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Ethical Issues Regarding Marketing and Advertising to Vulnerable Populations

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According to Marketing Abstracts, 1967 Journal of Marketing, contemporary marketing is characterized by the marketing concept which enjoins marketers to determine the wants and needs of the customers and then try to satisfy them. Marketing and advertising as brought out by Palmer & Hedberg, 2012 are the actions and tactics a company publicly takes in order to promote their goods and services. This ranges in many ways from word of mouth to billboard advertising, and television and radio commercials. This is usually carried out with just ordinary consumers in mind and less frequently is attention ever given to vulnerable consumers. Marketing to the ordinary person in itself raises many moral questions, and marketing to the vulnerable raises even more moral questions which deserve greater attention.

The term vulnerable is complex and requires being somewhat unpacked. To be vulnerable is to be susceptible to being wounded, liable to physical hurt (Barnhart 1956). Man-made or natural harms can befall someone as well as harms from actions or omissions, in any case threatened harm is to one’s welfare and interests. The subjectivity of being vulnerable sets in when you look at indebtedness for instance and one can always ask at what point providers of soft loans become deemed as loan sharks unethically exploiting the economically disadvantaged. The Institutional Review Board, 2019 commonly considers the following to be vulnerable; children, minors or individuals under the legal age of consent, incarcerated individuals such as prisoners, residents of a facility such as a mental health facility, nursing home, treatment centre, individuals with a life-threatening illness or condition such as cancer, HIVAIDS, individuals with a debilitating mental health condition or cognitive impairment, pregnant women as well as victims of traumatic events such as abuse, natural disasters, individuals involved in a crisis such as war, economically disadvantaged individuals, those not fluent in the language marketing and advertising is being conducted, elderly individuals sixty-five years or older.

It is assumed in the Journal of Marketing that ethics means a standard by which business activities may be judged right or wrong. This piece aims to explore with reference to Zimbabwean examples the notion of vulnerability that a target group might have. It will also bring out how marketing to the vulnerable requires marketing campaigns that are designed to ensure that these individuals are not treated unfairly and ultimately possibly harmed in some further manner. It is deemed unethical to market to the vulnerable in ways that take advantage of their vulnerability and as such marketing and advertising programs that violate this by using techniques such as deception, coercion and manipulation are deemed unethical or unscrupulous.

The ethics of marketing to the vulnerable population cannot be looked at without looking at the ethical frameworks that evaluate the ethics of marketing to vulnerable populations. Based on ethical theorist Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative principle, everyone has a duty not to lie regardless of whether it is in our best interest to do so. Businesses should not target vulnerable groups in their marketing tactics and as such marketing to children may be considered as being done with the intention to deceive because children are a lucrative market as they do not understand persuasive intent. Mills’ Utilitarianism theory then goes on to judge the ethical soundness of marketing and advertising by weighing out negative consequences against positive good contributed.

Research has documented that marketing campaigns that maximize on promoting foodstuffs such as sugary candy, heavily salted oily snacks and fast foods such as Chicken Slice with their slogan ‘delicious slice of the day’ or Chicken Inn’s ‘Luv dat chicken. Chicken slice even took a step further and introduced their Kiddies Meal which contains a different toy for each box purchased. Little do children know that these have a negative effect on their health in the long run. Advertisers act unethically in this regard by aiming at children who are more easily persuaded and are not capable of resisting marketing tactics. Marketers capitalize on the fact that children’s opinion of how tasty they think the food is directly related to how well advertised the product is. Also when advertisement contains personalities or toys that the children prefer, there are high chances of that product becoming more easily acceptable. The Zimbabwean retail shops at one point stocked the popular chips which were once a hit amongst the young children with different kinds of wrestlers on the packets such as Hulk Hogan, The Undertaker and so on. Through this kind of marketing, children would get excited to the extent of practicing the stunts that they knew were associated with these wrestlers on the packets as a result promoting violent behavior amongst the little ones. Coca-cola advertisements show an ice-cold bottle being taken out of the refrigerator and this shows a wrong message. In as much as it quenches thirst, marketers do not bring out the health issues surrounding the high sugar levels contained in a single bottle.

