From data farm to marketer's table, only the most 'ethically sourced' ads

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Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen / Ad Age

The digital and marketing technology industry is taking a page from conscientious consumer movements—think fair-trade coffee, sweatshop-free apparel—to address concerns that the data collected on a massive scale across the internet adheres to only the highest principles of privacy, security and consent. Introducing "ethically sourced data."

Who started it?

It's a phrase that has been embraced by Facebook and its executives, like Carolyn Everson, VP of global marketing solutions, who at this year's Advertising Week in New York talked about new rules at the social network. Advertisers have to vouch for all the data they bring to Facebook to target ads. "Our goal with this is to ensure that whatever data is utilized is 'ethically sourced' and marketers have permission to use it," Everson told advertisers back in September.

That doesn't mean Facebook owns the term. Acxiom, a third-party data broker, has been talking about "ethical data" use for years.

Why now?

This year, Europe enacted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which forces all companies to notify consumers about how they collect data. Also, Cambridge Analytica, a third-party data company, was accused of misappropriating consumer data on up to 87 million users on Facebook. Meanwhile, California passed consumer privacy legislation expected to take effect in 2020.

What does 'ethical data' even mean?

"Companies that collect data directly from consumers, they have to get consent," says Andy LaFond, executive media director at R/GA Chicago. "You also have to consider how long they keep the data, and are there options for consumers to review and modify it. Those are all components of GDPR and consumer-protection laws."

It's not just about the letter of the law, according to Jed Mole, VP of marketing at Acxiom. "Just because you can do something with data, doesn't mean you should," Mole says.

What shouldn't you do with data?

Here's a scenario: "It doesn't seem very ethical to me to understand the location of oncology clinics and target cancer treatment ads to patients that just left those clinics," said Jon Taylor, director of data strategy at Essence Global.

Advertisers are confronted with opportunities like that all time, with marketing firms selling data sets that might be totally legal, but are morally questionable.

How do you know if data is 'ethical'?

"There are some simple primary research steps you can take to validate data sets that you buy," Taylor says.

Data brokers often have audience segments, which they claim can target internet users in the market for a certain product or service. "You can sample that audience and ask if they are in the market," Taylor says. "Don't trust the label on the tin."

Isn't 'ethical data' just marketing bullshit?

"It's a unicorn," says an executive at one data company, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The only ethical data in advertising, he insists, is when a person gives express consent that their information can be used to target them with certain ads. Relatively few consumes ever do that knowingly.

Finally, complicating matters for the ethically-sourced data movement is the rise of artificial intelligence.

"There are dire implications," says Andrew Frank, a Gartner researcher. "What if a machine learns it's effective to sell lottery tickets to people with gambling problems or sugary drinks to people who overindex for diabetes.?" These are 21st Century ethical questions, while many people are still stuck in a 20th Century moral framework, Frank says.

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