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Louise Ripley



Marketing for Competitive Advantage
M Louise Ripley MBA, PhD
You Wouldn’t Want to Hear – Ethics in the Business Classroom: Gender, Race, but Please Not Class
Return to Course Syllabus
Presented at Emerging Issues in Business and Technology Conference
Ethical, Environmental and Social Responsibility Track
November 9-11, 2000 – Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

Subsequently published: Ripley, M. Louise (2001) “You Wouldn't Want to Hear - Ethics in the Business Classroom: Gender, Race, But Please Not Class.” Journal of Contemporary Business Issues 8:2 (Fall): 84-92.  

For Dan Greeno, University of Toronto

My thanks to the Consumer Behaviour classes of the Summer and Winter of 2000, at Atkinson College, for their skits that inspired this paper, to my Research Assistants Monica Ben and Audrey Townsend, and to the patient staff of various magazine stands in Toronto


This paper explores a teaching device for bringing alive the contentious issue of social class, a controversial variable used in the practice of predicting behavior by consumers in the market, and allowing for its discussion in a university business class, utilizing commonly available popular magazines, advertisements, and role-playing. 


Social class is a controversial enough variable in the practice of the prediction of behavior by consumers in the market, but it is even more contentious as a subject in a university business program, even in a large cosmopolitan city. Some of the difficulties in using social class to predict purchase behavior stem from researchers’ tendencies to ignore status inconsistency, intergenerational mobility, and consumers’ tendencies to identify with the class to which they aspire rather than that to which they belong. (Solomon 1996, 442). Nevertheless, social scientists continue to believe in the concept as at least a partial predictor of consumer behavior, and its continuing presence in the literature means that we must find ways of teaching about it in the classroom. 

Teaching About Social Class

Twenty years ago when I first experimented with teaching ethics in a marketing class, it was a disaster. I assigned a case about buying a car in which there was some serious doubt about truth in advertising. Not only did not a single student ever mention the issue of the highly suspect ad, but when I brought it to their attention they were vehemently vociferous in informing me that this was a marketing decision that was to be made on the basis of the maximization of shareholders’ wealth and ethics had no part in it.

Fifteen years ago, I tried again. I assigned a case about the decision to market infant formula that had sparked the Nestlé boycott in the late 1970’s. The group responsible for presenting on that evening did a full case study, complete with a skit to dramatize the marketing strategy issues, a mock board meeting to round out management’s discussion of the alternative strategies, well-designed overheads to illuminate the financial implications, a logically reasoned recommendation, and an ably led, forty-five minute classroom discussion reviewing the marketing theory and practical implications of the case. At the end of this time, because I had heard nothing mentioned about it, I finally asked the students in the presenting group if they had addressed at all the ethical issue inherent in the marketing of a product designed to replace mother’s milk in countries where women had neither money nor clean water to produce safe formula for their babies. Oh yes, they informed me; they had spent many hours discussing this issue. But, they said, “We figured you were a business professor and you wouldn’t want to hear about that.”  

Since that time, I have told the story about the Nestlé case in every marketing class I teach, and informed my students orally and in writing that they are “allowed” and encouraged to address ethical issues throughout the course. I am happy to say that today, most students are eager to debate and there are many valuable case studies available for use in examining ethical issues in the marketing classroom.

The Literature 

Women make up more than one third of our business classes, and men and women alike are willing and often eager to discuss marketing issues relevant to female consumers. There are literally hundreds of articles available in areas as diverse as gender stereotyping in children’s television advertising (Browne 1998), the addictive qualities of advertising for women and girls (Kilbourne 1999), and the effect of sexist advertisements on women’s body dissatisfaction (Lavine and Sweeney 1999). They range from practical examinations of specific effects with insights for advertisers (Jones Stanaland and Gelb 1998) to theoretical explorations of the issue (Kates and Shaw-Garlock 1999, Stern 1999), and they range from journals strictly dedicated to business such as Journal of Advertising (Browne 1998, Stern 1999) to the social psychology journals (Levine et al 1999), to the arts (Telford 1997). Several journals exist dedicated solely to the issue of women and marketing (Marketing To Women 1999), and one is provided on computer laser optical discs (About Women and Marketing 1997). A good summary of articles from the 1970’s through the 1990’s can be found in Shields (1997). There are also dozens of cases available on issues of women in business, including entire books such as Helgesen (1990), Nichols (1994), and O’Brien (1998).

