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The Ethics of Marketing to Vulnerable Populations


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.

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  1. For some examples, see Baker et al. (2005), Walsh and Mitchell (2005), and Mansfield and Pinto (2008).

  2. Gaski (2001) is a notable exception. Smith (2001) bases some of his arguments on Brenkert’s ideas and analysis. Gaski raises criticisms against Smith (pp. 29–30) that he believes could likewise be lodged against Brenkert.

  3. On pp. 8–9, Brenkert distinguishes between disadvantaged groups and specially vulnerable groups. The difference, roughly, is that while the disadvantaged are (merely) impaired or unequal in some way with respect to others in their attempt to obtain various good and services, the specially vulnerable are (in addition) open to suffering harm from those who market goods to them.

  4. We thank an anonymous reviewer for raising a concern that led to this paragraph.

  5. Kant (2002, p. 230).

  6. What if Brenkert was to respond here by arguing that we’re appealing to a utilitarian justification of the permissibility of marketing to young children in this way, a justification that he wants to reject? In reply, Brenkert seems to imply that a justification of marketing based on maximizing “total utilities” is wrong because this sort of justification “permits treating some individuals merely as a means to the ends of others” (p. 10). But as our example of the government-sponsored healthy eating campaign to young children shows, the mere fact that a justification for marketing is based on maximizing total utilities does not entail that the people being marketed to are being treated merely as a means to one’s own ends. (We thank an anonymous reviewer for suggesting the example of a government-sponsored campaign to young children.)

  7. Admittedly, whether a particular situation is exploitative may hinge significantly on what theory of exploitation one endorses. For instance, while some may think benefiting from another’s disadvantaged bargaining position is sufficient for the action to be exploitative, others may claim that excessively benefiting from other’s bargaining position is necessary for the act to be exploitative. We do not intend here to commit either ourselves or Brenkert to any particular theory of exploitation. The prior discussion serves only to highlight some general features that should be common to all theories of exploitation (e.g., inequalities between the bargaining positions of the transacting parties, the stronger party taking advantage of the weaker party), and our refutation of this strand of argument does not hinge on endorsing a particular definition of what constitutes exploitation.

  8. Note that the claim that tall persons are (merely) disadvantaged rather than specially vulnerable would not help Brenkert here. All we’re trying to do is show that (3*) is false. In order to do this, we need to come up with a situation in which it can be fair to use a person’s disadvantageous bargaining position to secure additional benefits for oneself when the other party’s bargaining position results from factors largely beyond her control. Plausibly, the marketing strategy of the “big and tall” store owner fits this bill.

  9. We thank an anonymous reviewer for pressing us to address Brenkert’s statement in greater detail.

  10. Perhaps Brenkert might argue that the properties we’ve chosen to highlight the elderly’s vulnerability—their fragility, increased likelihood of falling down, and so on—are not the relevant kinds of properties. He might argue that he can allow that it is perfectly permissible—and, indeed, possible—to market to the elderly by pointing out this sort of information, but it would be a different matter if the marketers targeted the cognitive difficulties such a population faces, seeking to confuse and instill fear in them. In reply, we wonder whether a marketer could “point out” this sort of information without instilling, and thereby trading on, the elderly’s fear of falling down or their fear of being fragile, If not, then our point that it becomes (on Brenkert’s analysis) impossible to market to the specially vulnerable still stands.

  11. Brenkert also identifies several other competencies that market clients must have (p. 12), such as awareness of legal rights and the ability to shop at more than one place.

  12. In sect. "III", we noted a probable exception to this with regard to marketing to those with cognitive vulnerabilities that prevent rational choice.

  13. Sher (2011) proposes a framework for identifying marketing tactics that are immorally manipulative that serves as a helpful and recent example of how we might approach this task.


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The authors would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for very helpful comments on an earlier manuscript of this article, which significantly helped in improving the final version.

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Correspondence to David Palmer.

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Palmer, D., Hedberg, T. The Ethics of Marketing to Vulnerable Populations. J Bus Ethics 116, 403–413 (2013).

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  • Ethics
  • Marketing
  • Vulnerability
  • Market clients
  • Exploitation
  • Consumer interests