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4 Examples of Dubious Marketing Ethics

05/15/2015 11:52 am ET | Updated May 15, 2016

The cynical Baltimore writer H.L. Mencken once wrote, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public."

He was referring to politicians, but his quote works just as well with marketing campaigns and strategies for other groups. Americans buy an amazing amount of stuff that is not good for them, at the prompting of marketers.

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Image Credit | Flickr: the foreign photographer

According to the Centers for Disease Control, Americans bought over eight billion packs of cigarettes in 2014. Americans spent nearly 50 billion dollars on liquor, beer and wine in 2014. And, according to the Daily Mail, Americans spend on average 1,200 dollars per year on fast food.

And there are a slew of other addictive substances, and potentially addictive and unhealthy substances, that are marketed and consumed here in the United States. The abuse of illicit drugs alone costs 181 billion dollars a year in health costs, incarceration and lost productivity.

Drug rehab programs can be extremely effective in reversing these economic losses.

However, the question remains, how ethical is it to market any of these things in the first place?

Here are some marketing examples that have been labeled unethical. If you're a marketer, what do you think?

Big Pharma and your doctor.

No one is saying that prescription medications are inherently bad for you. But media critic John Oliver asks, "Do you know what the relationship is between your doctor and Big Pharma?"

It's possible your physician is influenced by a pharmaceutical company to prescribe an expensive brand name drug when its generic equivalent is available. Or to over prescribe a brand name medication.

The Washington Post reports that nine out of 10 pharmaceutical companies now spend more on marketing than on research and development, and that while Big Pharma spends three billion dollars annually on marketing to consumers, it spends 24 billion marketing directly to health care professionals. Does this kind of marketing seem a little skewed to you?

What you eat as a child you'll eat as an adult.

Research has documented that marketing campaigns that push food like sugary cereals, heavily salted snacks and fast food have a negative impact on children's long range health by promoting unhealthy eating habits. Advertisers for such products have agreed to cut down on television ads aimed specifically at children, who are not mature enough to make informed decisions -- but nothing has been said about marketing on social media platforms where more and more children are spending their time. What are the ethics involved here?

Removing "no" from your vocabulary for the night.

What would the Super Bowl be without beer ads? They're funny and cutting edge. Even non-drinkers think they're entertaining. But there's a darker side to marketing beer. The L.A. Times recently ran a story detailing how Bud Light Beer's slogan, printed on the bottle, which read, "The perfect beer for removing 'no' from your vocabulary for the night," raised an uproar of outrage from groups that accused the beer company of encouraging date rape. The slogan has since been removed from bottles of the brew, but just WHAT were those marketers thinking when they came up with such a disturbing slogan?

It's almost 2016 -- do you know where your conscience is?
A recent CNN report states that of the million or so campaign ads that will be run by Election Day, 96 percent will be negative -- not extolling the virtues of a candidate, but highlighting the (alleged) faults of an opponent. Marketers create political campaigns based largely on innuendo and quotes taken out of context. Is this just part of the day's work, or is there a larger, ethical dilemma involved for marketers?