Ethical Advertising – and where we draw the line

Not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but I work in marketing.  Direct Marketing actually – so a big part of my day is working out how to target my best prospects, based on profiling.  I’m often profiling on age and gender, as well as income, media consumption and purchasing history.  So far, so creepy to many I’m sure.  And as an advertiser, I’m always being offered more and more insightful ways to target.  But I am starting to wonder now where we draw the line.

Facebook has clearly crossed a line.  I can’t target people based on their race, but just about everything else is up for grabs. And not just information you’ve volunteered, but also information you’ve looked at, or topics you’ve talked about.  The issues this raises for privacy concerns are huge, and are not being addressed by Facebook, who seem to take the view that it’s up to individual users (even children) to work out how to opt out.  Take the story from earlier this year of the young man who was outed by Facebook Ads targeting him as gay – even though this was information he’d hoped to keep private (the story originally ran in Privacy International, who have now taken it down due to privacy concerns).

This attitude that it’s up to us to opt in or opt out is increasing.  Marks and Spencer’s Valentines campaign – purportedly “helping men choose the perfect gift” was actually “dress this model any way you like”.  Like a real-life barbie doll on the screen in front of you.  Any concerns over the sexism in this campaign (ignoring the ubiquitous ‘men spend money / woman will have sex with you as a given) – that having a model that you can choose the underwear of is exploitative – were brushed aside with the answer “well, you had to stand in a certain spot, and choose to use your phone to access this content”.  It’s up to us to opt out.

And this week, the controversial face-recognition advert from Plan UK – that will scan your face, decide if you are male or female, and then show you gendered content.  A really interesting use of technology.  But seemingly without considering that this could make many people uncomfortable, or worse cause real damage – outing transgender people and leading to bullying of teenagers as just two examples.  Plan used the same  answer as Facebook and M&S – that you had to opt in to see this content by standing in a certain spot, so it was ok.

Targeted advertising is always an attractive proposition to a marketer.  We don’t waste money sending information to people who won’t be interested, we cut waste paper, and we avoid annoying people.  New technology changes this game somewhat – as the wastage becomes less and less of a problem.  But that doesn’t absolve us of trying to not annoy people – and especially of trying not to cause offence.   Just because people can opt out, doesn’t mean they should have to opt out.  Just because we can target people in intrusive ways, doesn’t mean we should.

I’m especially concerned at the type of organisations using this now.  We don’t expect much from Facebook given it’s roots, but M&S should surely be thinking about how women will feel about their advertising content?  And Plan UK – their current campaign is all about encouraging women to support them.  So why be so happy to look the other way when and use the “opt out if you don’t like it” excuse?  It feels like they’re saying “well, if you can’t take a joke…” when a woman complains that “banter” is hugely offensive.

It’s not up to us to avoid content that is offensive, and to live our lives opting out.  Opting out isn’t a choice, it’s a way to exclude people, make them feel prudish for complaining.  This is choice that’s not really a choice, and is actually turning a blind eye.  Just like many women’s groups will continue to complain about top-shelf content – even if it’s on the top shelf and not in our line of sight – we should continue to complain about this kind of advertising, even if we can opt out.

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2 Comments on “Ethical Advertising – and where we draw the line”

  1. Emm says:

    Great article! The Plan campaign and their reaction to the outcry was extremely disappointing but that Facebook situation is just terrible. It really is so invasive and the only way to escape it seems to be to not visit these sites. Well, that isn’t going to happen for me so I appreciate sites like Privacy International.

    • jenniesue says:

      Hi Emm, Thanks for commenting.
      Facebook is particularly intrusive, and I know that lots of people avoid it for this reason. But I sometimes worry that because it’s SOOOO vile, other really intrusive things go by without a mention.
      Just because an organisation can technically do something, doesn’t mean they should.


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