Guest post by Alison Napolitano, a Senior Marketing Manager at 2U where she supports all community outreach for 2U’s programs. Alison has a background in digital marketing and a passion for helping great brands succeed online.
The twin wonders of social media and artificial intelligence allow advertisers and marketers to know more about their potential customers than ever before.
“We can now assess the entirety of an individual’s social activity,” writes Jason Jercinovic, global brand director at ad agency Havas. “Every word, every picture, every emoji…we can intimately understand the motivations of almost every consumer.”
This increased visibility underscores the ethical responsibility that companies should already be taking seriously.
“The ethical concerns I have about advertising is their tracking, because they can and do,” says former John Philpin, a former marketing executive at Oracle and founder of PeopleFirst, a nonprofit devoted to advancing human rights. “Nobody asked my permission. The social contract has been broken.”
“Back in the day,” says Philpin, “I bought the Sunday Times, and saw the ads, and all was good. If I saw the BMW ad and went down to the dealership that afternoon, I didn’t call the Sunday Times to let them know I had done that, but that is the equivalent of embedding a tracker in an ad online.”
Today, says Philpin, “enterprises acquire data from three prime places and then grunge it all up into a big data lake, and from that they infer what I may or may not be interested in based on their algorithms.”
Havas’ Jercinovic is a strong proponent of AI-driven advertising, but he nevertheless worries advertisers may one day use such knowledge to try to control peoples’ behavior. On a less sci-fi level, he’s concerned about biased data, algorithms that make wrong decisions, and invasion of privacy. He believes the ad industry needs to develop its own code of ethics to prevent misuse of AI. He says the customer needs to become a partner in what is marketed to them, rather than an “unwitting target.”
“Simply put, consumers should be aware of the techniques being used to market to them, and have the option of participating in those campaigns,” Jercinovic writes. To make informed choices, consumers need to know what’s being exchanged: “What are they giving up? What are they getting in return? And they should be allowed to opt out if they are uncomfortable with the transaction.”
Philpin thinks that conversation could go something like this:
“‘This is my date of birth — you need it for the mortgage application — it is only for you, you will no longer have access to that date of birth after my mortgage has been granted.’”
“The solution to all of this is personal data sovereignty,” Philpin concludes: “That is, that ‘my data is mine. I am never giving it to you. I am lending it. When I lend it, it is time-bound, and use-bound.’”
Companies want to be trusted by their consumers. But their treatment of customers needs to match their words, says Tracy Miller, a lecturer at MBA@Dayton, the online one-year MBA program from Dayton University: “You can’t have one without the other.”
Advertisers shouldn’t be afraid of partnering with customers. After all, the Internet has already empowered the consumer with far greater product choice and myriad ways to research products and companies. The consumer is now on a more even footing, and advertisers must acknowledge that.