Ethical standards in the global setting
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Ethical standards in the global setting

Ethics is a tricky matter – individuals and societies have different ideas about what it means. How does ethics vary across the globe, and what does this mean for businesses that enter different markets?

The ethics of marketing can never be quite the same the world over. For as long as cultural norms differ, what’s acceptable in East or South Asia might easily cause offence in the West, and vice versa.

In the UK, we’re used to the mantra of legal, honest, decent, truthful. But some marketers – here and elsewhere – still inhabit a world of half-truths and ethically dubious methods. One notorious example is ‘greenwashing’, the deceitful use of spin to claim that an organisation's products are environmentally friendly.

Yet, in some areas, things are being addressed. For instance, under an ethical marketing charter established by the UK’s National Accident Helpline, signatories have agreed not to cold-call, send spam texts or emails, or trade accident data.

Some years ago, the Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) survey of 60 codes of business ethics worldwide found that almost half lacked any mention of issues around marketing. However, IBE director Philippa Foster Back can see ethical standards starting to converge globally – a lot of firms are becoming “more savvy”.

“Large companies trading internationally are finding the need for good corporate governance, if they want to attract foreign investors,” she says. “They have some kind of ethics that begin to match what’s going on in the West – where there’s best practice, they’ll keep to the same norms.”

The world is full of radically different markets and opportunities. Where that happens, there’ll always be arguments about what’s ethically right in terms of doing business. Take, for instance, the outcry when global giant Unilever chose to market its skin-whitening product Fair and Lovely in India – a concept anathema to many in the West, who sensed racial undertones.

Yet, says Foster Back, the concept was “perfectly well-intentioned… as a way of making yourself and perceiving yourself to be beautiful… in a very large part of the culture.” Faced with a choice between appeasing critics and doing business, the company “came down in favour of their customers”. “They didn’t see it as their role to change the mores of a country they were doing business in,” she adds.

While many parts of the West have a highly developed health and safety ‘don’t try this at home’ culture, Foster Back has seen product marketing TV ads from countries such as Japan depicting people doing crazy and dangerous things that would be unacceptable elsewhere.

She concedes they reflect a different sense of humour, but remains uneasy about any element of what “doesn’t look safe” being projected into family homes.

“We’re lucky to have the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) to keep a check on these things,” Foster Back says. However, she adds that the inescapable fact is that it’s “perfectly legitimate” for a company to market its products in a way that will sell within the local culture.

Not every business market is mature enough to have developed legislation and an ASA-style watchdog. All that takes time. But globalisation has unleashed the potential for big companies trading internationally to synchronise their marketing ethics.

Nowadays, the whirlwind force of social media can tip balances. “In a 24/7 world, if someone gets an idea that there’s a [marketing campaign] they don’t like, it’s easy to stir things up and bring that to someone’s attention,” says Foster Back. A Twitterstorm could be all it takes for companies to make swift calculations and clean up their marketing act if needed.

If you'd like to learn more about how to bridge cultural differences when entering new international markets, then take a look at our Global Branding course. 

Andrew Mourant Freelance Journalist
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