Ethical dilemmas

I always start a marketing course with the same Bible verse:

Proverbs 20:23, “The LORD detests differing weights, and dishonest scales do not please him.”

Why is there a passage on scales in the Old Testament? Because the market in those days was near the town center and sometimes inside the Temple. Unfortunately, it had become known as a place of dishonest merchants. Jesus said in Mark 11:17

“And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ’My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of robbers’.”

In those days, a large number of staples were sold on weight—grain, rice, meat, etc.—just as they are today. A scale was used to determine how much the buyer was buying. If the scales were intentionally inaccurate and read higher than reality, the buyer got a bad deal. There was minimal oversight of merchants and no Federal Trade Commission or state Division of Weights and Measurements to verify the accuracy of the scales, so the buyer had to trust the integrity of the seller. Was this fair to the buyer? I would say no. Today many products are still sold be weight or volume (cereal, water, gas, electricity, meat, etc.) but technology is so common that it would be very difficult for a manufacturer or retailer to consistently short a customer. However, one company I know printed on 16 point board, which is measure of thickness. The industry spec for that type of paperboard was +/- 1 pt, so a purchased 16-point board could range from 15-17 points. Thicker also meant heavier and since paper is actually sold by weight, a 15-point saved 6.25% by weight which was millions of dollars a year if you bought enough. The only problem—they used it and sold it as 16-point and as long as the manufacturer produced 15 as 15, they were “within industry tolerance” of a 16-point board. Was that legal? Yes. Did it lead to more profit? Yes. Was it ethical? I would tend to say no.

Marketing is rife with ethical intersections like this. Even with the incredible increase in oversight today, unethical practices in marketing and sales exist. Throughout this course, we will look at ethical issues and questions because as leaders, we are very visible in our actions and policies. As Christian-trained business people, it is up to us to hold to a high standard of honesty in ad copy, performance statements, negotiations, service claims, pricing, donor relations, corporate sponsorships, and service delivery.

Discussion questions:

How do we counteract these ethical dilemmas? Can we counteract them?
What else does the Bible tell and teach us about ethical behavior related to marketing? If you honor a different faith, please feel free to share how your faith addresses the same issues.

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