Closely related to gender issues are those of heterosexism, and students today are also quite willing to examine issues in marketing to the gay community; the work of Steven Kates (1998, 2000) has proven particularly useful in the classroom for this purpose. The Journal of Homosexuality offers academic work on the subject, including Dan Wardlaw’s “We’re Here, We’re Queer, and We’re Going Shopping!” and Nancy Rudd’s “Excuse Me, Sir, May I Help You and Your Boyfriend?” whose very titles provide some indication of the openness of the approach on this topic.

Located as we are in a large metropolitan area, we have a multicultural student body, and discussions of how different races respond to and are portrayed in ads are readily accepted and even brought forward by the students themselves. While there is a need for more research on how visible minorities respond to advertisers’ “racial accommodation,” there is nevertheless a fair body of work on the effects of race, including how visible minorities respond to messages (Grier and Brumbaugh 1999, Perkins Thomas and Taylor 2000), the impact of cultural influences on interpretation of message (Holland and Gentry 1999, Green 1999, Bush Smith and Martin 1999), and issues of stereotyping (Taylor 1997).

There remains, however, one glaring area of stereotype, prejudice, and discrimination in the teaching of marketing ethics that no one seems to want to hear about, and that is the issue of social class. I started my own doctoral studies years ago with a fierce interest in the subject, but soon was dissuaded from tackling it because “no one in the management faculty worked with it.” Only one professor encouraged my exploration of this topic, and I read everything I could find on the issue, and did a number of papers on it before finally allowing myself to be herded away from the topic and into a more “proper” subject for a thesis. But my fascination with the issue of class, nurtured by the work of Richard Coleman (1983), W. Lloyd Warner (1941, 1949), and particularly Lee Rainwater’s 1959 classic, Workingman’s Wife, stayed with me.  

When, as business professors, we began to take seriously the need to address issues of gender, race, and class in our teaching, I found it quite easy to generate discussions on the issue of gender, fairly easy to get students to talk about race, but I met strong resistance every time I tried to talk about social class. There is no such thing in our country! We do not judge people by their social status! That may happen in India with their caste system, but not here! We are all equal! How dare you suggest that there is any prejudice based on class here?! These are the kinds of comments I heard, vehement and vociferous, any time I tried to bring up the issue of class. Sometimes students spoke up in the lecture, but more often they came to me quietly at break, or at the end of class, to tell me, sotto voce, as if I had uttered a terrible faux pas, that I really should think carefully about saying such things in a classroom in a country that does not discriminate among people on such a thing as social class.

For a while I gave it up; it just seemed too difficult a barrier to surmount. Then I attended a workshop on using theatre in the classroom where a colleague told us that he danced on the tabletop to get his students to listen to something he solemnly believed they needed to hear. I put this together with one of my favorite marketing teaching devices – the magazine, and came up with the solution to my problem.  

I accepted the fact that class is a difficult issue. I admitted the fact that no one wanted to talk about it. I acknowledged the fact that to even mention social class was already to stereotype in a very unpleasant way that no one seemed willing to do. Most of us expend a good deal of effort in our classrooms avoiding stereotyping. We would never suggest that all toilet cleaning is done by the little woman, that all blacks own a Cadillac, or that all gay men drink to excess, and we talk openly about the error of using these kinds of stereotypes in marketing and use case studies to facilitate discussion of the issues without ever worrying about being accused of thereby condoning sexism, racism, or heterosexism. I found, however, that in trying to teach about classism in a North American marketing classroom, even to mention social class was to be seen somehow as approving of classism. The deeply imbedded objections to even discussing the issue were going to be there no matter how I dealt with the topic, and so I decided to approach it head-on, to force the issue.

