Is there a conversation around ethics and digital marketing happening today?

By Chrissy Clary

Is there a conversation around ethics and digital marketing happening today?

A dialogue about ethics practices in the field of digital marketing, while not completely non existent, is limited and lacking in substance.

When the machines take over the world what part will marketers have played in the demise of of the human race? Unfortunately, we don’t know and won’t for a while.

In my opinion normalizing a conversation around ethical practices for the digital strategist should be an essential part of the conversations we are having regarding consumer targeting. I have no expectation that we will get it right, or save the human race, but it is worth a healthy conversation.

Notably, the topic is a complex one, but much of what I found easily available on the Internet appears to lacking in research and depth. Scholarly references, while not plentiful, were available for those with access to scholarly databases.

In the USA in 2013, full-year Internet advertising revenues totaled $42.78 billion, up 17 percent from the $36.57 billion reported in 2012 (IAB 2014). Search-related revenues accounted for 43 percent, display-related advertising for 30 percent and mobile, which grew by more than 140 percent between 2011 and 2013, reached 17 percent of the Internet advertising revenues (Nill, Aalberts, Li, & Schibrowsky, 2015).

The lack of dialogue focused on ethical practices in digital marketing compared to the amount of money being spent on digtial advertising appears unbalanced, to me at least. I found quite a few discussions centered on the pros and cons of machine learning and the use of big data, but to little regarding the use in the marketing space.

I believe we are only beginning to understanding the effects of our focused, personalized targeting efforts.

Consider this, “the recent advances in the use and potential abuse of ‘big data’ is one of the most pressing issues facing both marketers and public policy decision makers,” according to Alexander Nill, Robert Aalberts, Herman Li and John Schibrowsky -contributors to the Handbook of Ethics and Marketing. The team of researchers are in support of “more ethics-based research” focused on data privacy and consumer targeting (2015).

While [Online Behavioral Advertising] potentially provides advantages to online
consumers such as ‘free’ access to online sites – the advertising revenues
pay for keeping the sites free of charge – the practice has the technological
potential to violate consumers’ privacy to a hitherto unmatched extent.
OBA is poorly understood by most consumers, often non-transparent
And sometimes outright deceptive. Since the practice is relatively new, laws and
regulations are still evolving (Nill, Aalberts, Li, & Schibrowsky, 2015).

Evil much like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Ethical decision making works in a similar fashion, each person makes decisions based on the experiences and biases they bring to the table (2015). Statements like “don’t be evil” (Google, 2014), just won’t cut it and do not clearly define the ethical stand of the company.

What I am not advocating for is the erection of regulations that stifle creativity or risk innovation, but I do think it is time for a real discussion about the ethics of profiling and targeting consumers.

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