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Public Policy and Ethics in Marketing Research

Public Policy and Ethics in Marketing Research


Most marketing research benefits both the sponsoring company and its consumers. Through marketing research, companies learn more about consumers' needs, resulting in more satisfying products and services. However, the misuse of marketing research can also harm or annoy consumers. Two major public policy and ethics issues in marketing research are intrusions on consumer privacy and the misuse of research findings.

Intrusions on Consumer Privacy

Most consumers feel positively about marketing research and believe that it serves a useful purpose. Some actually enjoy being interviewed and giving their options. However, others strongly resent or even mistrust marketing research. A few consumers fear that researchers might use sophisticated techniques to probe our deepest feelings, and then use this knowledge to manipulate our buying. Others may have been taken in by previous "research surveys" that actually turned out to be attempts to sell them something. Still other consumers confuse legitimate marketing research studies with telemarketing or database development efforts and say "no" before the interviewer can even begin. Most, however, simply resent the intrusion. They dislike mail or telephone surveys that are too long or too personal, or that interrupt them at inconvenient times.

     Increasing consumer resentment has become a major problem for the research industry. This resentment has led to lower survey response rates in recent years -- one study found that 38% of Americans now refuse to be interviewed in an average survey, up dramatically from a decade ago. The research industry is considering several options for responding to this problem. One is to expand it's "Your Opinion Counts" program to educate consumers about the benefits of marketing research and to distinguish it from telephone selling and database building. Another option is to provide a toll-free number that people can call to verify that a survey is legitimate. The industry also has considered adopting broad standards, perhaps based on Europe's International Code of Marketing and Social Research Practice. This code outlines researchers' responsibilities to respondents and to the general public. For example, it says that researchers should make their names and address available to participants, and it bans companies from representing activities like database complication or sales and promotional pitches as research.

Misuse of Research Findings

Research studies can be powerful persuasion toolscompanies often use study results as claims in their advertising and promotion. Today, however, many research studies appear to be little more than vehicles for pitching the sponsor's products. In fact, in some cases, the research surveys appear to have been designed just to produce the intended effect. Few advertisers openly rig their research designs or blatantly misrepresent the findingsmost abuses tend to be subtle "stretches". Consider the following examples:

A study by Chrysler contends that Americans overwhelmingly prefer Chrysler to Toyota after test driving both. However, the study included just 100 people in each of two tests. More importantly, none of the people surveyed owned a foreign car, so they appear to be favorably predisposed to U.S. cars.

Levi Strauss reports that when it asked college students which clothes would be most popular this year, 90 percent said Levi's 501 jeans. However, Levi's were the only jeans on the list.

A Black Flag survey asks: "A roach disk ... poisons a roach slowly. The dying roach returns to the nest and after it dies is eaten by other roaches. In turn these roaches become poisoned and die. How effective do you think this type of product would be in killing roaches?" Not surprisingly, 79 percent said effective.

A poll sponsored by the disposable diaper industry asked: "It is estimated that disposable diapers account for less than 2 percent of the trash in today's landfills. In contrast, beverage containers, third-class mail, and yard waste are estimated to account for about 21 percent of the trash in landfills. Given this, in your opinion, would it be fair to ban disposable diapers?" Again, not surprisingly, 84 percent said no.

Thus, subtle manipulations of the study's sample, or the choice or wording of questions, can greatly affect the conclusions reached.

In other cases, so-called independent research studies actually are paid for by companies with an interest in the outcome. Small changes in the study assumptions or in how results are interpreted can subtly affect the direction of the results. For exam pie, at least four widely quoted studies compare the environmental effects of using disposable diapers to those of using cloth diapers. The two studies sponsored by the cloth-diaper industry concluded that cloth diapers are more environmentally friendly. Not surprisingly, the other two studies, sponsored by the paper-diaper industry, concluded just the opposite. Yet both appear to be correct given the underlying assumptions used.

Recognizing that surveys can be abused, several associationsincluding the American Marketing Association and the Council of American Survey Research Organizationshave developed codes of research ethics and standards of conduct. In the end, however, unethical or inappropriate actions cannot simply be regulated away. Each company must accept responsibility for policing the conduct and reporting of its own marketing research to protect consumers' best interests and its own.