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.

In fact, respondent confidentiality is the first topic covered. The standard is straightforward: while there are sometimes legitimate reasons to disclose a minimal amount of "respondent-identifiable" information to the client (for survey validation purposes or additional analyses), the information cannot be used for individual marketing efforts or to take any action toward an individual respondent as a result of his or her participation in the survey.

Internationally, the guidelines are even stricter. The ICC/ESOMAR International Code of Marketing and Social Research Practice requires not just respondent confidentiality but anonymity. Any deviation from anonymity requires written permission from the respondent.

The Code of Professional Ethics and Practices of the American Association for Public Opinion Research requires that researchers "shall hold as privileged and confidential all information that might identify a respondent with his or her responses."

The use of respondent information for non-research purposes (such as that described in the situation above) can only take place if the respondents specifically grant permission to do so.

So, returning to our client hungry for warm leads, how do you respond?

Situation 2: Despite your best efforts, you are unable to shorten a personal interview questionnaire to less than 30 minutes in order to ask all the questions needed to address your client's research objectives. You know that most of your subjects won't participate if you are honest with them about the time commitment. Your boss suggests that you simply state the survey will "only take a few minutes." Do you take this advice and hope that once the interviews begin people will be reluctant to stop?

CASRO places the responsibility on the researcher for "weighing the research need against the length of the interview" and specifically states that potential research subjects "must not be enticed into an interview by a misrepresentation of the length of the interview."

ESOMAR guidelines similarly prohibit either researchers or interviewers from knowingly misleading potential respondents about the length of an interview in order to gain cooperation. The Marketing Research Association (MRA) has Recommended Best Business Practices for Opinion and Marketing Research, which notes that respondents should not be misled regarding the length of the interview.

Returning to the situation with your boss, how do you respond to the "suggestion" that you tell potential respondents that your survey will take "a few minutes" rather than saying the interview will last approximately 30 minutes?

Situation 3: You are in a kick-off meeting with a new client for your marketing research services. During your discussion, she shows you a previously commissioned research study from another marketing research provider. You note that the research design—a qualitative study—was completely inappropriate for the research purpose—a quantitative estimate of market potential. Your potential client states that she "really liked" the previous study and asks if you can replicate it in another product category. It is clear that if you say no, she will go back to the original provider. How do you respond?

Professionalism and fairness are a hallmark of all of the ethical codes and standards we have discussed. The American Marketing Association (AMA) Code of Ethics warns against taking advantage of situations in such a way that "unfairly deprives or damages the organization of others." The ICC/ESOMAR International Code of Marketing and Social Research Practice stipulates that researchers "must not unjustifiably criticize or disparage other Researchers."

More to the point, however, is the AAPOR Code of Professional Ethics and Practices, which states: "We shall not knowingly make interpretations of research results, nor shall we tacitly permit interpretations that are inconsistent with the data available."

What is your ethical responsibility when the sale is contingent on doing something you know to be wrong?

Although these situations have been described in terms of marketing research practice, the essential ethical questions are really very simple:

  • Situation 1: Would you go back on your word and betray the trust that others have placed in you?

  • Situation 2: Would you lie to get others to cooperate with you?

So far, I have avoided giving answers to the proposed situations other than to cite marketing research industry codes and standards. That is because ethical decision making is personal. Each of us must make tough ethical decisions alone, but it can help greatly when there are established guidelines.

Here are three general observations that might suggest how I would address the ethical challenges presented:

  1. If Plato was right that ethical problems spring from a conflict of interests, you should clearly lay out your personal perspective sooner rather than later. My generalized response to the first situation is to initially provide the client with a hardcopy of the Code of Ethics under which I operate, emphasizing those issues important to the particular project. I make certain that clients know what to expect from me and what the final deliverables will include. And—most importantly—I continue to discuss and manage those expectations throughout the entire project.

  2. People tend to lie when they think someone else cannot handle the truth. In the second situation, I have found that if you can honestly persuade the potential respondent that both the research and their participation are important, you can talk to them indefinitely.

  3. Marketing research is an art, not a science. There is no single best solution to any research situation, and researchers should avoid a rush to judgment situations like the third. And rather than criticize another's work, it is best to simply state your own position or approach as articulately and compellingly as possible.

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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).