Marketing in a Gray Area: The Ethics of Digital Targeting

Posted on by Colleen Riopko

Many consumers are blissfully unaware of the sheer amount of data companies have on them. Each click, scroll and “like” leaves a trail and adds data to a consumer’s profile.

Not long ago, marketers looked at consumers based on browsing history and made assumptions of behaviors and affinities. Now, we can target people based on the most recent deposit in their checking account, the last time they ate Chipotle, or the amount of their monthly car payment. When consumers are served an ad that fits their desires like a glove, they likely have no idea where the data used to serve that ad to them is coming from or the level of privacy they have given up to marketers.

According to a Gallup poll, confidence in our nation’s major institutions—banks, newspapers, big businesses, medical systems, public schools, etc.—is at an all-time low, at only 32 percent. Despite widespread distrust, it doesn’t stop users from freely giving up significant amounts of personal information online. As marketers, we are stewards of this information. We are held to limited legal standards, and are instead left to create our own guardrails.

All of this is not to discount the tremendous benefit targeted advertising has had on our businesses and clients, as well as consumers. It has helped us connect the right messages to the right audience at the right time—a win-win for sure. But some marketers may be flirting with predatory practices that only further deepen distrust. Here are three things to consider when calibrating your brand’s moral compass before embarking on an online media campaign:

1- Define your corporate values. The principles that guide your company’s operations and culture should also drive the strategy behind your digital marketing efforts. Specifically, this will help you determine your messages, how they are delivered, and to whom they are served.

These values should also determine where you will display your ads. Marketers should know exactly where their ads will (and won’t) appear. Avoid letting an ad network serve your ad on websites with conflicting values.

For example, in early 2017, programmatic ads for Nordstrom, Amazon, Whole Foods, and The Honest Company via third-party ad servers began popping up on ultra-conservative news network Breitbart. Social media users called for boycotts of the retailers, citing that the online media site did not reflect the values of the company it previously supported.

2- Set a hardline—and stick to it. When does influence cross the line of manipulation? Once you have determined your corporate values, use these to guide marketing practices and determine your non-negotiables. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

For example, consider targeting people based on medical data. This is aspect of an individual’s privacy and could open up agencies—and their clients—to negative reactions. Targeting minors with certain messages should also be done with extreme caution—can you recall the story of the irate father whose young teen daughter was mailed coupons for pregnancy products?

3- Go with your gut. Ultimately, there is no formula or algorithm to determine if something is or is not ethical. It comes down to trusting your gut; asking yourself, “am I okay with this?” or “how would I feel if I was targeted in this way?” It may seem simple, but our core human tendency of knowing right from wrong should—and will— trump any need to hit a sales goal.

Digital marketing capabilities are evolving at a tremendous speed and will have unimaginable changes on our industry over the next several years. Questions of morality and ethical practices will continue to be at the core of this reality. It’s critical we address this as an industry. Data will affect the method in which messages are delivered and the relationships consumers have with brands.

However, without regulation (either self-regulation or through legislation), marketers could use information against consumers. By establishing and following a defined moral framework and ensuring the decision passes the gut-check test, you’ll maintain the integrity of our industry and do your part to stop the erosion of trust in marketing.

Colleen Riopko is director of media and communications at idfive

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