Article

Is marketing moral?

Recapturing an ethic of human dignity

Sep 3, 2019

You may notice a new tool on your Facebook profile in the coming months. A few weeks ago, the social media giant launched a new privacy tool called “Off-Facebook Activity.” This new tool gives you more control over the data that is captured and stored—from sources outside of Facebook—regarding your online activity. Currently, Facebook is able to track your internet activity, gathering valuable data, even when you are not using the platform, through the use of tracking pixels. This new privacy tool allows you to delete this personal data after a period of 48 hours.

In our digital age, companies share data about us with platforms in order to gain valuable insight into things like shopping, reading, and viewing habits. This data is used to strengthen predictive advertising products and improve user services. This common practice isn’t limited to Facebook, as other technology giants like Google, Twitter, and a host of others employ these methods to micro-target and craft ads to better suit us and, in the end, increase profits for both the advertiser and platform.

Several of the major ethical issues that often go unnoticed are: how the data is captured, what we are aware of when using these services, and how the data is used to influence our behavior in the real world. As we enter into this new world of hyper-accurate marketing, both users and marketers need to adopt a higher standard for ethical advertising than: “I should, just because I can.” Christians rightly recognize that there is a higher calling than just basic consent—we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31).

Tailoring to consumers

One of the hallmarks of the American society is capitalism. While this system has many dangerous flaws that can be exploited for ungodly and dehumanizing ends, it has also ushered in great wealth for our society. In the 21st century, capitalism’s growth has largely been fueled by the ability of companies to market services and products directly us as consumers. Our modern advertising can be incredibly personalized and accurate because of the data collected about us, rather than the old one-size-fits-all approach.

Today, when we sign up for new online services or use smart devices, we always sign or acknowledge some type of consent for data exchange. For a device to be “smart” like many of our appliances, speakers, and phones, the company requires a certain level of data collection about you in order to personalize or improve your experience. In this data exchange, we receive higher quality tools and services. But is the data captured on us always used to improve our experience or with our best interest in mind? Some privacy advocates argue that companies are collecting more data about a user than is needed for the proposed service.

This abundance of data is collected, analyzed, and used to create a shadow text of information—the predictive analysis based on the collected data—about a person including their environment, behavior, psychology, etc. This can be used to sway elections, manipulate customers, and even fuel movements. These predictions are not bad in themselves, but they can be exploited by companies and marketers who treat us as mere data points. We need to step back and ask some fundamental questions about how we use these tools and wield the power at the end of our cursors.

A greater calling

So is marketing morally permissible? It can be if pursued with the right intentions of honoring the humanity of those that we are seeking to introduce to our services, content, and products. I have worked in communications for nearly a decade, and the ability to share God-honoring, edifying content and products with a wide range of people is one of the biggest highlights of my career. But rather than reducing the morality of an act to our ability to do it, we, as Christians, should pursue the higher calling of honoring the image of God found in every human being, even our perceived enemies. We can ask questions about the nature of the data collected, how these companies have procured it, and how our decision to utilize these tools will edify our neighbors and their lives. We need to be thoughtful about the methods we use to market products and harness the power of these predictive data-based tools to help our fellow brothers and sisters instead of treating them as a means to our ends.

Recapturing an ethic of human dignity is not a difficult task, but it is a constant battle since many of the tools we use today are designed to exploit our neighbors in the name of the bottom line. We should champion the dignity of every individual, including their privacy, instead of relegating them to a box to be checked, a vote to be counted, or the dollar in their bank accounts.This may mean choosing not to use a predictive tool or a new marketing scheme designed to exploit the user. It may mean losing a percentage of growth in our click through rate, page views, and inventory sold. The question isn’t “Can we?” Instead, we need to ask ourselves, “Should we do it?” If, in doing so, we lose in this life by championing the dignity of our fellow image-bearers, we can rest in the promise that there are untold riches to come in the next (Matt. 6:19-21).

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as creative director and associate research fellow at ERLC. In his role as creative director, he oversees all creative projects including design, video, web, audio, and print media.  His new book, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity,... Read More