Navigating Digital Advertising's Gray Areas

Advertising has always been riddled with challenges on what’s ethical and what isn’t. This is even more relevant with digital advertising, as powerful data and a complex ecosphere become available to more and more marketers.

Here are three key ethical gray areas to be aware of in digital advertising  -- and tips for how marketers can navigate them.

Audience Targeting: How Granular is Too Granular?

Marketing data enthusiasts are excited by all of the audience targeting available on digital platforms, allowing for more efficient and effective marketing spend. Niche audiences are able to be reached at scale, and messaging can be customized to speak to these individuals in a way that feels personal. However, when that personalization reaches the point of feeling personally invasive, it can do more harm than good. That's a key reason behind major changes in digital privacy, from the elimination of cookies to the iOS updates to removal of targeting parameters on Facebook.



As you are in the process of audience planning, it’s important to go beyond “is this legal?” and “is this compliant?” It’s important to pause and evaluate whether the granularity offered is worth the risk of offending your consumer and harming your brand.

Inventory Selection: Are You Creating Negative Implications for Your Brand?

Programmatic advertising allows for an audience-driven approach, giving marketers the ability to reach individuals wherever they are online. While this is beneficial in generating a higher likelihood of ad recall and subsequent action, not all inventory is created equal.

It’s important to align on a threshold of brand safety tolerance ahead of campaign launches. Are you OK with your brand running alongside content focused on violence, tragedy, dating, etc.?

Additionally, it’s important to consider if you are inserting your bias in your choice of inventory. Are you avoiding TikTok because you assume only teens are using the platform? Challenge yourself when putting together a digital strategy to ensure you are using a data-driven approach with reduced human interference of opinion.

Campaign Performance: Are You Being Honest with Yourself and Your Brand?

There is a lot of pressure to show ROI in digital campaigns, since marketers have access to vast amounts of data that can be more directly tied to brand outcomes. As a result, marketers might feel inclined to spin results in a way that are all positive, even if that’s not really the case.

Stop to consider if you are being truthful in your campaign performance analysis, or if you are simply saying what you want to be true. In most cases, data transparency is key. Having an honest conversation when things aren’t working is the way to build trust and ultimately drive change.

This starts at the beginning of campaigns when selecting KPIs and goals.  Will you choose a measurement framework that measures your business’ goals, or one that focuses on vanity metrics that are easily manipulated?

There will always be gray areas in advertising, as the industry is ever-evolving with new technologies and capabilities. Being aware of when you are entering a gray area and having checkpoints in place to ensure you are doing what’s right by the brand and the consumer will help you navigate these challenges.

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