ethical decision should meet" (Donaldson and Werhane 1989, p. 1); and that it evaluates "whether actions are right or wrong, good or bad" (Smith 1993, p. 13). Yet even these commonplace observations raise potent terminological and conceptual questions that we must address before proceeding farther. For example, what is the difference between "right" and "good"? What distinguishes "ethical" from "moral"? What contrasting views apply to the "conditions" for "good ethical decisions"?

In answer to such questions, extending the reviews just cited, I propose the conceptual demarcation shown in Table 1.

Briefly, this scheme suggests a chain of effects in which Person > Act > Result. Contrasting philosophical perspectives emphasize different steps in this chain. Those emphasizing the Person concern themselves with character (e.g., Hobbes) and focus on individual dispositions or traits as reflections of one's potential for humanity according to what is considered "Natural." Those emphasizing the Act concern themselves with deontology (e.g., Kant) and focus on principles as represented by various juridical rules, duties, or maxims for doing what is "Right." Those emphasizing Result(s) concern themselves with teleology (e.g., Bentham or Mill) and focus on the consequences as in a goal-seeking utilitarian pursuit of the greatest general "Good."

Further, various facets of ethical inquiry-Virtue, Justice, and Morality-appear to emphasize contrasting aspects of the possible correspondences or matches among Persons, Acts, and Results. Thus, in referring to a correspondence between Character (the Natural) and Deontology (the Right), we speak of Virtue (e.g., the Stoics); for example, a person displays virtue via a disposition to behave according to certain principles. When Deontology (the Right) aligns with Teleology (the Good), we speak of Justice (e.g., Plato); for example, in a just society, the juridical principles that guide behavior produce beneficent consequences. Finally, when a match occurs between Character (the Natural) and Teleology (the Good), we speak of Morality (e.g., Aristotle); for example, we regard a person who seeks the welfare of others as displaying high morals.


Besides the benefits of whatever conceptual clarification it might contribute, the scheme just proposed alerts us to a wider range of ethical issues than we might otherwise tend to notice in any given situation. Suppose, for example, that-with respect to each perspective (Nature, Deontology, Teleology)-we follow Etzioni (1988) by recognizing three possible contrasting orientations: Inward Looking (toward the Self or "I"); Outward Looking (toward Others or "We"); and Inward-Outward Looking (toward the Self-Other Interaction or "I&We"). A simple cross-classification of Perspectives against Orientations suggests the types of ethical conduct found in Table 2.

To flesh out Table 2 with some concrete examples, I have borrowed from a list of principles that "most people associate with ethical behavior" developed by the Josephine Institute and reported by Smith and Quelch (1993, p. 694). Specifically, after combining "Concern" and "Loyalty," the typology covers nine of the eleven ethical principles in Josephine's list and omits only the two of least salience (Reputation and Accountability). More importantly, the proposed scheme suggests an approach to deriving the relevant ethical principles according to a more clearly articulated conceptual structure.








Our focus on ethics in consumer research entails aspects of primary relevance to (1) consumers and (2) researchers. Further, the type of issue under investigation might regard the consumer or researcher as relatively more (a) reactive (things done to the individual) or (b) active (things done by the individual). Hence, combining these two simple dichotomies in all four possible ways creates the typology shown in Table 3.

Table 3 suggests four key areas of interest concerning the role of ethical issues in consumer research. I have labelled these from "A" to "D" in what I take to be their (descending) frequency of appearance in our literature. Accordingly, in what follows, I shall describe each briefly and shall suggest that some have already received much of the attention they deserve whereas others remain in a state of chronic neglect.


Questions of marketing ethics arise when ordinary producers (IBM, GM, GF, P&G, NBC, or RJR) come to market with conventional consumer products (PS1s, Pontiacs, Sanka, Tide, "Saturday Night Live," or Uptown). Given the imperatives of the profit motive-as blessed by our capitalistic free-enterprise system-such marketing activities often raise ethical questions. Various ethical approaches have evolved toward resolving some of these issues. Those with a deontological flavor emphasize obeying rules or following principles (such as the legal requirements passed by congress or the regulatory guidelines promulgated by various government agencies). Those with a more teleological viewpoint emphasize the consequences of business practices for customers, competitors, employees, the environment, or society as a whole and adopt such positions as the "simple idea" (perhaps too simple) that "companies are required not to do harm" (Beim 1993, p. 1). Hunt and Vitell (1986) have proposed a general descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) theory of marketing ethics that combines the deontological and teleological perspectives and that has received some empirical support (Hunt and Vitell 1993). Attempts to combine alternative frameworks prescriptively have appeared in the work of, among others, Laczniak (1983) and Fritzsche (1985).

