A basic role for a marketing researcher is that of intermediary between the producer of a product and the marketplace. The marketing researcher facilitates the flow of information from the market or customer to the producer of the good or service.

Such a situation, with three major players—the producer, the customer and the market researcher—often sets the stage for conflicts of interest which, as Plato noted, can give rise to ethical problems. Given the inevitability of ethical dilemmas in marketing research, well-established ethical guidelines are critical for their resolution.

In this article, we identify resources for ethical decision making in marketing research in three key areas where problems often arise:

  • In the relationship between the researcher and the client

  • Between the researcher and the research subject

  • Between the researcher and the marketing research industry

Situation 1: After you make a brilliant final presentation on a business-to-business market research study, your client thanks you and then asks for the list of companies that responded to the survey, along with their survey responses, which could indicate whether they were currently in the market for the client's services. What is your response?

In my 20 years as a marketing researcher, this is the most common ethical dilemma I have encountered and a classic example of conflicting interests leading to ethical problems.

When collecting data, I pledge that individual confidentiality will be maintained, personal information won't be used for other purposes, and responses will be combined with those of other respondents so that individuals can't be identified.

My clients, however, sometimes have an "Aha!" experience during presentations of research findings. They suddenly realize that in addition to a market profile the research process has generated a list of "warm" or qualified leads for further marketing or sales efforts. From their perspective, they paid for the study and so "own" both the results and the subject-specific information.

The Council of American Survey Research Organizations (CASRO), a national trade association of commercial survey research companies in the US, sets clear, unambiguous guidelines for such situations in its Code of Standards and Ethics for Survey Research.

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Dr. Dale Fodness is an associate professor and academic director of marketing at the University of Dallas (www.thedallasmba.com) and principal of Business Decision Resources (www.bdrglobal.com).