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Marketing Ethics. Consumer vs. Corporate Responsibility

The recent New York Times article on marketing provides an extensive and informative discussion of the recent initiatives, undertaken by marketers for the purpose of helping the disabled and improving their image (Elliott, 2009). In particular, the author states that despite the current financial crisis and downturn of sales, companies like “Toys “R”, “Omnicom Group”, “McDonald’s”, American Airlines” and many other national and transnational corporations are now contributing to the programs which raise funds for helping individuals with disabilities and joining the campaigns, aimed at elimination of abusive language stereotypes, which label handicapped people. For instance, one of the global producers of toys, offers its shoppers to purchase bags designed by autistic children and donate $10 to Autism Speaks Foundation. Furthermore, American Airlines and the American Association of People with Disabilities “announced plans to honor the best television commercial featuring what are deemed positive portrayals of the disabled. The winning spot will get free air time during the airline’s in-flight entertainment programming” (Elliott, 2009, par.12). The present paper argues that these efforts can be evaluated as the evidence of corporate rather consumer responsibility.

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First and foremost, the campaigns described in the article fully fit into the classical textbook description of corporate social responsibility (Kotler & Lee, 2005). All of them are based upon the idea that the success of the business depends upon the prosperity of the society in which it belongs, so it is expected to make a contribution to the development of this society and treat the members of this society with no discrimination, but with respect and recognition of the dignity of both majorities and minorities. The second point is particularly important in the context of ethical marketing. For instance, one of the values of ethical marketing is citizenship, referred to as active participation in the development of society or community (American Marketing Association, 2009, par.6). Therefore, the company “Toys “R” seems to help individuals with disabilities through corporate social responsibility program, as the company voluntarily places in its shops the bags designed by children with autism in order to collect donations for the groups whose main activity is advocacy of their interests. In this sense, the company acts as a mediator between the above specified groups and the buyers, as the project is designed so that customers can choose to make a charitable gift and receive the paper bag in return. In addition, it needs to be noted that “Toys “R” also makes financial donations to Autism Speaks. Logically, these fundraising and charitable campaigns notably stimulate social change, in particular, the change in the public perception of individuals with disability and cultivation of idea of the humane society, in which everyone, regardless of physical characteristics and social class, deserves normal quality of life which does not offend dignity; and due to the fact that people with autism have certain special needs, these needs should be met. The campaign also informs that individuals with special needs are valuable members of society and can be as productive as their non-disabled peers in case the society responds to their basic needs. Therefore, the marketing program that underlies this corporate social responsibility campaign is characterized by commitment to all circles of society, from majorities to minorities, and is aimed at improving the image of marketing in general. By expanding the publicity for such initiatives, “Toys “R” obviously suggests that marketing is a tool which can be used for both promotion of products and in charitable programs which have high social value. It also needs to be noted that the campaign implies using recyclable materials for the bags, so as a corporate citizen, “Toys “R” is concerned about the ecological situation in the world and seeks to protect the environment. Moreover, by involving its customers into charity-related decisions, the company instills pride and demonstrates belief in or recognition of their high ethical standards that will encourage them subsequently to purchase the “Autism Speaks” bags.

Secondly, the companies that depict disabled individuals in their advertisements are committed to the value of respect, stated explicitly by the American Marketing Association. For instance, the portrayal of an individual with special needs on the McDonald’s ad conveys a message that the company recognizes the right of these minority citizens to enjoy life and socialize, the general idea is giving them a chance to lead normal life and integrate into the community of healthier and fitter citizens. Levi Strauss, which has been using the images of the disabled in their marketing campaigns for many years demonstrates respect for the minorities in a different way, by showing that people with special needs are fashionable dressed and attractive, so the company challenges the idea of physical standards related to “ableism”. Although the two companies obviously take into consideration the individual differences between individuals with and without disabilities, they seek to depict both groups as equals in their commercials. In addition, the marketing department of “Toys “R” decided put the photos of children with autism in the company’s stores; in the context of marketing, this initiative can be categorized as an attempt to explain to customers that children with the specified conditions are not different from their fitter peers in terms of the need for warmth, care and beautiful toys. Therefore, the program is a symbolic “tribute” to the needs of the disabled, which underlines the company’s respect for this group and willingness to help in their integration to society. Therefore, the first element of corporate responsibility in the above described programs is communicating the recognition of and respect for individuals with special needs, which refer to the ethical essentials of marketing.

The final point which characterizes the programs from corporate responsibility position is the promotion of ethical values in marketing which some of these companies apparently endorse. For instance, “American Airlines” begins a competition among companies, and the assignment is producing the best television promo honoring individuals with disabilities. By stating these plans explicitly, the corporation obviously directs the attention marketers to the importance of covering all groups of population (which from the target audience) in the promo messages, as such universal coverage is a firm proof of the company’s respect for minorities which also include disabled citizens. Promotion of ethical and responsible marketing is also and goal of the “Omnicom Group” which is currently campaigning for the elimination of abusive and discriminatory language often used in reference to individuals with special needs. This project demonstrates the company’s commitment to responsible communication (including marketing communication) and encourages other companies to review their marketing messages in the point of language in order to make sure it does not offend the dignity of the minorities.

As one can conclude, although the programs and initiatives described in the article might have certain elements of consumer responsibility, they rather refer to the case of extensive and well-designed corporate responsibility and ethical marketing, especially in the points of communication of the value of respect, promotion of non-abusive language in marketing and contribution to the community through charity as an execution of corporate citizenship principle.


Elliott, S. (2009). Marketers lend voices to show support for the disabled. New York Times, Web.

Kotler, P. and Lee, N. (2005). Corporate social responsibility: doing the most good for your company and your cause. John Wiley and Sons.

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American Marketing Association. (2009). Statement of ethics. Web.

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