The number of martech tools is growing fast. According to the March 2016 MarTech Conference (San Francisco) there are over 3,800 martech tools (up 87% on 2015). As these tools become increasingly powerful, they allow marketers to build sophisticated consumer profiles quickly and easily using data found online - from social media networks and email accounts through to online banking and ad tracking.

All of this should be seen as a positive step forward, allowing marketers to use consumer profiles to target more efficiency and effectively whilst making better use of marketing budgets and improving ROI. But as these profiles become more powerful, there is the increasing likelihood of individuals being targeted intrusively, raising the question of whether there should be an ethical line for digital marketing? Should marketers be considering what they SHOULD be doing and not just what they CAN do?

Why does ethics come into it?

This is a grey area but marketers have a responsibility to act ethically.

Of course, there is a difference between illegal activity and unethical activity. Responsible brands are unlikely to be acting illegally as marketers should be familiar with privacy legislation. It is the unethical activities which have the potential to really damage brands.

Marketers know that a brand’s success is built on consumer trust and so delivering on its promise is key. If a brand fails to act ethically, whether this is done accidently or deliberately, this trust is undermined. With these new martech tools, it is easy to do just that.

In the past, we have seen brands acting unethically over their claims or trying to be something they are not, harming their brands (remember Sunny Delight and Ratner’s?). With the new generation of martech tools, it becomes easier than ever to overstep moral boundaries. For example, the companies that provided the popular game app, Angry Birds, and the ‘Brightest Flashlight Free’ app have been using these apps to track users’ movements 24/7 and passing this information along to other companies. Acting as mini tracking devices, these apps collect information about where people travel throughout the day. As it is unreasonable to expect consumers to know they’re being spied upon, these app companies can be said to be acting unethically, and should their actions become public knowledge, it would undermine brand trust and dramatically reduce downloads.

But who owns the data?

Our every movement in the digital world leaves a trail that can be tracked. Various permission may well be given by consumers when first signing up to websites and apps, but these permissions are often without the consumer’s active knowledge as companies hide what data they are collating and for what purpose. For example, permission for companies to re-use family photos and videos that have been posted onto networks, such as Facebook, may well be buried in the T&C’s.

So all the while people are using a platform, data is being collected by the brand and being used to make a better product. Would consumers consider it morally acceptable if they found their personal details and images elsewhere on the web without having given explicit permission? Again, many consumers would see this as overstepping the ethical line.

The moral dilemma

A moral dilemma reigns. The Internet is meant to be free from control and a force for good where ideas and information can be freely exchanged . But who defines when something is ‘a force for good’ and when it’s okay for information to be ‘freely exchanged’? Large tech companies are dominating Internet activity and whilst generally perceived to be benign, they are increasingly deciding what Internet freedom should look like. Taking a closer look at the following examples shows that their actions are not always ethical.

• Google’s “don’t be evil” motto seems to mean that if Google does it, it’s for the common good. This is despite accusations of monopolistic practices in search and being criticised for spying on consumers to sell advertising. Google appears to want to define what is ‘good’.
• Facebook “helps you connect and share with the people in your life”. Another way of looking at this is that it is a giant marketing platform for collecting data on people’s lives and then selling this to advertisers.
• Unethical sites have tapped into Facebook to help them disseminate ‘fake news.’ This ‘news’ is so realistic, and targeted at people who have the propensity to believe it, that there are concerns it may have influenced the way people voted in the U.S election.
• Twitter claims to help you to “get in-the-moment updates on the things that interest you” and yet they aren’t transparent about how users’ data is sold on to advertisers.

If the world’s largest tech companies are not transparent in their marketing activities this highlights the scale of the moral dilemma today’s marketers must navigate.

Navigating the moral tightrope

It’s an exciting time to use digital tools as they are changing fast, but by ignoring the ethical dimension of martech tools, marketers are in danger of undermining brand trust. On the horizon, we can see martech tools which will measure peoples’ emotional response to ads through facial recognition. To do this, consumers must grant the platform access to their webcams, adding another dimension to the moral maze.

The arrival of big data means that there will be even more data available requiring more powerful martech tools. So, now’s the time for marketers to obtain clarity around what is and isn’t ethical. There are currently few guidelines around the ‘rights and wrongs’ in the world of digital marketing. Perhaps it’s time for companies to introduce an ethical marketing handbook, making it clear what is and isn’t acceptable in the online world? By considering the brand damage that could be done by acting unethically, this should be incentive enough for marketers to review their own and their companies’ moral compasses!


By Tim Boote, director at TRB Consultancy Ltd

PrivSec Conferences will bring together leading speakers and experts from privacy and security to deliver compelling content via solo presentations, panel discussions, debates, roundtables and workshops.
For more information on upcoming events, visit the website.

comments powered by Disqus