Digital marketers and employers should understand the complex intersection between digital marketing or digital employment ads and civil rights laws. This is an intriguing topic, especially because of the unsettled nature of laws in this sector. Since the inception of digital marketing platforms, such as Facebook and Google ads, several litigations against digital discrimination remain unsettled by courts. This is because digital marketing is a new field with few precedents that courts can rely on.
What is Discriminatory Digital Marketing?
As it appears obvious, discriminatory digital marketing/employee ads involve rolling out product adverts, service adverts, or employment ads that discriminate against a specific group of people. Big data, complex algorithms, and machine learning are significant enablers of this form of discrimination.
Increasing adoption of these technologies makes it easy for digital marketers to understand their audience. It also enables them to craft curated promotional messages and use specific digital channels to reach their target audience.
While tailored marketing benefits the business in several ways, it might lead to discrimination. Be it accidental or intentional, targeting ads to a specific group of people might lead to ethical and moral issues. That said, businesses should deeply engage employment lawyers before rolling out these advertisements.
Classic Examples of Discriminatory Digital Marketing
- Facebooks’ Employee Ads Case
A legal suit instituted by the Communications Workers of America can provide insights on this issue. In the legal suit filed in 2017 and amended in 2018, the agency claims that Facebook facilitates age-targeting ads, which discriminates against employees outside the favored age brackets. Allegations from the CWA state that Facebook intentionally facilitates age discrimination employment ads in the following ways;
- Allowing digital marketers to select the age range of Facebook users that the ads will be displayed.
- Allowing digital marketers to target affinity groups, which are proxies for age range. For instance, “millennials” or “young and hip.”
- Providing Facebooks’ algorithm that allows marketers to target a lookalike audience. These are audiences generated from existing user groups determined by the algorithm. According to CWA, using a lookalike audience quite similar to word of mouth hiring, a practice that is considered unlawful and discriminatory.
Another suit filed in 2018 claims that Facebook also facilitates employment discrimination on a gender basis by allowing hiring managers to run ads exclusive to men. Both cases seriously affect digital marketers and digital employment ads from companies governed by Federal laws.
Facebook responded to the age-discrimination allegations, denying any wrongdoing caused by the platforms’ advertising practices in facilitating age-targeted employment and recruitment. According to Facebook, while exclusive digital ads targeting a specific age might appear discriminatory, it is not discriminatory for hiring managers to use this targeting method as an advertisement strategy or as part of a broad recruitment exercise.
Facebook compared this situation to age-specific job postings placed on magazines that indicate the expected age range for candidates. While both gender and age discriminatory suits against Facebook haven’t been settled entirely, digital marketers should create their ads considering these possible ramifications.
- Bic’s Misplaced Message
Bic is a well-known brand that manufactures sturdy and durable pens and other stationery. However, one of its digital marketing ads went far too much. Probably the best way on how not to take advantage of an annual event for marketing, Bic rolled out the “act like a lady, think like a man” ad message during International Women’s Day on their social media platforms.
The message created immediate uproars among women who felt that the campaign message was overly discriminatory. Instead of taking advantage of the annual event, Bic faced serious backlash and negative press from this antiquated and thoughtless ad.
That said while launching a campaign in line with a celebrated event provides the best opportunity to showcase your brand values and connect with a broad audience, always be cautious with your marketing message.
- GBK’s Insensitivity and Isolation Ad
This is another classic example of how not to market while isolating or excluding some of your target audience. In this case, the Gourmet Burger Kitchen caused a serious controversy with their provocative anti-vegetarian ad message that led to more than 8200 tweets before the social media ads were deleted.
The multichannel campaign included social media posts, strategic content, and physical advertising banners flopped almost immediately. It contained the message, “Vegetarians, resistance is futile and you will always remember the day you gave up.” The backlash from social media users came almost instantly from vegetarians and empathizers, who took to Twitter and other social media platforms to voice the brands alienating message.
As if not enough, GBK made a subsequent mistake by failing to apologize to those who felt offended by the message. This tarnished the brand’s image and reputation.
Tips to Avoid Discrimination Digital Advertising
Without a doubt, you can easily cross paths with cases of discrimination in digital advertising. Follow these guidelines to avoid discrimination in your digital advertising.
- Don’t Limit On Special Offers and Opportunities
Not limiting on product offers and opportunities is probably the best way to avoid discriminatory digital employment ads. A common marketing tactic used by digital marketers is offering clues or hints in their ad message. For instance, stating that “applicants aged above 30 years have an added advantage.”
As for digital product marketing, you might be tempted to offer special discounts to a group of people. For instance, offer a 20 percent discount to women. As mentioned, it is discriminatory to offer such deals to one group.
- Understand Your Products
These are several situations that marketing to a specific group is not problematic. For instance, if your business sells women’s products only, it won’t be against the law to advertise to a female audience. The same applies to any product offers with a specific purpose or used by a specific cohort.
However, you should be cautious about who to target and exclude if your products are universal. Such is especially important in situations where archaic stereotypes come to play. For instance, if you market cleaning supplies, the stereotype is that cleaning is a reserve for women.
However, this is not a gender-exclusive activity, and rolling out digital ads exclusive to women can perpetuate this notion. That said, understanding your products is key to avoid discriminatory advertising.
- Place Ads on Accessible Platforms
While targeting helps in distributing your digital ads efficiently, you should be careful to avoid possible diversity issues. For instance, with traditional marketing, a billboard placed near a white neighborhood passes the message only to people within the demographic area. The same applies to digital marketing. Avoid placing your digital ads on niche-specific websites.
- Use Diverse Models
Another way of avoiding discriminatory digital ads is using a diverse group of people in your commercials. This involves using different groups of people in your photographs, online videos, and other digital marketing materials. Diversity is a recent trend that most businesses have adopted. For instance, beauty products that initially used small-sized models currently use plus-sized models.
The realm of digital marketing and its intersection with the law remains largely untouched. However, this doesn’t imply that you should roll out your digital marketing campaign in utter disregard of possible consequences. If you are worried that your digital marketing might be discriminatory, consult industry experts. Employment lawyers can analyze your digital employment ads strategy to ensure that it doesn’t violate any provisions.