The ethics of sugging and – yes – even fugging

By Heidi Dietzsch

Unethical conduct in market research can have devastating consequences for research houses. Not only can it affect future business negatively, it can also destroy a good and carefully nurtured reputation. To say that ethics should be considered in every research project is a massive understatement.

Principles such as honesty, professionalism, fairness and confidentiality should be considered when market research is conducted. Ethically sound research considers the interests of the public, the respondents, the clients, the market research profession and those of the researcher.

Everybody involved in a research study needs to act in an ethical manner – from the researchers to the data processors and fieldworkers – and eventually also the clients and how they treat the data they receive. Ethical questions range from practical, narrowly defined issues such as researchers’ obligation to be honest with their clients; to broader social and philosophical questions, such as a company’s responsibility to preserve the environment and protect employee rights.

Researchers have two very important responsibilities when conducting a market research study. The first is to treat respondents fairly and the second is to deliver accurate and reliable data to clients.

Another important responsibility is to consider whether any type of harm could occur as part of a study. Researchers need to ensure that mechanisms are instituted to remove any potential harm.

Unfortunately, it is often far too easy for researchers to land themselves in ethical conundrums for which there are certainly no easy answers or solutions. Imagine the following scenario: You have been commissioned by a large bank to conduct a study on how people are handling their personal finances. One of the questions you need to ask is how people are supplementing their income. When you are asking this question during an in-depth interview, the respondent casually mentions that he is selling illegal drugs.

You now finding yourself in an uncomfortable and possibly illegal position of knowing far more than you want to know. Morally and legally you might need to report this crime, but simultaneously you have promised your respondent confidentiality in return for sharing sensitive information. What do you do?

The Protection of Personal Information Act (Popi) can also have far-reaching consequences for market researchers if they don’t comply to its regulations. This act aims to ensure that all South African institutions conduct themselves in a responsible manner when collecting, processing, storing and sharing another entity’s personal information. It generally seeks to protect people’s privacy, which is considered a fundamental human right.

Although Popi was signed into law on 26 November 2013, it is not yet effective as a commencement date has not been established. Once the date is confirmed, companies will have 12 months to comply.

Once respondents have given explicit consent that they will take part in a study, they must be informed on how their information will be used and whether it will be provided or sold to any third parties.

It is not acceptable under any circumstances to misrepresent or exaggerate market research results to support a marketing claim, company target or an executive’s view. Market researchers shouldn’t have a vested self-interest in the results and the results should be objective and driven by the data.

The term “sugging” stands for “selling under the guise of research”. This is an unethical practice that can seriously damage the validity of the market research industry. Information provided by respondents should never be used for lead generation, sales prospecting or any other direct sales effort. In the US there have been cases where complaints have been filed with the Federal Trade Commission against research companies that practiced sugging.

Similarly harmful is fugging – that’s “fundraising under the guise of research”. This unscrupulous practice occurs frequently in politics. For instance, respondents are called thinking they are participating in a political survey. Once they’ve answered some questions, they are confronted with a fund-raising pitch. Fugging is devious since the collected data are not used at all – the only objective is fundraising. This practice also makes it difficult for valid market researchers when they need to take the pulse of voters.

Another particularly sleazy method that sometimes masquerades as market research is push polling. Once again, respondents are under the impression that they are taking part in a political poll. The questions they are asked are skewed to one side of an issue or candidate, with the goal being to sway large numbers of voters. Push polling is so incompatible with authentic polling that the American Association for Public Opinion Research and the American Association of Political Consultants have denounced the practice.

There is a big responsibility on the shoulders of researchers to act ethically – they have a moral obligation to treat respondents respectfully and not to engage in deceiving or damaging practices. Respondents are the lifeblood of market research and if they are treated unjustly the industry will deteriorate. The public also depend on market research for information on products and services and when this information is skewed, a disservice is done to the public. Market research is a vital business solution – but it has repercussions – therefore, ethical standards are critical.