Most brand bosses accept that issues like privacy and data collection will become a bigger part of their remit over the next five years, but less than half of big brands have policies in place to ensure they’re handling data ethically.
74% of chief marketing officers believe that data ethics will become more important to their role in the next five years. However, even though issues around data collection and privacy are climbing up the agenda in brand boardrooms, just 48% of advertisers have an official data ethics policy.
Fresh research from the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) garnered responses from 147 senior marketers representing companies with a global ad spend of $55bn. It found that while the ethics of data usage is becoming a bigger focus for marketers, there’s a gap between what companies should be doing to protect consumers’ data, versus what they are doing.
82% of marketers questioned said they’d consider leaving their current employer if they felt the approach to data was not ethical.
A further 26% said they’d already been left feeling uncomfortable about the use of data at some time during their careers and 10% said they didn’t feel they could speak up if they felt uneasy about the way data was being used within their business.
Over the last18 months, household brands (and the platforms they support) have come under scrutiny for the ways in which they've used data to target customers.
In 2018, Netflix faced accusations of turning personalisation into racial profiling after some black users noticed that the streamer was pushing content to them using artwork that featured black actors — no matter how tiny their role in the TV show or series was.
More recently, global governments have warned brands, as well as retailers like Amazon, not to use data in a way that pushes products which could exploit people's Covid-19 health-related anxieties or worries.
Plugging the data ethics gap
The WFA is hoping the report – published on the second anniversary of the implementation of the EU’s GDPR regulations – will encourage companies to go beyond simply following the rules on data privacy.
In tandem with the study, it has released a guide for marketers setting out the steps they should consider ensuring their organisation uses people’s private information in a respectful way.
The trade body’s data ethics guide also encourages marketers to take action to promote the issue across their own businesses. The guide proposes a series of key tenets that brands should stick to when establishing their own data ethics policies:
• Respect: All data usage should respect the people behind the data and companies need to strive to understand the interests of all parties and use consumer data to improve people’s lives.
• Fairness: Data usage should aim to be inclusive, acknowledge diversity and eliminate bias rather than dividing groups. Brands need to examine their data sets, mindsets and governance approach to ensure they are inclusive in the way they use data.
• Accountability: Consumers expect companies to have open and transparent data practices backed up by robust global and local governance. The same standards should be applied across partners, suppliers, publishers and platforms.
• Transparency: Although the online advertising ecosystem is complex, brands should apply transparency principles and work towards more open and honest data practices, particularly as AI and machine-learning approaches start to automate decisions.
The survey findings were based on a year’s work by the WFA’s Data Ethics Board, chaired by Unilever’s General Counsel for global marketing and media, Jamie Barnard. Other members include experts from 19 of the world’s biggest companies including AB InBev, Diageo, Ferrero, Ikea, L’Oréal, Mars, Mastercard, P&G, Shell, Unilever and Visa.
Conny Braams, chief digital and marketing officer at Unilever, said the advertising, marketing and media industry must look beyond regulation and champion the ethical use of consumer data.
“ We have a responsibility to inspire trust in our brands and our use of data, and raise ethical standards to drive positive change in society,” she added.
Lubomira Rochet, chief digital officer at L’Oréal – who has been championing a data-driven approach to marketing within her own business following a GDPR clear-out – said: “Data ethics and the ethics of algorithms are crucial challenges for our digital economies.
“In a world saturated with choices and opportunities, data comes with positive sides, namely the ability for brands to personalise their interactions with their consumers and to provide uniquely customized experiences to them.
“But for this promise to be fulfilled we also need to mobilize as an industry to ensure that we handle data collection and use with the highest level of transparency and ethics. Consumers’ trust is the number one currency for our brands and the reason why we need to rethink data sharing as true value exchange. We need the entire industry to shift towards a more positive, transparent approach to data.”