The ethical dilemmas of the market researcher

Date of publication: September 1, 1988


The success of the market research industry over the past 40 years has led it into techniques and applications which were not anticipated by its original founders. As a result an increasing number of researchers are becoming involved in other related disciplines, which are subject to customs and codes of practice quite different from those used in market research itself. At the same time, growth has increased the impact of market research upon society in general, with the inevitable result that it is not always differentiated from other information- gathering activities; and crude legal restraints remain a continuing threat throughout the countries of Europe. This has been thrown into sharpest relief by issues such as 'sugging' (selling under the guise of research), telemarketing (telephone selling), data privacy, opinion polling, and mystery shopping. But behind these most topical and visible issues, there are an increasing number of other day-to-day dilemmas faced by practising researchers which remain outside the normal scope of market research training and codes of conduct: on these, many researchers are making up their own rules of acceptable conduct because little guidance is available, and there is a lack of consensus over what the conscientious professional should encourage, condone, or reject. In discussing this, and in providing illustrative examples, we do not wish to put a dead hand of moral restraint upon legitimate commercial enterprise; nor to place unwarranted obstacles in the way of the interdisciplinary development of market research. Nevertheless we would assert that there is now a pressing need to define the boundaries of our own discipline of market research, because it is only by appropriate differentiation from other disciplines that its freedom, its reputation, and ultimately its value, can be safeguarded for the future.

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