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When do we start talking about the ethics of digital marketing?

Much of the dialogue surrounding the future of marketing revolves around the future evolution of the digital landscape. While there are exciting innovations on the horizon and incredible tools available right now, have we discussed ethical marketing in the Digital Age enough?

The Power of Digital

Contemporary marketing’s biggest cliché is some variation of how fast firms innovate and how often they turn the entire discipline upside down. The birth of buzz words like Big Data and Artificial Intelligence point to the endless possibilities we can unlock if we can exploit the ever-evolving digital landscape.

Imagine being able to market to each individual customer! Imagine having the ability hit each customer with a precise message at exactly the right time!

The most immediate, and controversial, example of this is Facebook’s expanding abilities to build profiles of users. Extremely robust social listening tools and complex algorithms allow Facebook to build profiles of its users but also weaponize those profiles with predictive intelligence in order to offer more effective and efficient advertising solutions. Some businesses may rave about the power of Facebook’s data collection but we don’t have to imagine what it would look like if Facebook’s data were to fall into the wrong hands; it’s already happened.

Facebook’s reputation gives a somewhat nefarious tinge to any of their technological advancements but truthfully, there are other more benign enterprises out there creating equally powerful artificial intelligence systems for the purpose of optimizing marketing practices. Just one example is how Fanatics, the global sports merchandise retailer, utilizes Salesforce’s Einstein artificial intelligence platform to hyper-personalize their marketing efforts.

Ethical Marketing Questions for the Future of Digital

As a marketer, at least initially, the prospects of these platforms and their capabilities sounds exciting. Who wouldn’t want to be able to personalize each and every one of their communications? But this is when we need to take off our marketing hats and step into the shoes of our consumers. Many of the conversations marketers are having about data privacy focus on the security of that data, but certainly, we need to ask ourselves, should we be collecting and utilizing all this data in the first place?

Ian Malcom & John Hammond, Jurassic Park

In Jurassic Park, Dr. Ian Malcom asserts that the scientists behind the Jurassic Park were so preoccupied with if they could, “they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Dr. Malcom was talking about the reanimation of dinosaurs but we can apply at least similar consideration to how we utilize the wealth of technology available to us as the Digital Age advances.

At its core, marketing, as a study and a practice, is about understanding consumers. We need to understand consumers’ needs—what products they want, how they want to receive them, how much they want to pay for them. As data privacy continues to grow as a concern for average consumers, we’ll need to consider that hyper-personalized and hyper-targeted communications may do more harm than good as we verge ever dangerously towards the dreaded Creep Factor.

Luckily, there are existing ethical standards which can provide a roadmap for how we answer these questions moving forward. The American Marketing Association lists three Ethical Norms in their Codes of Conduct, most notably:

Foster trust in the marketing system. This means striving for good faith and fair dealing so as to contribute toward the efficacy of the exchange process as well as avoiding deception in product design, pricing, communication, and delivery of distribution.

The Future of Marketing Ethics

Ultimately, marketers will need to begin questioning the best ethical practices for the future of our discipline in order to foster trust in the marketing system. Technology will only continue to advance but likewise, consumers will continue to become more skeptical and more sensitive to marketing communications. If we as marketers don’t begin to set clear guidelines, consumers may do it for us.

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