Monday, June 15, 2015

Thinking Allowed: Is it good business to go beyond what is legal?

One hotly contested area involves marketing to various vulnerable populations. Palmer and Hedberg (2013) credited Brenkert (1998) with offering the first substantive argument in support of the commonly accepted practice of refraining from marketing to vulnerable populations in a manner so as to exploit those vulnerabilities. In his groundbreaking thesis, Brenkert (1998) identified groups such as children, retirees, and individual who recently lost a family member as being vulnerable.

However, in a critique of Brenkert (1998), Palmer and Hedberg (2013) suggested that organizations have the right and need to market to vulnerable populations. Further, Palmer and Hedberg’s (2013) contended that marketers should utilize approaches designed to exploit the vulnerability of those populations.

A specific area that attracts a great deal of debate involves producers of alcoholic beverages and adolescents. In a survey of 13 to 15 year olds, Gordon and Harris (2011) found that the mean age for adolescents to have their first alcoholic beverage was approximately 11 years, with 50% of 14 year olds reporting to have tried alcohol.  Furthermore, 51% of the participants owned clothes or other items that featured the brand of an alcoholic beverage. Based on the findings in their empirical study, Gordon and Harris (2011) suggested marketing practitioners have a responsibility to consumers beyond what is legal and need to ensure that the promotional activities include social responsibility strategies. The researchers encouraged alcohol and food industry marketers to change from solely encouraging consumption to putting social responsibility at core of the strategy.

In fact, many in the alcoholic beverage industry have already begun implementing social responsibility in their marketing. In a recent study, 87% of alcohol advertisements contained a version of the drink responsibly message (Smith, Cukier, & Jernigan, 2014).  Diageo is a major producer of alcoholic beverages whose brands include Johnnie Walker, Royal Crown, Smirnoff, Guinness, Baileys, Don Julio, and others. Mosher (2012) reported that the company spent 17% of its advertising marketing budget between 2001 and 2005 on social responsibility messages. Diageo is a good example of an organization that takes a holistic approach to marketing by recognizing the importance of going beyond what is legal so as to maintain a positive public image.

So is it good business for marketers to go beyond what is legal? In my opinion, the simple answer is yes. Diageo’s holistic approach to marketing involved a sophisticated public relations campaign aimed at the public, government agencies, elected officials, and public health associations. This type of holistic approach is critical when the company’s product has potentially negative impacts on public wellbeing (Mosher, 2012). While the drink responsibly messages were largely contained in promotional techniques designed to increase consumption, the fact remains that U.S. law does not require the messaging (Smith et al., 2014).  

What do you think?

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Gordon, R. & Harris, F. (2011). Assessing the cumulative impact of alcohol marketing on young people's drinking: Cross-sectional data findings. Addiction Research & Theory, 19(1), 66-75. doi: /10.3109/16066351003597142

Mosher, J. F. (2012). Joe Camel in a bottle: Diageo, the Smirnoff brand, and the transformation of the youth alcohol market. American Journal Of Public Health, 102(1), 56-63. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2011.300387

Palmer, D., & Hedberg, T. (2013). The ethics of marketing to vulnerable populations. Journal Of Business Ethics, 116(2), 403-413. doi:10.1007/s10551-012-1476-2

Sher, S. (2011). A framework for assessing immorally manipulative marketing tactics. Journal of Business Ethics, 102(1), 97-118. doi:

Smith, K. C., Cukier, S., & Jernigan, D. H. (2014). Defining strategies for promoting product through ‘drink responsibly’ messages in magazine ads for beer, spirits and alcopops. Drug and alcohol dependence, 142, 168-173. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2014.06.007

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