Is it ethical for media owners to target people by emotion?

Facebook is under fire after a newspaper probe but, arguably, this tactic isn't new.

Is it ethical for media owners to target people by emotion?

News Corp’s pushback against the major digital players shows no sign of abating. The Times’ investigation into brand safety on YouTube and nefarious content on Facebook reverberated around the world. Now, on the other side of the globe, its sister paper The Australian is back on the attack. 

In April, The Australian revealed that media agencies were receiving rebates based on how many members of staff they had. It also reported that media leaders were receiving all-expenses-paid trips to Menlo Park. Last week, the stakes were raised when The Australian reported on an internal Facebook document produced for a major Australian bank that explained it could target young people when they were feeling "worthless" and "insecure".

After initially saying it had opened an investigation, Facebook changed tack. The company now says it does not "offer tools to target people based on their emotional state". Moreover, it says the research was "intended to help marketers understand how people express themselves on Facebook" and "never used to target ads". 

"Using the clout of Facebook to take commercial advantage of the emotionally vulnerable? That sends a different kind of shiver down my neck," Xavier Rees, chief executive of Havas London, says.

However, if a platform is able to keep an eye on its users’ mental states, it might be able to help if something is wrong. "If this information means you can display charities or organisations that can help them, this is not exploitative – it’s providing help and a service," Victoria Fox, chief executive of Lida, says. 

But organisations need to tread carefully. In 2014, Samaritans and Jam (now DF London) had to pull a service that informed a user’s followers when they were in need of emotional support following accusations that it could facilitate bullying. 

Moreover, selling by emotion is nothing new for media owners. Glossy magazines, cinema sales houses and even newspapers flog their ad space based on the way their content makes their customers feel. 

The strength of the reaction to the Facebook story could be a reflection of the company’s scale as well as distrust stemming from its manipulative news feed experiment in 2014. Despite these concerns, some expect emotional targeting to become a reality. 

"Long term, where there is consent and where it is appropriate, emotions will be used to target consumers to deliver the most relevant experience," Andy Pringle, head of performance media at Zenith, says. 


NO

 Sarah Baumann, Deputy chief executive, Leo Burnett

Sarah Baumann Deputy chief executive, Leo Bu"Targeting people when they are vulnerable is wrong. It’s wrong for the industry too because irresponsible targeting threatens to further erode consumer trust. We need to win audiences over for brands, and this means treating them as people."nett

NO

 Dominic Williams, Outgoing chief trading officer, Amplifi

"Data gives us an opportunity to create more relevant ad messaging. We support any of our partners who want to use data to deliver ads that are meaningful to consumers. However, media vendors have a responsibility to apply data with sensitivity."

NO

 Malcolm White, Founder, Krow

"Playing on emotions. Identifying vulnerabilities and exploiting them. Appearing uninvited in homes, at work or when out and about, or all of these places, so that it feels like resistance is futile. Doing it persistently. This isn’t targeting. It’s stalking."

YES

 Karen Stacey, Chief executive, Digital Cinema Media

"It is essential for brands to build powerful emotional connections with consumers as this will create long-term value for the brand and the business. Media owners have a responsibility to provide an environment that is safe and appropriate."

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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).