In Brenkert 1998’s signature article Marketing and the Vulnerable, anyone could be harmed by those who market goods to them in a particular context and when this happens, the consumer experiences vulnerability. He also takes it further and mentions that one can be deemed vulnerable when someone or something is likely to cause them harm while in a unique or temporary psychological context or state such as divorce, grief, bankruptcy or poverty. Some scholars argue that while vulnerability may be deemed as also being temporary, it can also be interpreted as a more persistent and systemic form such as terminal illness, blindness, being deaf, sight loss, or mental incapacitation. A typical example is that of a young adult taking care of their ailing parent, the parent’s vulnerability is classified as an ailing elderly adult and the young adult through relation also becomes vulnerable in their capacity as someone who has the burden of looking after a sick parent. Both are in vulnerable states but just different ones.

Brenkert’s critiques bring forth an argument that taking advantage of a vulnerable population such as stigmatized outsize or obese people by taking advantage of their size and respectfully using that to market clothes as a means to obtain profit is not deemed unethical in any way. An example can be given of the Wallis Outsize boutique in Harare’s Central Business District. In that same light of seizing the marketing and advertising opportunity in a positive light, techniques could also be devised that young children cannot familiarize with in order to get them to exercise healthy eating or use fear appeals to the elderly to foster the administration of medication in a proper manner.

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Cancer or other terminally ill patients may place confidence in online information when endorsed by professionals. These patients may be especially vulnerable due to controversial marketing associated with fear and anxiety. An example are the false prophets which are on the increase in Zimbabwe and Africa in general who mount advertisements on trees, social media, radio and television. Besides the chronically ill, false prophets also preach the gospel of prosperity to gullible poverty-stricken people who are willing to trust anything and as a result experience the psychological pressure of advertising persuasiveness. The advertising and marketing strategies contain language which evokes hope for better outcomes and more often than not have no supporting claims. People become hopeful for survival and positive outcomes and become victims of over-exaggerated product or service benefit, others even reach to the extent of not taking the routine medication prescribed by their Doctors and put their hopes in the prophets. As a control measure, regulatory institutions such as the Medical and Dental Practitioners Council of Zimbabwe which is a governing body that was set up under the Health Professions Act, Chapter 27:19 published a policy on information to the public which governs the kind of information Doctors, an institution or a group which a Doctor is associated can disseminate to the public. A snippet from the policy states that; information must contain truthful and balanced representations, one must not put pressure on people to use a service for example by using arousing ill-founded fear for their future health, information must not unduly glamourize products or services or foster unrealistic expectations.

Cigarette marketers use misleading languages such as soft, mild, light or refreshing like the locally sold Everest and Kingsgate. This appealing wording is deceiving and impacts on vulnerable groups, it leads consumers to believe that they are less likely to get sick or die. Social cognitive theory proposes that individuals can be influenced through symbolic images in advertising. A good example is that youth are at the stage where they yearn to fit in and believe they are able to do this through smoking cigarettes when they see these celebrity-endorsed adverts on television or banners as well as the subtle colour of the cigarette packets portrayed in the advertisements, moral deterioration sets in to this vulnerable population which can be easily swayed. The environment in which they are advertised also plays a major role in influencing the youth to be attracted to smoking. The local Zimbabwean broadcasting industry has demonstrated ethical efforts in the industry and has initiated the removal of offensive alcohol, and condom advertisements from children’s programming and the advertisements are limited to late-night adult viewing when young viewers have long gone to sleep.