The Magazines  

I went to my local convenience store and, just like the young teen with no money who reads at the stand until the sales clerk comes over to complain, I browsed and read and pored over the racks, looking for just the right magazines, assuring the man behind the counter that truly, I was going to buy. I eventually bought eighteen magazines, three each for each of the first six of Coleman’s (1983) seven social classes. The clerk was delighted. It took me a few courses to settle on the right magazines. Some just did not work. Some did not contain ads that lent themselves to easy interpretation in short periods of time. Some were not easily identified as targeted to any specific social class. It became a little embarrassing sometimes when I gave out a magazine to the working class group and several upper-middle-class students cried out, “Wait a minute! I read that!!” Eventually I settled on:

Upper-Upper - The New Yorker
Lower-Upper - Smart Money
Upper-Middle – Bon Appétit
Middle Class - Family Circle
Working Class - Woman’s Life
Lower But Not Lowest - True Story  

For the lowest class, those “visibly poverty-stricken, usually out of work,” I bought nothing.

I now bring these six magazines to my Consumer Behavior lecture on social class. The “lecture” is one I do without notes because it comes from my heart and my personal experience and out of the passion of my early doctoral years and an unrequited love of the subject matter. I open the discussion by asking them who they think is more likely to buy brand name products for the home like Ivory dishwasher detergent and Tide laundry soap – the working-class wife, or the upper-middle-class, educated, professional woman? My use of blunt phrases like “working-class wife” suggests to them that they may speak openly, and they begin to. I am supportive of any answer that comes at first, to encourage discussion. Most of them usually believe that the working-class wife will buy the no-name products because they are cheaper.

I then tell them about my early doctoral days when I too believed this and how I came to see the light after reading Lee Rainwater’s 1959 Workingman’s Wife, all in one Sunday afternoon because like a good novel I could not put it down, and how he and Richard Coleman debunked that myth. The working-class woman tends to buy brand names more than does her upper-middle-class sister, despite their higher cost, because she is not secure enough in her self-confidence to take the risk of buying something for her home that is not advertised on national television. The professional woman of the upper-middle-class, on the other hand, has the education to figure out the relative costs and the self-confidence to buy what is cheaper despite what someone might think of seeing a no-name brand of detergent sitting on her sink.  

We discuss as a group how we stereotype with class, much as we do with gender and with race. We talk about how difficult it seems to be to address issues of class, about how dangerous it seems to be to delve into the stereotypes involved, partly because many of us come from working-class backgrounds ourselves and when we come to university we mistakenly believe that everyone else comes from the upper-middle-class, or only the upper classes as they once did. We discuss the fact that we often feel we must hide and disguise our backgrounds, and the fact that it can be easier to disguise class than gender or race.

I tell the students about my experiences teaching ethics in previous classrooms and how students often became enraged that I would suggest that classes exist in North America. I tell them that, whether or not we like it, there do appear to be some class differences in our society, and what is even more important as we study marketing, that marketers do indeed operate on an assumption that there are differences among the classes and that these differences may well affect what products people buy and what media they respond to. I tell them that I have found that the only way to tackle the thorny issue of social class is to tackle it head on, and then I introduce the evening’s work.

The Classroom Exercise

I divide the students into seven groups, each group to receive a magazine targeted to a particular social class. They will spend a half hour, or forty-five minutes, or ten minutes, depending on how long the lecture period is, and come up with a skit which portrays the stereotypical view of their assigned social class as used by marketers to target them in the magazines provided.  

This will be a class exercise that will require a combination of critical thinking, specific reference to the textbook’s summary of the work done in the field, and creative thinking and theatrical role-playing on their part in the skits. In order to warm them up and set an example, I crank up the dramatic presentation as I hand out the magazines. Each oral description ends with a specific challenge to the group, as I hand them their written instructions. These descriptions borrow heavily from Coleman (1983). The covers of these magazines, and a representative ad from each are duplicated in the Appendix.

