Chrissy Clary

ponder. conspire. digitize.

Is there a conversation around ethics and
digital marketing happening today?

A dialogue about ethics practices in the field of digital marketing, while not completely non existent, is limited and lacking in substance.

When the machines take over the world what part will marketers have played in the demise of of the human race? Unfortunately, we don’t know and won’t for a while.

In my opinion normalizing a conversation around ethical practices for the digital strategist should be an essential part of the conversations we are having regarding consumer targeting. I have no expectation that we will get it right, or save the human race, but it is worth a healthy conversation.

Notably, the topic is a complex one, but much of what I found easily available on the Internet appears to lacking in research and depth. Scholarly references, while not plentiful, were available for those with access to scholarly databases.

In the USA in 2013, full-year Internet advertising revenues totaled $42.78 billion, up 17 percent from the $36.57 billion reported in 2012 (IAB 2014). Search-related revenues accounted for 43 percent, display-related advertising for 30 percent and mobile, which grew by more than 140 percent between 2011 and 2013, reached 17 percent of the Internet advertising revenues (Nill, Aalberts, Li, & Schibrowsky, 2015).

The lack of dialogue focused on ethical practices in digital marketing compared to the amount of money being spent on digtial advertising appears unbalanced, to me at least. I found quite a few discussions centered on the pros and cons of machine learning and the use of big data, but to little regarding the use in the marketing space.

I believe we are only beginning to understanding the effects of our focused, personalized targeting efforts.

Consider this, “the recent advances in the use and potential abuse of ‘big data’ is one of the most pressing issues facing both marketers and public policy decision makers,” according to Alexander Nill, Robert Aalberts, Herman Li and John Schibrowsky -contributors to the Handbook of Ethics and Marketing. The team of researchers are in support of “more ethics-based research” focused on data privacy and consumer targeting (2015).

While [Online Behavioral Advertising] potentially provides advantages to online
consumers such as ‘free’ access to online sites – the advertising revenues
pay for keeping the sites free of charge – the practice has the technological
potential to violate consumers’ privacy to a hitherto unmatched extent.
OBA is poorly understood by most consumers, often non-transparent
And sometimes outright deceptive. Since the practice is relatively new, laws and
regulations are still evolving (Nill, Aalberts, Li, & Schibrowsky, 2015).

Evil much like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Ethical decision making works in a similar fashion, each person makes decisions based on the experiences and biases they bring to the table (2015). Statements like “don’t be evil” (Google, 2014), just won’t cut it and do not clearly define the ethical stand of the company.

What I am not advocating for is the erection of regulations that stifle creativity or risk innovation, but I do think it is time for a real discussion about the ethics of profiling and targeting consumers.

Google. (2014). U.S. Public Policy. Retrieved from

Nill, A., Aalberts, R. J., Li, H., Schibrowsky, J. (June 26, 2015). ew telecommunication technologies, big data and online behavioral advertising: do we need an ethical analysis? Handbook on Ethics and Marketing. Retrieved from


  1. My experience as a marketer in this space is also that there is not a lot of thought given to the ethical implications of industry practices — which I imagine is true in just about every profession, because one is too busy doing one’s job, which is understandable. But, of course, there is some activity in this area. E.g., Edelman PR put out ethical guidelines for placing sponsored content.

    For me, the fundamental question is: Is what we’re doing making the place better or worse?

    • claryc

      May 16, 2017 at 5:25 pm

      I agree with your comments. The only thing is that the question “is what we’re doing making the place better or worse?” is such a big question. Can we really hope to answer it? But I guess that is what research is, one test and hypothesis at a time until you develop an answer. Lots of little answers make up big answers.

      I will look into what Edelman PR put out. Maybe we as practitioners don’t always abide by the ethics, but those with a formal education in marketing and communications are typically required to take an ethics class. We may not abide, but at least many of us have a shared core understanding. I went to marketing technology conference last week and the guy helping to control the algorithms and the front page of the Economist website was giving a talk. It was Steve Lok Head of Marketing and Technology for Global Digital Acquisition, The Economist ( Steve has a BS in Bioinformatics. Did he learn storytelling in school and about making ethical objective decisions regarding what is being publishing?

      I think the practice of digital strategist can be so vast and each position remarkably different – and there is no shared core knowledge. Think back to school, the computer kids and the talkers behaved differently. It can be like doing your job on quicksand.

      I think I am rambling now….

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