Blind and disabled people want the same product as everyone else but are often overlooked when it comes to marketing and advertising. In Zimbabwe, marketers of smart gadgets such as smartphones and tablets are not considerate of the visually impaired and also the elderly to a greater extent. The blind cannot use the bulk of the functions that come with smartphones for example. Many people are living with sight loss, the aging population coupled with growing occurrence of underlying health conditions such as diabetes predicts that the number of people living with sight loss may rise and same goes for the deaf community. This group is currently not fully engaged and run the risk of being manipulated as they either cannot see or hear what the product is all about. A typical Zimbabwean example is that of Econet, recently some subscribers had money deducted from their Ecocash accounts under the Ecosure scheme and one would receive a message informing you that you now had an Ecosure account without consenting or subscribing to it and a registration number provided. The blind would not know of this unethical stance that Econet had taken and this poses a challenge to this vulnerable community, their funds are taken without their knowledge. There is also the issue of unsolicited contacting where other companies including Econet’s 3443 number send text messages without subscribing to it advertising their Ecohealthy products even to the elderly who sometimes cannot even interpret these advertisements. Brands are meant to connect with consumers from all viewpoints and backgrounds.

Under the same umbrella of unethical advertising involving the vulnerable poor, again reference is made to Econet in Zimbabwe where planned obsolescence was used. The Kwese decoder was designed with an intentionally limited life span and shortly afterward, Kwese Iflix was introduced. This is a marketing gimmick affecting the poor and vulnerable population who had bought these decoders in the hope that they would last, only for them to be terminated, leaving the struggling Zimbabwean to look for another alternative yet again. This was unethical as deception was used from the inception of the Kwese Iflix. The truth was masked from the population including the poor who had used their hard-earned savings in such a harsh and tough economic environment who were just left hanging after the product’s closure.

Expectant mothers, especially first-timers are usually keen to shop around for their new bundles of joy that are on the way and this makes them highly influential in whatever way. Since there are many expectant mothers at any given time, some marketers tend to take advantage of this vulnerable population and use marketing statements, Power Sales a Zimbabwean store that stocks pre-natal clothing has a slogan that says shop at Power Sales where your money buys you more. This is done in a bid to lure expectant mothers to purchase clothing for their babies from that particular shop but it has not been proven that indeed their money will indeed buy them more. Another example is the misleading and harmful infant formula advertising which was done by Nestle, a company that also had a franchise in Zimbabwe. Nestle encouraged mothers to bottle fed instead of breast feed their babies which was in violation of the WHO code. Mothers were offered free milk samples whilst still in hospitals so that their babies would get adapted to it and continue to use it upon release from the hospital. They also misled mothers of twins into believing that they could not breastfeed their young while many international health organizations showed that there is not enough evidence for this claim which Nestle was posing to mothers.

Political advertising, some people regardless of their political affiliation are lured to political rallies as part of a campaign strategy. In Zimbabwe, poor people in the rural areas are given foodstuffs like beans, rice, and regalia such as t-shirts and materials lure them into attending organised rallies. In order to solicit food, they attend the rallies regardless of whether they are politically affiliated or not. Different political manifestos propose how they intend to render prosperity to the country and improve the lives of the people of Zimbabwe, no national ethics are considered by the politicians when making such empty promises to a vulnerable nation that has most of its people living in poverty.

In conclusion, George. G. Brenkert was among the first to raise the issue of taking advantage of the vulnerability of a person which therefore makes marketing practices immoral or unjust. The moral obligation of doing no harm is considered by some ethicists as the cornerstone for healthcare providers since Hippocrates' time. Doing good or beneficence is another obligation upheld in helping professions. Lastly, people have the right to exercise autonomy and make their own decisions on matters that affect them and not be exposed to persuasive or manipulative arguments. In as much as the essay brought out how use of deception and manipulation is to a large extent mostly unethical when done to vulnerable populations, it must be noted that as discussed above, it is in some instances considered morally justified to use marketing techniques that take advantage of the vulnerable to promote products which members of this group need. Critics of Brenkert’s theory also came in with an egoistic viewpoint which gives justification for self-interest as an ultimate goal to breaking even or even making a profit in business which are in opposition to Kant and Mills philosophy of unethical marketing. Critics based their argument on taking advantage of vulnerability such as being outsized in weight in order to market and push sales to such people which does not at all bring further harm in any way.

Marketers that market responsibly gain the trust of vulnerable populations and people around the.


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Ethical Issues Regarding Marketing and Advertising to Vulnerable Populations. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from
“Ethical Issues Regarding Marketing and Advertising to Vulnerable Populations.” Edubirdie, 27 Dec. 2022,
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