The subtle and challenging questions that arise in marketing ethics have begun to receive much of the attention they deserve. Conspicuous examples include the growing body of empirical and legal studies of deceptive advertising (Preston 1993), the emerging focus on the normative implications of philosophical underpinnings (Laczniak 1983), attempts to propose and test descriptive models (Hunt and Vitell 1986, 1993), work on the formulation of social policy (Andreasen 1991), the general books on marketing ethics (Laczniak and Murphy 1985), the encouragement of various "new emerging paradigms" (Ray 1991), and the burgeoning interest in such ethically concerned publications as the Journals of Macromarketing, Consumer Affairs, Public Policy and Marketing, or Business Ethics. In particular, the recent compendium by Smith and Quelch (1993) has admirably covered the ethical aspects of Product Management (safety or health hazards, pollution or waste, misleading labels or packages, targeting or excluding disadvantaged groups); Pricing (collusion, predation, discrimination, gouging); Advertising (deception, targeting children, stereotypes, materialism), Personal Selling (bribes, lies, unfair practices, disguises or posing as researchers); and Channels (push money or slotting allowances, coercive tactics, intrusive direct marketing, redlining or excluding the disadvantaged). To these, Fritzsche (1985) adds a treatment of ethical issues in Multinational Marketing (harmful or dangerous exports, bribes or payoffs, dumping, gray markets). Hence, while applauding the scholarly work aimed in these specific directions, one feels little need to argue further for the already well-accepted importance of such concerns.



More generally, however, we might pause to recommend a change in the main metaphor or guiding narrative by which we represent the nature of marketing to ourselves. Inspired by the increased pace of international competition at the global level, thinkers in our field have begun increasingly to use military rhetoric (Kotler 1991) and to adopt a vocabulary of marketing warfare (Ries and Trout 1986). Such metaphorical narratives may capture some sense of the competitive threats from abroad and the need for strong tactical responses. Nevertheless, this militaristic rhetoric fundamentally misconstrues the nature of the marketing orientation and is ethically dangerous. Thus, Table 4 contrasts the (questionably ethical) military model with the (ethically appealing) marketing orientation. Under "marketing warfare," the purpose is to destroy the competitive target, viewed as an enemy, just as an army fires weapons at its adversaries and drops bombs on its opponents. By contrast, the more pacifist marketing orientation views the customer as the primary target of interest, where the purpose is not to destroy but rather to please this target to the greatest extent possible by designing, distributing, and describing an offering with maximum appeal. In this, the ethically preferable marketing orientation revives a theme from the 1960s: Make Love, Not War.


By contrast, issues of ethics in marketing research arise when researchers (academicians, consultants, market-research specialists, ad-agency employees) pursue self-interested concerns (publish or perish, billable hours, profit maximization, winning the account) that may clash with the needs of those (a) undergoing or (b) sponsoring the investigations in question. Here, we encounter the needs (a) to protect customers or competitors against untoward research practices and (b) to preserve the integrity of findings intended to offer growth in knowledge, helpful inputs into managerial decisions, or valid guidance on social issues.

Other fields of inquiry have demonstrated a profound concern for ethical issues raised by scientific misconduct. As vividly illustrated by the troubled adventures of Professors Pons and Fleishmann or Doctors Imanishi-Kari and Baltimore (Goodstein 1991), alarmed colleagues and vigilant reporters stand ready to pounce on any situation that prompts even mild suspicion of fraud, falsification, or fabrication (the three F's) or of prevarication, plagiarism, or profiteering (the three P's). Thus, a thriving literature exists to deplore Betrayers of the Truth (Broad and Wade 1982), ProfScam (Sykes 1988), and Stealing Into Print (LaFollette 1992).

