Magoosh GRE

The growing incidence of obesity in the UK (including increasing rates of obesity in children) suggests that marketing, in aiming to satisfy customer needs, is seriously misguided” Discuss, making use of appropriate ethical frameworks.BUSINESS ETHICS assignment

| March 12, 2015

In 2008, almost a quarter of adults in England were classified as obese according to figures released by the NHS and there has been very recent research conducted by the Office of National Statistics Social Trends 2010 Report which revealed that the proportion of the adult population in England classed as obese rose from 15.7% in 1994 to 24.5% in 2008. The statistics relating to children were little better with those under 16 seeing obesity rise from 25% in 1995 to 30% in 2008 in England (Office of National Statistics: 2010). A novel and ambitious report by the Foresight Programme in Government even predicted that future obesity rates of 50-60%, taking up a third of the NHS budget, could become a reality if significant changes are not made.

These figures are undeniable but can marketing in its entirety be blamed for this rise? The statement is quite vague in this respect and I intend to narrow it down to focus on firstly the marketing strategy of junk food to adults and children and secondly marketing communications in making misleading claims conclude that such marketing by food and drink companies is misguided but only in respect of children and adults incapable of making informed decisions. There is an inherent ethical conflict between business strategies, industry, society in general and the consumer in the food industry, adult or child. Ethical issues arise when one group’s values conflict with those of another and an appropriate ethical framework can be analyzed between the two principles of caveat emptor and caveat vendor (Quelch: 1993). The essay will conclude with alternative explanations for obesity, “healthy” junk food advertising and OFCOM’s research in 2004.

Owing to the special nature of children in relation to their “limited capacities and suggestibility” (Quelch: 1993) and the fact that they are seldom the actual consumers but are often the principal for their parents’ agency in the purchase of junk food (Crane & Matten: 2007) this essay will differentiate between the two groups. Quelch (1993) provides a brilliant analysis of the unique nature of children, a nature which is exploited by the marketing strategies of various food and drink companies in the UK:

“Children’s suggestibility and indiscriminate enthusiasm for the products they see on TV can be attributed to their immature concepts of self, time and money discussed earlier, as well as their failure to understand economic exchange, the motives of sellers, and the difference between TV fantasy and reality”.

The ethical framework this essay will adopt is caveat emptor. This principle, that the consumer’s sole right is to veto purchases and decide not to buy something has been eroded during the latter part of the 20th century by the importance of consumer protection in developed countries (Smith: 1995). But the child is seldom the one who is buying the product and the right to veto rests solely (save where the child makes the purchase in accordance with the Age of Legal Capacity) with the parent. Consumer sovereignty is an important position on the ethical framework and leans very much towards caveat venditor where the producer’s interests are less favoured and the consumer’s interests are more favoured. If a company aims to satisfy the needs of the consumer they invariably must compromise their own interests. “Customer needs” is a difficult concept but it is clear that what children want is very different from what is good for them. The dangers of high sugar foods and drinks are well documented and have been linked by government studies to high levels of obesity.

Is this an ethical concern? Crane & Matten (2007) argue that criticisms arise when there is a perceived “violation of the consumer’s right to be treated fairly”. As has been pointed out above, children have a unique vulnerability which renders them incompetent in making informed, independent decisions. Consequently, a marketing strategy designed to target children is unethical and justifies the content of the statement in asserting that such marketing strategies are misguided and have led to increased levels of obesity.

Adults, however, are able to make informed decisions and it is arguable that marketing which is aimed at them is not misguided as they are able to access information and have a choice as to which product they want to buy. Only when some other factor is relevant would the marketing be misguided: if the adult lacks sufficient education, if the adult is easily confused or manipulated due to old age or senility, if the adult is in exceptional physical or emotional need due to illness or bereavement or lack the necessary income to competently maintain a reasonable quality for life themselves (Crane & Matten: 2007). As has been observed, consumer sovereignty is at the right of the ethical framework and arguably rational and capable adults cannot be said to be enslaved by marketing strategies by having their interests favoured.

Marketing communications can be broken down to either the individual or the social level (Smith and Quelch: 1993). Misleading or deceptive practices affects individual consumers by creating false beliefs about those products. When manufacturers, for example, claim that only ‘natural’ flavourings and colours are used in a product this may in fact be a veil to mask the true amount of additives in a food (Schlosser: 2001). Being economical with the truth is clearly an ethical issue and is firmly in the caveat emptor camp despite sometimes appearing to favour our interests and pretend to be caveat venditor by masking ethical practice under the familiar umbrella of “corporate responsibility”.

Most foods these days claim an endless amount of social responsibility: for example the “five principles of Mars” which seems to elevate them to the status of moral pinnacles of the world. By creating artificial wants, being incredibly intrusive in the digital age (eg aggressive Internet marketing), creating insecurity, reinforcing consumerism and materialism and perpetuating social stereotypes (eg health and beauty is only possible with a better body shape: Kelloggs Special K). Crane and Matten (2007) conclude that the ethical case against marketing communication is difficult to uphold given that marketing provides us with escapism and entertainment and we are now so media literate that we are less likely to be victims. This conclusion misses the point, with respect, in that media literacy is a very loaded concept and simply is not true for the majority of the population and still less for the lower class. With this in mind I would suggest that marketing communication to children and adults alike is unethical and misguided, and could be culpable for the astonishing rise in obesity.

Finally, however, it needs to be noted that the link between the marketing of junk food to children is not universally accepted as a misguided strategy. In 2004 OFCOM, the television watchdog, refused to ban the advertising of junk food on television to children, arguing that TV advertising had “a modest direct effect on children’s food consumption” after evidence-based research which conflicted with the views of parents’ and society as a whole. OFCOM preferred to focus on exercise and family habits as being the main factors in the rise of obesity. They were praised at the time by the Government for producing an objective, evidence led report at a time of many emotionally charged calls for action. Significantly however they pointed out that television revenues would be affected and this led many to suggest they were simply passing the buck rather than defining government policy. This stance has held until now, and despite self imposed bans by firms such as Coke and Pepsi of advertising to 12 year olds. This alternative view would seem to draw the sting out of the claims that marketing is so misguided as to be causing obesity in adults and children.

In conclusion the marketing strategy of targeting of vulnerable children and adults is unethical, misguided, and has been a significant factor at least in the astronomic rise of obesity levels in the UK of which there is no doubt (Office of National Statistics). However, fully informed and consenting adults occupy a position on the right of the ethical framework in terms of consumer sovereignty and cannot be said to be exploited. In terms of marketing communication the targeting and indeed stalking of children and adults alike is misguided and unethical despite the arguments of Crane and Matten (2007). Finally the alternative view, that obesity is not so closely linked to marketing as has been believed, has credence in the form of the OFCOM report of 2004.

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