Social Media Marketing and Ethics: Where do we draw the line?

The digital space has challenged ethics in our society. For advertisers and marketers, the battle between right and wrong has put a stigma on our industry since its very beginnings.

Propaganda during war. Selling cigarettes to women by appealing to their desire to be skinny. E-cigs to teenagers to make them feel cool. Influencing elections and challenging the concept of democracy. Listening to conversations through our devices.

An industry with so much power, so much influence on society, is destined to be challenged. The law only goes so far. It’s ethics and morals that have to stop us from digging too deep, creating chaos, and destroying the future of our industry for good.

The online world continues to open new doors for advertisers and marketers, allowing us to be more efficient and cross more personal boundaries. And it’s all thanks to that not-so-little thing called data.

Data is a controversial topic. Data is money and it’s blurring the line between right and wrong in the marketing industry. We’ve never had so much information about consumers at our fingertips and so little regulation holding us back from using it.

If you’re an advertiser, you make money to successfully sell your brand, product, or service to consumers by placing your ad in the right location at the right time. Say you’re selling organic, all-natural laundry detergent. As stereotypical and anti-feminist as it sounds your target audience is women. Most likely moms ages 30-45 with two or more children, educated, household income of $100K+, living in a suburb, and mostly shopping at Whole Foods or some local grocer. Is it stereotyping, or is it being realistic?

A college student isn’t going to buy some special laundry soap that’s $10 more expensive because it’s got “organic” and “all-natural” printed on a bottle that looks like it came directly from the compost. Half the dads I know can’t even do a load of laundry without turning your white shirt grey.

The mom audience it is. But, you can’t advertise your special laundry detergent when your audience is 2 glasses of wine deep after finally putting the kids to sleep. Give her a break for God’s sake! Your ad needs to be placed when she’s thinking about her grocery list and making her everyday errands, not when she’s about to dig through her secret weed stash in the kitchen drawer.

Ad placement matters…a lot. And social media has everything advertisers need to get their ad placed at just the right moment to just the right person. Why spend a ton of money to place your ad in front of thousands of consumers, less than 20% of which make up your intended audience, and not even half of that 20% at the right time when they actually might stop to consider your product? Advertising on social media allows you to pinpoint these factors more accurately and only pay for your ad when it’s actually placed in front of said user. Much more efficient, right?!

But this new method of marketing can get out of hand real quick. It uses consumer data that’s been added to, revised, and stored for as long as you can remember. It knows you. It can predict your behavior before your brain even begins processing the behavior. It doesn’t see ethical versus unethical. It only sees correct versus incorrect.

Now, in the case of that organic, all-natural laundry detergent, it’s difficult to do serious damage to your ethical reputation or to the goodness of society by targeting some social media ads to moms during their midday errands. But change your product to laxatives and audience to teenage girls or muscle enhancer to young men. Change your product to guns, sex shows, political policies, political candidates. Then things get dangerous.

In essence, advertisers target the most vulnerable group of consumers. What makes them vulnerable is the fact that they’re most likely to be persuaded by the ad and end up doing what the ad tells them to do. But where do we draw the line? At what point do consumers crack? When is what we consider advertising, considered manipulating?

Social media allows the marketing industry to bloom. It’s changed traditional ways and become more effective than ever before. But we’re still following the same regulations and guidelines put in place when print ads were hot off the press and Don Draper was smoking a pack of cigs a day. Our morals are being challenged and ethics tested on a trial-and-error basis. User data is growing exponentially with little to nothing holding its use back.