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Advertising Ethics: Target Audiences With Care

Audience targeting is simply making sure your ad is seen by as many relevant consumers as possible, and in a media landscape that is quickly being dominated by the web, audience targeting becomes that much more essential. Targeting audiences online is a data-driven endeavor. Brands don’t want to waste ad dollars marketing to uninterested consumers, and consumers don’t want to see irrelevant ads. In that respect, collecting and analyzing user data to finetune your digital media strategy is beneficial for everyone.

However, with the growth of the internet and Big Data, audience targeting has raised many concerns in recent years. What are the advertising ethics of collecting, selling, buying and mining so much data on real people in order to advertise to them? As marketers, how do we make the most of the ad budgets we’ve been given without taking part in predatory or privacy-violating practices?

At The Ward Group, we call ourselves media stewards for a reason - because we care about how ad dollars are used in the media industry, and there is a lot of money to be made in the buying and selling of consumer data.

The Origins of User Data

The first ethical conundrum for any brand utilizing data to guide their online media strategy - which should be every brand - is how you’re acquiring data. Essentially, there are three ways you can do this: you can ask for it, you can track users with the help of cookies or web beacons and lastly, you can buy it.

Third-party data collection has become a big business, especially for social media companies. Websites such as Facebook, Instagram and Google have been leveraging their users’ data for years to turn a profit. eCommerce sites will also sell user data, and there are entire companies that exist for the sole purpose of buying, analyzing and then selling data to brands to help them better target audiences online.

In 2017, the US Senate even approved a measure that allows Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to track and sell data on users’ browsing behaviors on the open marketplace. Acquiring data from sources such as ISPs are particularly troublesome since most Americans don’t have a choice in their internet provider. If you don’t like how Twitter is using your data, you can just not be on the platform. Most of us need the internet to do our jobs and access information, though.

As a general rule, if it’s not clear where the data came from, it may be unwise to use it. This should be no surprise to you as a consumer, but people don’t like to feel like they’re being spied on, and in fact, it can actually negatively impact your bottom line. Moreover, third-party data collection has been facing a lot of criticism among regulators, browsers and websites, so if you’re relying on this method to learn about your audience, it’s probably time to explore other avenues. You can also learn more about evaluating quality data sources here.

Audience Targeting on Social Media

The nature of social media makes targeting users with advertising not only easy, but practical. People share a lot of information about themselves online including their jobs, their interests, their relationship status, their gender, their age and much more. If you can access this information, and you know exactly what kind of users fall into your target audience, your ad campaigns can have a lot of reach. Unfortunately, these powers are not always used for good.

In March of 2019, Facebook reached a settlement with the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) after users were unfairly targeted for housing, employment and credit advertisements. As a result, the social network had to implement new rules restricting highly targeted ads on the basis of race, gender, ZIP code, multicultural affinity and sexual orientation when the ads are for employment, credit or housing. Google followed with similar restrictions in November of 2020.

Companies and organizations are still finding ways to narrowly target users. The NYU Ad Observatory released data on how the Trump and Biden campaigns targeted Facebook users during the 2020 election. The campaigns were able to upload lists of specific individual profiles they wanted to target. They got pretty creative with the characteristics they targeted, too, such as users who had an “interest in Lin-Manuel Miranda”. In case you’ve forgotten, this is exactly what Cambridge Analytica was accused of doing in 2016.

The question to ask yourself when targeting individuals online is what the advertising ethics are of how you're targeting them. What’s your message? Who are you sharing it with? And, equally as important, who are you not sharing it with?

Advertising Ethics: Predatory & Intrusive Targeting

When targeting audiences, privacy should be a major concern. With so much information out there about people - and data companies’ increased ability to analyze it - why shouldn't you use everything you know to optimize your efforts? If you’re advertising the newest laptop to hit the market and you have a list of people that are interested in buying a new computer, then targeting them is not only good for you but helpful to those consumers. However, you can easily cross the line into intrusiveness if you aren’t careful.

Remember that infamous story of Target tracking consumer purchases so well that their algorithm could correctly infer when women were pregnant? When the New York Times first reported the story, many people were outraged that a retailer could know something so personal about them. There are also several cases of users on Facebook who liked LGBTQIA+ pages on the site being the target of conversion therapy ads, despite this kind of advertising practice being against Facebook’s policies.

There are certainly many other cases of intrusive and predatory audience targeting practices. To make sure you don’t unknowingly become a cautionary tale, remember this rule of thumb: the same privacy norms that apply in the real world should also apply online. According to Harvard Business Review, third-party data collection is synonymous with spying on or stalking someone, and making inferences about users can be equivalent to spreading rumors or gossiping. If you wouldn’t do these things in real life, don’t do them online.

The Evolving Nature of Audience Targeting

For many years, the system of data collection that allowed for advanced audience targeting was allowed to permeate throughout the web with impunity, but that has started to change. Not only has data privacy become a much bigger deal for consumers, but governments around the world have begun to take action, too.

In 2018, the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which governs how personal data of individuals in the EU may be processed and transferred, went into effect. In the US, California has taken the lead on passing stricter regulations for internet privacy with the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which went into effect at the beginning of 2020. The state also amended the CCPA by passing Prop 24 in 2020, imposing new requirements for businesses to protect personal information, including “reasonably” minimizing data collection, limiting data retention and protecting data security.

Online tech companies are also responding. Apple will be phasing out ad trackers, Google, the last holdout among browsers, will be phasing out third-party cookies in coming years, and social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram will be giving users more control over personalized ads.

It’s evident that the way the ad industry gathers and utilizes data will be changing in coming years. While it’s not entirely clear what the nature of this change will be, it’s safe to assume that if you follow your instincts regarding advertising ethics, you’ll be able to target your audience fairly, respectfully and appropriately. In the long run, there is no downside to maintaining high ethical standards.

The Ward Group Philosophy: Media Stewardship

Every advertiser and marketer faces a challenge: you need to make sure that while you’re being as cost-effective as possible with your budgets, you’re continuing to bring the audiences you target real value in the ads they see. By partnering with our media planners and buyers at The Ward Group, you can leverage more than three decades of media experience to help you make the best choices for your campaigns, whether they’re online or in the real world. More than anything, we stress the importance of managing every ad dollar as if it’s our own.

Our strong commitment to advertising ethics and integrity ensures that our clients succeed long after the ad campaign. To see our media stewards in action for yourself, contact The Ward Group today.

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