The situation appears somewhat different, however, when one looks at the issue of scientific misconduct in the field of consumer research. Here, we have isolated examples of attempts to address the general relevance of ethics in marketing research (Tybout and Zaltman 1974) or to develop the appropriate ethical codes (Castleberry and French 1987; Smith and Quelch 1993, p. 146; Tull and Hawkins 1985, p. 58). These contributions reflect a consensus on the respondent's rights to anonymity or confidentiality, to peace of mind or safety, to candor or openness, and to freedom of choice or informed consent; conversely, they reflect agreement on strictures against practices deemed hurtful to customers in collecting data (spying or invasions of privacy, physical harm or psychological stress, deception or misrepresentation, coercion or trickery) or to competitors in gathering marketing intelligence (deceit, bribes, espionage, theft). But we have not yet developed a scholarly tradition of work directed toward the more refined and sophisticated guidance of research practice, especially with respect to the aforementioned three F's and P's. Fortunately, judging from their titles, it appears that the presentations in this special topic session by Jacoby and by Toy, Wright, and Olson will move toward addressing some of these important issues.




The area of consumer ethics concerns the issues that arise when ordinary consumers (housespouses, children, pets) acquire, use, and dispose of conventional consumer products (canned tuna, military toys, flea collars). Such aspects of consumption raise a host of ethical questions related to the potential for Consumer Misbehavior that have attracted scattered attention from those studying socially responsible consumption in general (Leigh et al. 1988) or such more specific phenomena as self-restraint (Horowitz 1985), voluntary simplicity in conserving energy (Leonard-Barton 1981), customer boycotts (Smith 1990), ethical investing (Irvine 1987), compulsive consumption (O'Guinn and Faber 1989), or the dark side of consumer behavior (Hirschman 1991). However, with rare exceptions, general treatments of consumer ethics have remained few and far between (Marks and Mayo 1991; Muncy and Vitell 1992). One such effort by Cooper-Martin and Holbrook (1993) presents an empirical exploration of the dimensions underlying an MDS space intended to capture the differentiating aspects of ethical consumption.

Problems due to the neglect of consumer ethics resemble those that confront us in trying to understand issues that pertain to quality. Specifically-as in the case of quality-we appear unlikely to resolve questions concerning consumer ethics until we place them into their context within the overall nature and general types of customer value. Toward that end, I have elsewhere proposed a definition of customer value as an interactive relativistic preference experience and have suggested that the various types of customer value differ on three key dimensions: (1) Extrinsic (prized as a means to an end) versus Intrinsic (appreciated for its own sake as an end in itself); (2) Self- versus Other-Oriented; and (3) Active versus Reactive (Holbrook 1993). The resulting typology appears in Table 5.

This is not the place to rehearse the subtleties involved in discriminating among the eight types of customer value shown in Table 5. However, I might pause to emphasize that-beyond the validity of the typology in depicting aspects of value that arise in consumption experiences-the nature of consumer ethics has certain key properties that deserve careful empirical investigation in their own right. Specifically, as conceptualized here, this type of customer value is (1) intrinsic (pursued for its own sake as an end in itself with "virtue" regarded as "its own reward"); (2) other-oriented (done not for my sake, for its effect on me, or for how I shall reactb-ut rather done for their sake, for its effect on them, or for how they will react); and (3) active (in the sense that it involves some manipulation of the environment rather than just some passive or reactive response-as in the difference between "works" and "faith"). Hence, the scope for ethical consumption includes such intrinsic, other-oriented, active value as found in "green" purchases, charitable donations, and buying animal-safe products; whereas the potential for unethical consumption includes consuming activities that hurt others as in pollution, pornography, prostitution, drugs, or other forms of crime.


A final set of ethical issues concerns the review process at our major journals (as well as in evaluations for hiring or promotions). I have commented previously on "Sadomasochism in the Review Process" (Holbrook 1986) and shall not rehearse this theme here except to note its potential ethical implications. Specifically, those concerned with the ethics of science in general have pointed to what may be a fundamental corruption inherent in the nature of the review process that characterizes journals from our own field in particular.