Group 1 is handed a copy of The New Yorker and told, “Congratulations, you are members of the upper-upper class. You represent only 0.3% of society, but you control a whole lot of the money. You are the “Capital S” of society, and your main distinguishing feature is your inherited wealth. You can buy whatever you want and you work only if you choose to do so.”  
Group 2 gets a copy of Smart Money and hears, “Congratulations, you are members of the lower-upper class. Representing only 1.2% of society, you are the newer social elite, mostly highly successful professionals. Many of you are fabulously wealthy, but chances are you got your money the hard way, by earning it, and you’re going to show the world that you have made it!”  
Group 3 receives a copy of Bon Appétit Week and is told, “You are members of the upper-middle-class. Representing 12.5% of society, you are university-educated, high-level managers and professionals. Your lifestyle centres on private clubs, social causes, and the arts. You earn good money but have little time, and you aspire to be like the upper class, even though you realize you will probably never make it. You are the “country club” set.”  
Group 4 receives a copy of Family Circle and hears, “You are members of the solid, dependable middle class. Where would the rest of society be without you? Representing 32% of society, your class is the second largest in the nation, and your membership consists of the average-paid white-collar worker and the more affluent of the blue-collar workers. You live on the better side of town, you try to do the right thing, and your lifestyle centers strongly on the home and family. If the wife works, it’s most likely only part-time so that she’ll be home in time to be there for the kids.”  
Group 5 sees Woman’s Life waved in front of them, and they are told, “You are members of the working class. At 38% of society, you make up the largest social class, and your membership includes the average-paid blue-collar employee, that stereotypical “worker,” we read so much about in the newspapers. The husband works, maybe as a truck driver or an auto mechanic, but no matter what his job or income, they live the typical “working-class lifestyle.” The wife most likely doesn’t work outside the home; you both believe a woman’s place is in the home.”  

Group 6 is handed a copy of True Story and told, “You are members of the lower class, but you haven’t hit bottom yet. Hubby’s no welfare bum, he’s still got a job, but you’re scraping by just above the poverty level. You make up about 9% of the population and many people judge your behavior as “crude” and “trashy.”  

Group 7 – I have been pulling these magazines off a pile on the table at the front of the classroom as I hand them to each group. When I come to this final group and say, “Group 7,” I reach toward the now empty pile of magazines and I grope about as if I have lost one. I look at the students and say, “Group 7, you don’t get a magazine.” Sadly, this usually elicits general laughter. I then tell them, “You are the dregs of society; representing about 7% of the population, you are visibly poverty stricken, often destitute, without much hope. You don’t get a magazine because marketers know you haven’t got two nickels to rub together, and hence they don’t bother advertising to you.”

This group gets a thank-you even before we start. I continue, “Thanks for taking on this particularly difficult social class. It’s not one that any of us like to think about much, but you’re still human beings, and we’d like to hear what you have to say about all this marketing and conspicuous consumption. You’re used to picking through other people’s leftovers for a meal or a smoke or a three-day old newspaper to read, so perhaps you won’t mind watching the other groups and picking out some of the products they talk about and incorporating that into your presentation.”

Then we divide into seven groups by counting off. I do this rather than revert to the already-established project groups because I want fresh groups, randomly brought together, with no past history. They go out into the hall, or off for coffee, or into clusters of desks in the classroom if I am lucky to have a classroom with moveable desks. I move from group to group, listening to them, reassuring them, encouraging them to let go and dramatize, answering their many questions about what it means to represent a whole group of people in one six-minute skit, reassuring them that it is okay for tonight to speak in stereotypes, that one of today’s objectives is to examine how we stereotype as marketers, when it is useful and when it is not, whether it is profitable, whether it is fair.

I usually end up spending the most time with Group 7; it is the most difficult presentation, structurally and emotionally. They have no magazine; they have no ads; they have no money; they have no status at all. I do not ever have anyone from this actual social class in my classroom; anyone in Group 7 must particularly rely on imagination and theatrical empathy to portray something they have all seen but none has experienced.

The results of this classroom exercise are always fascinating, always fun, always fruitful. I have never had it fail. We start with the upper-upper class, with their New Yorker and its small and unostentatious ads for $300 fourteen-carat gold brooches and for a $20,000 ruby and diamond pendant for the dog’s collar, but they are all in excellent taste, quiet and refined. We glimpse their wealth and their almost blasé search for something new and entertaining to do. They have a lot of money, and they spend money, but they do it quietly with a few friends.

