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Welcome to the newest installment of our weekly blog series, Ethical Questions for Marketers. Each week we plan to introduce a new topic and explore it in detail, preparing marketers for the day when they face such a problem at their organization.

Last week’s topic was Price Consistency.

This week’s topic: Ad Targeting

The general principle of modern advertising is this – you want to show the right ad, to the right person, at the right time. That’s what we talk about when we talk about targeted advertising.

Digital tools give marketers the ability to customize, or personalize, advertising in a number of interesting ways. First, we can show different ads to different people based on what we know about who you are. For example, men and women might see different versions of the same ad.

Second, we can show ads to people based on something unique about you. For example, you might see an ad for a cable subscription right after you move into your new home.

Ad targeting is the Holy Grail for marketers and companies right now, because the ones who get it right are able to dramatically increase their return on investment. Not only does it save money by no longer advertising to people who are not likely to purchase, but it also increases the effectiveness of the ads served because they are more relevant.

The question is, when does targeting cross the line? It is easy to see that there are lines that can be crossed. For example:

· You might target ads for high-risk financial products to people with low incomes

· You might target ads for alcohol-related products to someone you know has a drinking problem

· You might target ads based on race or religion

It might be tempting for marketers to defend how they’re advertising when they can point to success in terms of revenue generated. But you cross the line when the nature of your advertising has detrimental effects on the people you are targeting.