Where is the line between Marketing and Manipulation?

By Carolin Hunkemöller


Technological advancements in recent years have given rise to more sophisticated forms of consumer analytics. In the 2016 US election campaign, UK company Cambridge Analytica was hired to support the marketing efforts of Trump’s election campaign by generating personalised advertisements based on the personality and political tendencies of individuals portrayed through their Facebook profiles in order to reassure Republicans and persuade undecided voters to vote for Trump.

Today marketing is much more a system of personal and individualised messages targeted at the individual consumer rather than the general release of messages to a heterogenous audience. However, as organisations possess more and more data about their customers and use this data in order to optimise their marketing efforts, where is the line between marketing and manipulation?

With personalised advertisements becoming more important for companies today, consumer concerns about data protection and marketing ethics have risen as well. The ethical dilemma that especially arises from personalised advertisements and the data that goes into them has been widely discussed and researched and forms the focus area of my report. Studies have shown that while many consumers feel positive about targeted advertisements as they increase the relevance of ads displayed to them and facilitate product search, targeted ads are also scorned for their ability to influence consumer behaviour and thinking thinning the line between helpful ads and unethical manipulation. In fact, one of the key challenges facing marketing ethics associations such as the DMA is the trade of between enabling companies to use innovative ways of data collection to publish even more personal and unique ads and the growing concern for customer privacy and the protection of vulnerable groups.

In my report I would like to understand consumer perceptions and opinions on different examples of highly targeted advertisements where data protection posed a central issue and point of public discussion in order to determine what reasoning consumers use to decide between marketing and manipulation.

How do you feel about targeted advertisements? Do you think they are useful? Does the level of private data companies possess about you frighten you? Have you experienced a situation where you felt an advertisement was too personal?