Ethics in Market Research

by Vibrant Publishers
Market research was first developed as a concept in the late 1930’s in the USA as an off shoot of the advertising boom during the Golden Age of Radio. Companies began to decipher consumer demographics by the specific type of brands that advertised in between specific shows.

Today it is one of the most important functions of marketing management. It is used for everything a new business decides to do – from launching a new product, improving an existing one, understanding roadblocks in the company’s progress in almost every function from supply chain to product development to taking corrective measures therein.

Nowadays, however, the way businesses conduct research can have some serious consequences. Moreover, failure to follow proper ethical guidelines during research, could subject companies to face major backlash from the public and or land the company into legal trouble.

Marketing Management Essentials states that over the past several years, survey rates have declined drastically because the sentiment of “Big Brother is watching” is rampant in our society today and the main reason why people refuse to take any kind of survey.



Why Ethical Market Research Matters?

To protect the rights of the subjects, the researcher and the client and to uphold the welfare of the society at large – where the research is being conducted.
That said, here are the reasons why ethics is considered important in market research:
  1. The results and information obtained from the research, eventually and more often than not becomes a part of the public domain. Hence, those taking part in the research stand the risk of exposing their private information to the public at large.

  2. The information provided by the subjects or respondents becomes the proprietary information of the company conducting the research, and it may use the information towards its own benefit. It may sell the data to another party, or use the data to send out unwanted messages to the subject or manipulate the data and use it in some other unethical way without the consent of the subject.



Key Elements of an Ethical Market Research:

  1. Voluntary Participation: The subjects in market research must be voluntary participants. They should in no way be compelled to participate and provide personal information and details, either by means of threat or blackmail or any other way of coercion.

  2. Informed Consent: The participants decision to take part in the survey should be an informed one and he/she must be made aware of details like the instrument of the survey, the use of the findings and personal information, selection criteria of subjects used etc.

  3. Risk of Harm: There should be no risk of any harm that could come to the respondents as a result of participating in the research.

  4. Confidentiality: The researcher should maintain full confidentiality of all the information provided by the subject and should not use it for any purpose other than the one clearly stated prior to obtaining subject consent.

  5. Anonymity: The anonymity of the participants has to preserved after the findings are made public else it may harm the subjects and their reputation in some way, and the company could land up in legal trouble.

  6. Privacy: The researcher needs to maintain the privacy of the participants and not cross the line during the research process.



Importance of Language in Market Research:

It goes without saying that language is the single most important factor affecting the ethical practice of market research. Inappropriate use of words and twisting of sentences could lead to misinterpretation of questions and findings and could jeopardizing the entire marketing efforts of the company.


What could go wrong?

1) Lack of Objectivity in Interpretation:


  • Sometimes the researcher is not experienced and may include / exclude data collected from the research as per his or her own beliefs, interpretation, knowledge of the research subject.

  • Purposely withholding of information either by the research company, the client or the subject, each to suit their own selfish purposes rather than the research problem.

  • Changing the wordings of the either the questions or findings of the survey to get a desired outcome rather than an arrived one.

  • Generalizing findings of the research.


2) Lack of Integrity in data collection:


  • Collecting false data (fudging the data)

  • Failure to abide by pre decided data collection methods.


3) Treatment of Respondents:


  • Disrespectful treatment of subjects

  • Lack of privacy for the respondents during the research process.


4) Plagiarism:


  • Copying the survey forms / instruments from other researchers

  • Reporting researches done in other surveys as ones own


5) Sugging:

  • Selling under the guise of research



6) Fugging:


  • Fundraising under the guise of research



The Nuremberg Code (German: Nürnberger Kodex) is a set of research ethics principles for human experimentation created as a result of the Nuremberg trials at the end of the Second World War. (source:  Wikipedia)
This is the most widely used code of conducting an ethical research by any company / organization.




Always keep in mind that ethical practices for conducting marketing research will provide long term benefits not just to your company but to your employees, customers, suppliers, and stakeholders as well. Apart from that, ethical market research practices also allow you to create trust and credibility for your company.
The only thing that an ethical market researcher needs to remember is “If you think you are doing something unethical, you probably are”
To know in detail about market research systems, how it is conducted and what are the dynamics involved, grab a copy of Marketing Management Essentials You Always Wanted to Know.