Commercializing Social Interaction: The Ethics of Stealth Marketing

Firms striving to reach consumers through today’s swell of marketing clutter frequently are employing novel marketing practices. Although many nontraditional marketing messages are effective through clever, entertaining, and, ultimately, benign means, others rely on deception to reach consumers. In particular, one form of covert marketing, known as stealth marketing, uses surreptitious practices that fail to disclose or reveal the true relationship with the company producing or sponsoring the marketing message. In addition to deception, stealth marketing can involve intrusion and exploitation of social relationships as means of achieving effectiveness. In this article, the authors consider the ethical implications using three stealth marketing case studies. They cast the discussion in the context of consumer defense mechanisms by employing literature on skepticism and persuasion knowledge to help explain the effectiveness of these practices. The authors identify the ethical problems inherent to stealth marketing and conclude their analysis with recommendations for marketers and public policy makers.

Keywords: covert marketing, ethics, stealth marketing, consumer skepticism, deception


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