A great advantage of this exercise is that often a reclusive student will suddenly come alive. The last time we did this, we got to see a normally reticent mature young man portray the seven-year-old son whose mother wants to take him and a couple of his close friends to Paris for his next birthday to eat cotton candy at the Eiffel Tower, but “Mommy, Mommy, I’ve been to Paris twice already,” and finally he asks the servant, played with quiet and dour dignity by a fresh-faced bubbly cheerful young woman who is usually the life of the discussion in lectures, if she will please drive him to the West Wing and she nods stiffly and properly, knowing well her place in this household. We are left with a very definite feeling that these people know who they are and what their role in society is, and although they like to spend money on important things like a child’s birthday party or a piece of jewellery for the teenage daughter’s coming-out party, they have no need to flaunt their great wealth. They are a very comfortable family, and we feel this watching them at their dinner table.

The lower-upper class group comes next. We will work our way down the social ladder and I make this clear as we sum up each presentation and our feelings about it, and head to the next one. We are open and blatant about the classism inherent in the exercise and in the ads. The lower-upper class is fixated on money and on displaying the fact that they have it. Their magazine, Smart Money, centers on money and how to manage what you have made. The ads are large and ostentatious and often for products that will show off the fact that one has arrived. The business owner in the skit last time sat at the conference table asking his Vice Presidents what they thought about celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of his founding of the firm with a trip on the company yacht, soon to be bought, and a gold watch for each of the seven officers. We leave this comfortable group knowing that they have a lot of money and can do pretty much anything they want, but sensing their concern that others see them doing the proper thing and realize that they have arrived in the circle of the elite.

The upper middle class couple is looking for a new car. It has to be a Lexus; the wife’s brother got the bulk of the money from dad’s estate and now drives a Lexus and she’s darned if she will show up in anything less, and she has seen an ad for one in Bon Appétit. The husband is a little more money conscious. They both work, and there is a fair amount of money in the household, but they spend a lot too, on the conveniences that one needs when no one is at home during the day – meals out in restaurants, two cars, birthday parties planned by a paid consultant, and all the latest appliances to shorten the time it takes to do the necessary household chores. We feel a bit more tension in this group, the knowledge that they are not really upper class, the desire to be seen as intelligent and self-assured in their purchase decisions. They speak openly of their plans to save for their children’s university education, and for their own retirement.

The middle class, “the solid, dependable middle-class” they remind us, is getting ready for school and work in the morning, the mother making pancakes and the father telling the boys to behave while they squabble over who gets to use the family’s one computer. The wife has a new recipe from Family Circle that she wants to try out tonight so she checks it with her husband first before he leaves for work in the family’s six-year-old car. She has also seen an an ad in Family Circle for a new self-monitoring water filter and since they have the new baby, she asks her husband if maybe they should get one to try to be sure their water is as pure as it can be.  

For the working class, times are tough. They have never been particularly fond of strange new things and they tend to stay pretty close to home, taking a vacation at a nearby rented lake cottage rather than travelling afar, so it is not too much of a hardship, but still, they would like to have a few more of the material things in life. This does not mean that they envy the higher classes in any way. The discussion around the kitchen table, a working class wife and her next-door neighbor (the husbands are at work) are having coffee, centers on how hard it must be for the middle class who is always trying to pretend they are something they are not. They are looking at the magazine, Woman’s Life that she borrowed from her mother. She can afford to buy a magazine, but every penny saved helps and she often borrows magazines from her mom’s when she visits, as she always does, two, three times a week. Mom often sits for the kids; this family depends on each other for support, and orients itself toward the community, not the outside world. The kids are the single most important thing in this woman’s life, followed closely by her husband, whose rules and ways she follows absolutely, even if she does occasionally make a little fun of him when she’s with her girlfriends. These women know their lot in life; they are not unhappy, but they know their place. These women, who try to please their husbands and who have borne children, are drawn by a whole page of ads for a product that reduces stretch marks, one that guarantees a sexier bust-line, and another for growing waist-length hair.

The lower-but-not-lowest presenting group happens to have only women, and the women are all we see in these families – two housewives getting together in the apartment building where they live in assisted housing, to pore over one’s copy of the romance magazine, True Story. They too are talking about jewellery, just like the New Yorker family, but instead of $300, their price range is $3.95 and she’s not sure she can afford to send away for it. She’s impressed when another friend from the neighborhood shows up with an excellent buy on a new dress from the discount store, twenty dollars, which is a lot, but it’s pretty and feminine and will make her husband look twice, so it was worth it. She loves the story in the magazine by the woman who says, “My husband says my fat is sexy.” These women are very family oriented; although we never see the men, we hear about them in every single sentence, from “I’ll check with Donny tonight,” to “What am I going to get John for Valentine’s Day,” to “just give him a beer and he’ll be happy!”  

