Another Type of Discrimination

Topic: Marketing Management, Advertising and Selling

Characters: Terry, Assistant Brand Manager, Paula, Brand Manager for a floor scrubbing soap


Paula is a Brand Manager at a large consumer goods company. The position is one that Terry aspires to. Paula has spent the last six months working on an important new marketing plan for a floor scrubbing soap. Paula’s superior has approved the plan and believes that successful execution of it would likely result in Paula’s being promoted to a different, more desirable product line.

It bothers Terry that the marketing plan calls for the product to be associated with a series of spokespersons who are physically unattractive. She feels this plan promulgates a stereotype which results in discrimination that hurts people born with lower physical attractiveness. Paula (a very physically attractive young woman) feels strongly that persons of less physical attractiveness are the most credible for this product. In fact, Paula supports this notion with a specific article in a top marketing journal. The article reports empirical evidence showing that it is financially advantageous to use physically unattractive spokespersons when marketing mundane products (such as those for cleaning and cooking) and to use physically attractive spokespersons when marketing glamorous products (such as perfumes and [clothing]).

For a special college project, Terry had reviewed over 1,000 scientific studies pertaining to “the physical attractiveness phenomenon.” She found ample documentation showing discrimination that is subtle, pervasive, and powerful. Specifically, attractive people are valued more by society than are those who are unattractive. She found that unattractive people are disadvantaged in employment, education, and throughout life. The differences are internalized, resulting in lower self-esteem, inferior social skills, and higher blood pressure. Other results include a significant role in the increase of eating disorders (bulimia and anorexia) as well as cosmetic surgery by people who often cannot afford it. Recently, Terry has read that this discrimination is becoming an increasingly important social issue with new developments that include boycotts and lawsuits.

Terry, a marketing major in college, has long been disturbed by marketing practices that promulgate the physical attractiveness phenomenon. For example, she has noticed that when comparative advertising is used, a physically attractive person is combined with the “right” product or the right choice and a physically unattractive person with the “wrong” product or choice.

Author: Gordon L. Patzer, Professor of Marketing, University of Northern Iowa.

What Are the Relevant Facts?

1. Paula and Terry have worked together on an important, major marketing plan.
2. The marketing plan has the approval of Paula’s supervisor, who believes that its successful execution will result in Paula’s being promoted to a different, more desirable product line.
3. Terry would like to have Paula’s current position as Product Manager, and her chances increase if Paula is promoted.
4. Terry is knowledgeable about both the marketing plan and the research pertaining to the physical attractiveness phenomenon. As a result, she is troubled by promulgation of a stereotype- phenomenon which a substantial amount of scientific research shows to have a negative impact on individuals and society.
5. Paula has one scientific/empirical article from atop marketing journal that shows it is financially advantageous to associate spokespersons of lower physical attractiveness with mundane products such as the floor scrubbing soap.
6. Terry is aware that the physical attractiveness phenomenon is being discussed as a new social issue of increasing importance that is expected, in the future, to manifest itself in the form of product/company boycotts and lawsuits.

What Are the Ethical Issues?

1. To what extent is Terry responsible for alerting the company about an increasingly important social issue that many experts are expecting to develop into boycotts of products and companies in the future, and possibly even result in related lawsuits?
2. Does Terry have an obligation to speak up when she believes marketing is promulgating an inferior role for those people born with lower physical attractiveness?
3. Should Terry be more concerned with her own career gain (possibly being promoted to Brand Manager if the current marketing plan is successful and Paula is promoted) or her own beliefs in social justice based on her knowledge of over 1,000 related empirical articles published in academic journals?

Who Are the Primary Stakeholders?

  • Paula, both professionally and personally
  • Terry, both professionally and personally
  • Society and physically unattractive individuals
  • Possibly the company and its stockholders if in fact related boycotts and lawsuits are likely to arise in the future

What Are the Possible Alternatives?

1. Terry could express her feelings about changing the marketing plan so it does not promulgate this discrimination based on appearance.
2. Terry could be quiet and hope Paula receives a promotion, which in turn would increase Terry’s chances of being promoted and might ultimately give Terry a greater opportunity to express her social conscience.
3. Since Paula feels strongly about what the spokespersons should look like for this product, Terry could request a meeting to discuss the issue with Paula’s superior to determine his views.
4. Terry could send a memo of concern to Paula and then send a copy to Paula’s superior.

What Are the Ethics of the Alternatives?

  • Ask questions based on a “utilitarian” perspective (costs and benefits). For example:

1. Which possible alternative provides the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people/entities?

2. How should costs be measured in this situation? How much value should be placed on “doing the right thing” for (1) a much larger cause of not promulgating the physical stereotype for the many people in our society born with lower physical attractiveness, (2) a
much larger cause involving greater recognition of an often overlooked pheno- menon, and (3) an individual’s belief and conscience that are founded on and supported by a large body of research?

3. Do the benefits outweigh the financial costs to the company which, if the marketing plan is not changed, is expected to be successful (as a result, in Terry’s opinion, of a social injustice)?