The Ethics of Marketing to Vulnerable Populations
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- Palmer, D. & Hedberg, T. J Bus Ethics (2013) 116: 403. doi:10.1007/s10551-012-1476-2
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An orthodox view in marketing ethics is that it is morally impermissible to market goods to specially vulnerable populations in ways that take advantage of their vulnerabilities. In his signature article “Marketing and the Vulnerable,” Brenkert (Bus Ethics Q Ruffin Ser 1:7–20, 1998) provided the first substantive defense of this position, one which has become a well-established view in marketing ethics. In what follows, we throw new light on marketing to the vulnerable by critically evaluating key components of Brenkert’s general arguments. Specifically, we contend that Brenkert has failed to offer us any persuasive reasons to think that it is immoral to market to the vulnerable in ways that take advantage of their vulnerability. Although Brenkert does highlight the fact that the specially vulnerable are at greater risk of being harmed by already immoral marketing practices (e.g., deception, manipulation), he fails to establish that the specially vulnerable are a unique moral category of market clients or that there are special moral standards that apply to them. Moreover, even if Brenkert’s position were theoretically defensible, the practical implications of his position are far less tenable than he suggests. If our criticisms are sound, then Brenkert and others who endorse his position are seriously mistaken regarding how one can permissibly market products to vulnerable populations, and, in addition, they have improperly categorized certain morally permissible marketing practices as being immoral.