Ethical Social Media Marketing

On social media a young woman regularly posts about her life including her struggle with bi-polar disorder.  As she moves into a manic state her posts on social media alter slightly.  No one knows she is becoming manic, not even she knows.  Social media’s analytics and complex algorithms have detected the shift and start to change the marketing she sees to reflect this.  Her feed is now full of advertisements for purchases to capture her attention and take advantage of her manic state.  One of the most common symptoms of Bi-Polar Disorder is impulsive and irrational spending.  Knowing this firms pay to put their ad in front of her when she most vulnerable and therefore most likely to purchase.  Her social media feed is full of ads for cosmetics, appliances, plastic surgeons, fitness equipment and vacation packages.

  • Is it ethical for marketers to target people with a brain disorder?
  • Where does the ethical and moral responsibility fall?
    • Social media platforms
    • Firms
    • Marketers
    • Individual consumers

Technology can hijack people’s psychological weaknesses, is it ethical to target marketing directly to this weakness?  Imagine the woman with bi-polar started seeing ads for therapists, doctors, medication and bi-polar awareness nonprofits on her social media feed as she was transitioning into a manic state.  These entities could argue marketing to her is not only ethical but a moral obligation as well.

If you are thinking this a not a relevant question for today, you are wrong.  In 2002 the marketing department at Target asked a statistician if he could figure out if a woman was pregnant, even if she didn’t know she was pregnant yet.  The answer was, yes, he could and that was with technology available 15 years ago.  Target was able to predict a woman was pregnant before even she knew.  I’m not implying that Target is unethical for doing this, it’s just an example of how firms have used the data they collect.  The predictive analytics Target used did not depend on the purchase of a home pregnancy test.  A pregnant woman might find it helpful that she now receives coupons or sale notices from Target about baby and pregnancy related items.  Alternatively, a woman who was pregnant as the result of rape or suffers a miscarriage may not be pleased to receive pregnancy and baby related advertising.

Most people are aware that the internet and social media are not private.  What most people don’t understand is that social media is part of the attention economy and is designed to be addictive.  The more attention social media can capture the more money it makes by selling ad space and data collected on consumers.  I’ll give an example of a way social media manipulates consumers.  Most social media platforms have a way of ‘liking’ and responding to posts one enjoys. Through data analytics those platforms have discovered they can capture more attention by withholding likes and responses.  The technology will publish the ‘likes’ and responses in a controlled way over an extended period of time to increase the amount of time, or attention, one spends on that platform.  This technique is especially effective on younger consumers who put great emotional weight on how many ‘likes’ their post receives.  Consider the implications, social media can manipulate a young person’s emotions by withholding or flooding their post with ‘likes’.

Social media marketing allows firms to advertise at the moment consumers are looking for something.  Previously advertisements were limited to billboards, television and magazines.  Marketers chose where to advertise and hoped those who saw it were interested.  Now I look at an item on Amazon and advertising for that item follows me all over social media.  Target markets are changing from large groups of people in a category to individuals whose data indicates they are likely to make a purchase.  Not all reasons why a consumer is likely to make a purchase are benign.  There is no way to regulate every way social media can be used to harm people.  Marketing on social media ethically is the responsibility of marketers and firms.

Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.  It’s supposed to be mutually beneficial to both the business and consumer; not a predatory activity.  There is no way to regulate everyway a business can exploit and harm people, it’s an impossibility. Businesses have a responsibility to act in ethical and moral ways whether it is legally required or not.  As technology continues to advance firms will need to continually evaluate their actions.  Social media is a technology that continues to increase in popularity and has already demonstrated to be a powerful marketing tool.  As Spiderman said – with great power comes great responsibility.

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