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Ethics in Target Marketing


Target marketing is a practice that is resorted to by many organizations in the world today. This is the case with privately owned corporations as well as government and not for profit organizations (for example education). The immigration laws of many advanced economies have resulted in large scale presence of ethnic minority groups in these countries spanning the past three or four decades. Such minority groups have now become a part of the target market of organizations mainly due to their numbers, qualification and economic status (all of which have grown significantly during this time). This paper discusses the ethical implications of target marketing of such minority groups. It will be discussed whether such a step is exploitative or makes plain business sense. A concluding stand will be given at the end of the paper.

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Target marketing of ethnic groups is exploitative

There have been many studies that show that such type of marketing is felt to be exploitative by many people including marketing people and the members of the ethnic groups themselves. There are some clear cut arguments regarding this. One is that ethnic group members feel that companies are only trying to exploit them and are targeting them not out of any respect to their group. Another point of view is that the use cultural symbols in many advertisements may be seen as an insult to their culture. Another view point is the marketing of harmful products like cigarettes and alcohol at specified ethnic groups. The famous (or infamous) advertisement of Taco Bell during the late 1990s using a Chihuahua that mouths the words “Yo quiero Taco Bell” created a controversy among the Hispanics in the USA. Their arguments (rightly so) is that the dog is shown wearing a Mexican hat shows Mexicans as someone who works like and treated like dogs. It should be noted that Taco is also a popular Mexican food. It even came to such a state that many Mexican immigrants encouraged their community to boycott Taco Bell. (Cebrzynski 1998). This is an instance of target marketing which is insulting to a particular community by making fun of them. Laughing at a community’s expense is akin to exploitation them. Another instance where people feel insulted or exploited is when they see an advertisement using their culture, language, symbols etc is released by a company perceived to belong to another ethnic group. For example, “if an Anglo source or persona were borrowing Hispanic cultural symbols in an effort to communicate with those consumers, they would be likely to make negative attributions about motives”. (James W 1999).

The justifiable reaction would be that the company is just interested in making money out of them without any real respect towards their culture. Another area of exploitation is where companies market potentially harmful products to certain ethnic groups. In such cases, advisement targeted at an economically backward and poorly educated group. It could be that alcohol intake among this group is relatively high. If such a group is targeted with an alcoholic drink advertisement, they will respond to it much more. Their habits and lack of education may prevent them understanding the dangerous effects of too much alcohol. Many companies know this, but still practice it. “Even indirect and subtle targeting of potentially harmful products at vulnerable consumers has received criticism.” (Pravat 2003). This is a classic instance of exploitation. The same article also cites an instance where products may be harmful to certain sections of the society due to ethnic (biological) differences. Companies will market such products without much research and customers who take such products may be affected badly. Even though there might be no targeted advertising here, the problem caused is by informing such ethnic people that the product might be harmful to them.

Target marketing of ethnic groups makes business sense

It is common sense that no company interested in profits will intentional try to harm or insult ethnic groups. As mentioned earlier, the rise in number people of ethnic origin and their advancement in various fields have made them potential and valuable customers. “In the USA, the UK and Australia, an increasing ethnic diversity of markets is attributed, in part, to an increased mobility of populations across national frontiers and a corresponding growth in ethnic consumers.” (Pires and Stanton). It makes sense to make members of such groups customers of an organization. The best way to do this is to target them as group so that the message is not lost in today’s age of information overload. Again, there are some myths about ethnic groups that will prove that target marketing is essential to get their attention. One ethnic group is different from others and the local population of the country. In other words they are not homogenous. In such a case, target marketing is essential due to the different interest they may have. For example, an Asian may not have much interest in baseball and advertisements featuring the game’s heroes may not appeal to him. If a cricketing legend is used, the ad will be more effective. This is because the game is popular only in three or four countries in Asia. They have different beliefs, practices, rituals etc that will need to addressed directly if a message needs to be put across effectively. The use of cultural symbols may if fact be effective. Any hurt in sentiments will only be felt by a few persons. Moreover studies have shown that those who have integrated into the mainstream the least is likely to be more affected negatively. Another myth is that minorities and Caucasians are alike. The third myth is that they understand the local language (English in the USA, UK etc) well. In such instances, the advertising message will be effective only in the preferred language of the ethnic consumer. The fourth myth is that such ethnic groups are only interested in a narrow range of products and services. (Reese and Hawkins 1999).


It can be seen that arguments about exploitation is only situational and not universal. The example provided by proponents gives only specific instances (like Taco Bell ad alcoholic beverage ads). It is true that companies must take care not to hurt the sentiments or insult ethnic groups. Ideally the contingency theory should be followed in this case. The theory broadly states that there is no single best approach to finding a solution. It may vary depending on the circumstance of each case. (Contingency Theory. 2008). Companies need to adopt different approaches for different minority groups. What is needed is extensive market research into ethnic consumer preferences, tastes and beliefs. This research should be applied in target marketing along with ethical practices. It can be concluded that there is nothing wrong in target marketing an ethnic minority group and it makes perfect business sense to do so. The only disagreement is when children or people cannot make their own decisions (example, people with certain psychological disabilities, old people etc) are targeted. Extreme caution should be exercised in both instances.


Cebrzynski, Gregg. (1998). Ay Chihuahua: Taco Bell Ads are more Bark than Bite. [online]. BNET: Food & Bevearge Industry. 2008. Web.

James W, Gentry, (1999). Ethnic Consumer Reaction to Targeted Marketing: A Theory of Intercultural Accommodation: Journal of Advertising. [online]. All Business A D&B Company. P.1. 2008. Web.

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Pravat, Choudhary. (2003). Consumer Interests and the Ethical Implications of marketing: A Contingency Framework: Journal of Consumer Affairs. [online]. All Business A D&B Company. 2008. Web.

Pires, Guilherme D., and Stanton, John. Introduction: Marketing to Ethnic Groups in Advanced Economies and the Adjustment Process. [online]. P.1. 2008. Web.

Reese, Gregory L., and Hawkins, Ernestine L. (1999). Target Marketing the Profession. [online]. Stop Talking, Start Doing. ALA Editions, P. 34 – 35. 2008. Web.

Contingency Theory. (2008). [online]. 12 Manage: The Executive Fast Track. Web.

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