The lowest of the low, the real lower-lower class, is always the one that moves me the most. The class usually reacts strongly to their presentation, and they set the tone as we move into the post-exercise discussion. I have never had a group let me down on this one. This time, they stand, four of them, at the front of the room, holding placards that read,  

I don’t need to eat cotton candy in Paris; I need a hot meal.
I don’t need a gold watch; I need a place to sleep.
I don’t need a new car; I need a token to get to an interview for a job I know I’ll never get.
I make you uncomfortable when you see me.

They stand there and then they flip their placards over and we read, one word on each placard as they stand in their row, “DO/ YOU/ SEE/ ME?” and it is a little difficult for me to break the silence and get the summing-up started because I have tears in my eyes. 

Summing Up  

This exercise is not for everyone; you have to have a real commitment to address the issues. More than just a willingness, you have to possess a driving desire to do it, because it can be tough in many ways. You have to know your students well to know how far you can push them. You have to be comfortable enough to let your own background speak because if the professor happens to be from a family other than the traditional old-style elite academic class, this can break ice that otherwise might remain forever frozen. You have to hand over a lot to the students. This is a class for which I arrive with no notes. I carry only the magazines and the written instruction slips; where we go with the discussion depends entirely on what the groups produce. You have to trust your students. It takes some guts to stand up before a group of business students and insist that they will look at an issue that makes most of them very uncomfortable. You have to trust their willingness to take the stage and perform, but I have never had a group ever that did not warm up to the fun of performing a role on stage. You also must trust their willingness to take the assignment seriously. I have never yet had a single person in any one of my classrooms abuse the exercise in any way, but I can imagine it could happen. An insensitive group could make any of these social class families look like idiots, and an unfeeling group could ruin the whole approach if they were to take the lower-lowers in a direction of offensive slapstick comedy.  

It helps if you have a small class where you know your students well, but I have done this exercise successfully in a class as large as eighty. It helps if you do it later in the course, more than half way through, after the first exam is past, and they are comfortable with you and your classroom style, and you know something about them and can call on them by name. It is really nice if you can count off quickly beforehand and fix it so that a student who you know to be open and emotive will end up in Group 7, but I only got to do this once, when I had the privilege to teach the course with only twelve students.  

Teaching ethics in a business classroom is never easy and it appears particularly difficult to raise issues of social class. We rely on our students to bring a lot to the classroom, but they still tend to look to us for “permission” to talk about the difficult issues that no one wants to address. You must be prepared for challenging questions. The last time I did this a student asked how I could justify marketers spending their time developing ads for people who cannot buy anything. From this evolved a discussion of the realities of business, that indeed one cannot spend the firm’s money to develop an ad to sell a car to the homeless, but that faced with the realities of human suffering and in the interest of human compassion, perhaps that marketer could donate professional expertise and time to an organization working to help the homeless.

As the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows wider in this country, we face an increasingly strong obligation to consider issues of social justice in our classrooms. Gender, race and class, and their ensuing problems of prejudice and stereotyping are prominent among those issues. Most of us have managed the job of generating discussion of issues of gender and race in business. I hope that this description of a classroom exercise to bring alive the issue of social class will ensure that your students never say to you, “I thought you wouldn’t want to hear about it."


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Warner, W. Lloyd, Marchia Meeker, and Kenneth Eells (1949) Social Class in America: A Manual of
   Procedure for the Measurement of Social Status
. Chicago: Science Research Associates: 274 pages.

Appendix: The Magazines and The Ads

 Upper Upper Class:  

Lower Upper Class:  
Upper Middle Class:  
Middle Class:
Working Class:
Lower Class:

Return to Course Syllabus

AP/ADMS 4290 3.0 Marketing For Competitive Advantage
York University, Toronto
© M Louise Ripley, M.B.A., Ph.D.