Companies are desperate to acquire customers, and some will use inappropriate ways to gain their attention. In this lesson, you’ll learn how to discern ethical from unethical target marketing, using the example of marketing to vulnerable populations.

Target Marketing

Companies use advertising and marketing to gain attention and target their customers appropriately to sell products. Not all companies abide by ethical means to reach their consumers. Sadly, many businesses use manipulation and deception to achieve their sales goals. Ironically, most consumers trust that businesses look out for their interests. In this lesson, you will learn how to distinguish ethical from unethical target marketing, using marketing to vulnerable populations as an example.

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Companies are desperate to acquire customers, and some will use inappropriate ways to gain their attention. Ethical target marketing occurs when businesses analyze and research consumers to see what predisposed ways might make an individual purchase a product. Predisposed ways can be numerous factors that make consumers purchase a specific way, such as personal preferences, cultural norms, or habitual purchasing.

Other companies use unethical target marketing by focusing on target markets that can be easily influenced and manipulated. Let’s take a look at how companies use ethical and unethical target marketing through some case studies.

Ethical Target Marketing

Target marketing is when a company targets a specific group of customers for their product or service through advertising. The groups are organized together because they have similar beliefs and values, which leads to common purchasing patterns. Among the ethical ways companies can influence consumers are through persuading, asking, informing, and advising.

Let’s take a look at some examples. Ripple Wrap targets women age 25-65 with the promise of keeping perishable items fresh. In their ads and on their website, consumers are persuaded, informed, and advised about how using their product will keep their food items fresh. Ripple’s target market wants to be able to keep perishable items fresh and will pay more for a product that will support this need. Consumers view purchasing Ripple as a good investment in their household. Ripple uses persuasion, advising, and informing to educate their customers about the benefits of their products without using deceptive, manipulative target marketing.

Unethical Target Marketing

Most consumers are unaware of the standard of caveat emptor (‘let the buyer beware’) is part of all purchase transactions. Under this idea, businesses’ only responsibility is to provide a product or service at a fair price. It is up to the consumer to research products and look out for their own interests. Companies are skilled at researching the psychological makeup of their consumers, and by understanding their customer’s motivations, interests, desires, and beliefs, the easier it is to manipulate their emotions.

When companies purposely target vulnerable populations, they are participating in unethical target marketing. These types of populations or target markets consist of consumers that have psychological problems or lack maturity and intelligence to make informed purchases. Examples of this type of target market include the elderly, children, and poorly educated consumers. Target marketing strategies that are considered unethical would include lying, deception, manipulation, and threats. Sadly, these unethical ways of marketing are used against vulnerable populations. Let’s look at some specific examples.

One way companies’ use unethical target marketing is through manipulation to force or direct consumers’ behavior in subtle ways. An example of this type of unethical marketing occurred with a product called Save a Life, which sold medical alarms to the elderly. The company used fear and anxiety to promote their product through ads that showed an elderly person alone in the house, trapped, and unable to get help without their product. An ethical way to promote this product to their target market would have been to rely on information and rational ads. Instead, the company decided to prey on elderly and use manipulative scare tactics.

Another example of unethical target marketing is when companies manipulate and deceive children. Cigarette advertising targeting children is one example that has received major criticism. Cigarette company, Smoky, has unethically used marketing and advertising to elicit interest in their product to children.

Lesson Summary

Advertising and marketing can be ethical when it provides information and persuades with rational appeals. Ethical target marketing occurs when businesses analyze and research consumers to see what predisposed ways might make an individual purchase a product. Companies are desperate to acquire customers, and some will use inappropriate ways to gain their attention. Predisposed ways can be numerous factors that make consumers purchase a specific way, such as personal preferences, cultural norms, or habitual purchasing.

Other companies use unethical target marketing by focusing on target markets that can be easily influenced and manipulated, such as the elderly and children. These groups are referred to as vulnerable populations, which consist of consumers that have psychological problems or lack maturity and intelligence to make informed purchases. One way companies’ use unethical target marketing is through manipulation to force or direct consumers’ behavior in subtle ways.

Learning Outcomes

After you finish the lesson, you should be able to:

  • Explain the purpose of target marketing by companies
  • List the characteristics of ethical target marketing
  • Recall the tactics used in unethical target marketing