For example, in a penetrating review of LaFollette's Stealing Into Print (1992), Goodstein (1992) launches a brief but scathing attack on what he regards as "the most important problem" (p. 1503). Here, (1) Goodstein refers to a physics journal "so prestigious that many researchers feel their jobs...depend on their it." Ironically, (2) this prestige results from a self-fulfilling prophesy of doom in which "it rejects a majority of the papers submitted to it." (3) Such rejection decisions are made by editors who lack the time or ability to read or comprehend the papers evaluated "because they are greatly overworked and because nobody can understand more than a tiny fraction of the articles published by the journal, much less those submitted to it." (4) The editors therefore rely on referees who are (a) protected by anonymity to secure their cooperation ("If the judgment is wrong or unfair, ...the author won't know who wrote the report") and (b) inevitably biased ("The referees [play] a high-status game in which the authors are usually known personally to them and are often competitors"). Clearly, (5) this procedure would be a prescription for disaster if these referees happened to be "guided by self-interest, professional jealousy, or other unethical motives"; Goodstein argues that such pressures toward unethical conduct do occur because "nearly all referees have had their ethical standards corroded by themselves being victims of unfair referees' reports in the past when they were authors." Thus, (6) Goodstein concludes that the review process is "a system in which misconduct is almost inevitable." To which (7) he adds: "And yes, ...I think misconduct does happen, quite a lot."

A sober look at the intermingled fields of marketing and consumer research strongly suggests that our disciplines suffer from the problems identified by Goodstein. Specifically, (1) our tenure and promotion committees also count publications in the most prestigious journals; (2) these journals must reject most of the papers submitted (around 85 percent in most cases); (3) our editors are overworked and underpaid; (4) they must therefore rely on the advice of reviewers who are anonymous but potentially competing; (5) these reviewers have themselves been victims of unfairness in the review process; (6) they may therefore engage in unethical behavior (such as giving an unfavorable review to a paper that they know meets the standards for acceptable scholarship or dragging out the revision process so long as to debilitate a rival author); (7) this unethical conduct colors the review process in our discipline by feeding back on itself in a vicious cycle when a wronged author in turn becomes a reviewer of someone else's work. (For further discussion of this vicious cycle, see the chapters in Cummings and Frost 1985 by Staw, p. 103; Graham and Stablein, p. 139; Pondy, p. 210; Toffler, p. 587.) Like Goodstein, I hasten to add that ethical lapses happen in our review processes not because they are run by bad people but because we have created a bad system. I also hasten to add that I am myself part of that system and am therefore as guilty as anybody else. But-after blaming the system and confessing complicity-I must still insist that, if we ever want the system to work in an ethically acceptable way, we must fix it.

Probably, we all have our own opinions on how the review process could be improved. My own number one priority-which seems quite consistent with Goodstein's perceptive analysis-is to remove the protective veil of anonymity by insisting on signed reviews. This recommendation parallels those offered in more general contexts by Frost and Taylor (Ch. 2 in Cummings and Frost 1985), by Morgan (Ch. 3 in Cummings and Frost 1985), by Chubin and Hackett (1990), and by Lock (1991). In my view, few reviewers would write the kinds of reviews they do if their names appeared at the bottom. If true, this says something profoundly disturbing about the nature of our review process and the unethical depths to which it has sunk.


In essence, I have served up a smorgasbord of ethical concepts and related issues of concern to consumer researchers. Some of these have already received wide attention-such as the nature of marketing ethics and the metaphorical movement toward making love instead of war. Others have begun to attract greater interest, as in the case of scientific misconduct, explored in this special topic session by Jacoby and Toy et al. Still others await more systematic development along the lines suggested by work recently devoted to preliminary treatments of customer value in general and consumer ethics in particular. And some issues invite exploration but remain neglected-in part, perhaps, because they raise such potentially disturbing questions.

In this latter connection, I think especially of the ethical quandaries posed by the nature of the review process at our major journals of marketing and consumer research. Without great cynicism, we might view that process as one that conserves scarce journal space by using up vast quantities of the editors', the reviewers', and (especially) the authors' time. But loss of time is synonymous with death. And unjust or involuntary cause of death spells murder. And this means that, as currently conducted, the review process often comes dangerously close to violating one of our most sacred ethical commandments: Thou Shalt Not Kill.


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Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21 | 1994

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