Ethical Target Advertising: Where Should Marketing Draw The Line?
It’s no secret that users respond better to targeted ads. The surprising part is that 76% of marketers still fail to use behavioral data for their online ad targeting.
If done correctly, PPC offers extensive ad targeting options. These can help brands connect their products with users who need them. But, unfortunately, it’s also easy for brands to take shortcuts that can lead them down destructive paths.
Digital advertisers are always looking for a leg up on their competition. For most of us, the winning formula is to outwork the field by doing more research, performing more tests, and creating better target ad content than our competitors.
Sadly for some, the only way to win is by crossing the line into bad ethics.
Companies that enter this realm tend to take a short-sighted approach, accepting small, immediate wins instead of positioning themselves for the bigger picture. Unfortunately, short-term wins usually result in long-term failures; it’s a lesson seen all too often.
Unethical marketing is not a new phenomenon, but in the digital age, it’s more ubiquitous than ever. Anyone can post a misleading Facebook ad or target users in a discriminatory fashion. It just takes a few clicks.
Keeping your business away from unethical target advertising, and avoiding companies that engage in this area, can be a constant challenge. The good news is, it’s easy to keep your business clean.
You have to know what to look for.
Examples of Unethical Target Marketing
To understand unethical target marketing, let’s first establish the notion of ethics in this realm.
Ethics is somewhat of an ambiguous term. What’s considered ethical in one industry can differ from the next. For example, ads in the gambling space may have different moral standards than ads for a home and garden business.
Furthermore, the landscape of target advertising is changing rapidly due to the emergence of machine learning technology which blurs ethical lines in many cases.
With all that said, here are the most common unethical target marketing examples.
Ethnic and Racial Profiling
Targeting specific groups based on race or ethnicity has been common throughout the years. Unfortunately, when ad targeting options permit this, it can result in discriminatory practices.
Facebook recently eliminated race-based ad targeting categories because unethical marketers were using these as a way to block specific audiences from seeing their ads.
In this case, advertisers were using Facebook’s robust targeting features opposite then they were intended. So, for example, instead of selecting an affinity audience to target, i.e., followers of “African-American culture,” they chose the option not to target this audience.
There’s a general rule in marketing ethics that businesses should not be targeting people who are too young or too old. There are also a few other groups of people that shouldn’t be pursued in your marketing efforts.
Young, impressionable teens
The tobacco industry has long been guilty of targeting underage teens and cultivating generations of smokers.
Nowadays, the industry of ire has shifted into niches like online gambling, porn, and CBD advertising.
Advertising ethics should be commonsensical in this regard, that teens are not fair game for pretty much any sort of targeting. But, unfortunately, teenagers spend approximately nine hours per day in front of screens, much of which is on social media where ads are prominent.
Elderly internet users
Another demographic that is routinely taken advantage of are elderly individuals. Finally, the most common instances of bad ethics involve prescription drug targeting.
Misleading statements about product efficacy are rampant, whether it’s a prominent drug company or a smaller “organic” organization. Elderly audiences may make lousy purchasing decisions if they think their health is at risk for not taking action.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen this problem emerge in full force, with many brands posing as having “cure-all” products to alleviate the virus.
Individuals with eating disorders
Dietary supplement companies are notorious for showing ads that promise a “flat belly in only seven days!” Unfortunately, when people purchase these supplements and discover that they are useless, it can lead to dangerous behaviors like anorexia to lose weight.
The ads for these products usually show a good-looking, ripped individual talking about how you can lose weight eating whatever you want.
Religious or political pandering
Catering to a person’s political or religious interests isn’t necessarily unethical on its face, but it can often lead to bad outcomes when certain bad actors are involved.
There are many examples of marketing scam products in the spiritual space, especially those that promise you better health without medical or scientific merit. In some cases, it’s not a product being marketed at all but rather a faux investment opportunity.
Many of these unethical ads are looking for you to send them money without any tangible reward for your efforts.
Low-income earners are more susceptible to ads that promise a better way of life—namely, high APR credit cards and multi-level marketing schemes.
Targeting low-income audiences poses a distinct threat to their health and safety and can have dire legal ramifications.
While targeting audiences who live in a particular geographical area is perfectly okay, the reason shouldn’t be income-based. The brand should also stray away from using stereotypical language or appealing to destructive behaviors.
Concerns About Ethics in Advertising
Many of the concerns about ethics in advertising center around the cause and effect relationship between false claims and data privacy.
False claims are the beginning of most unethical PPC campaigns. Type “weight loss,” and you’ll find a barrage of over-the-top promises that are untenable for any consumer to follow.
These claims may range from being extremely misleading to being outright lies.
Digital Privacy & Data Breaches
False claims can lead to dangerous purchases and/or a willful handing over of personal information.
Data breaches happen with greater frequency than ever before, mainly due to unethical advertising practices.
How many times have you seen a promotional email or Google ad that promised something grandiose in exchange for you handing over your information? Unfortunately, it happens way too frequently.
A mind-boggling 79% of internet users worldwide feel they’ve lost control of their personal data.
How to Engage in Ethical Target Marketing
The good news is that most online businesses want to be ethical; it’s just that the bad apples tend to be the most noticeable.
How can you ensure that your business is participating in ethical target marketing, and what are the ethical implications of your target marketing efforts?
Choose The Right Channels
Finding the best PPC channels for your business will help you keep your targeting efforts focused on the right audience and remain out of harm’s way.
Perform in-depth competitive analysis to uncover what your most successful competitors are doing and where they are marketing their products. If their ads perform well in the space and come across as ethical, it will likely be an excellent model to reproduce.
Checking The Laws
GDPR laws and other federal privacy laws are no joke. Make sure that your business is advertising within these regulations at all times so that you don’t get kicked off of any advertising platforms, and you can remain in good ethical standing.
Regularly checking these laws ensures there will be no lapses in compliance.
Working with Knowledgeable Agencies
Hiring an experienced digital marketing agency is the best step you can take to ensure your business avoids controversy and charges of unethical behavior.
Agencies know all the essential laws and regulations across different online advertising platforms, mainly social media marketing.
Keep yourself and your business clean by avoiding the most common unethical marketing pitfalls. Positive ethics is the fuel that drives success.