The ethical debate facing marketers around virtual reality

Jodie Sangster

Jodie Sangster has been the CEO of the Association for Data-driven Marketing and Advertising (ADMA) since 2011 and is also chairperson for the International Federation of Direct Marketing Associations (IFDMA). She has worked across the US, Europe and Asia-Pacific for 14 years with a focus on data-driven marketing and privacy, and began her career as a lawyer in London specialising in data protection. Her resume includes senior positions at Acxiom Asia-Pacific and the Direct Marketing Association in New York.

Virtual Reality (VR) is no longer a theoretical consumer proposition. This year’s CES and SXSW were awash with VR games and applications with Gartner estimating 25 million headsets will be sold by 2018. And, as I am writing this, Sony has announced an October launch for a PlayStation virtual reality headset that could blow out these predictions and take it to the mass market. And let’s not forget about the advent of cardboard VR headsets and an expected reduction in price of Oculus Rift.

We are already seeing brands test the waters with virtual reality marketing campaigns. The New York Times, for example, has a VR app to immerse viewers into news events, while General Electric, an early experimenter with VR in marketing, launched an animated video app last year. Coca Cola also used VR during its 2014 soccer World Cup promotional activities, taking visitors to a mock locker room in Brazil’s Maracana Stadium to put on VR headgear that transported them to play a match on the pitch.

Creative tech

Although VR advertising initiatives are nascent, we can only assume that as VR hits a consumer tipping point, it is most certainly on its way. This carries with it immense potential to transform marketing as we know it with possibilities for immersive, emotional connections. As Sir John Hegarty opined: “It is important to understand that technology creates opportunity, but it’s creativity that creates value”.

VR could be the ultimate intersection of the two. In addition to the creativity that can be unleashed, data gathered could also transform the way businesses make decisions in terms of events, retail and product testing. That’s not to mention sophisticated, native one-to-one marketing initiatives and the introduction of haptic VR technologies, which will introduce the sense of touch. Imagine a world in which new products can be tested before being put into production and consumers able to browse, ‘touch and feel’ clothing, holiday destinations and be transported to music and sporting events from their own living room.

Now for the privacy problem

But the tremendous possibilities also come with a weight of responsibility and myriad ethical and privacy challenges as both the potential for use and misuse of VR user generated data are vast.

What do I mean by this? Firstly, VR is able to capture the emotional patterns and responses of consumers, which, when combined with other user data preferences, could theoretically manipulate purchase decisions in a way that has hitherto been unheard of. Of course at its heart, marketing is all about persuasion, and neuroscience is already used to help influence decisions. VR takes it to another – some might say Orwellian – level.

For example, for headsets to work effectively they have to record eye movement focus, head movement and related sensory and physical behaviour. All of these have the potential to be leveraged in ways that could impact privacy. That’s particularly the case when you consider that after gaming, many early consumer iterations are likely to be in the adult entertainment space; a literal and figurative example of companies being able to monitor and predict the consumers every desire.

From an ethical and regulatory perspective, it is still Wild West territory. In March, researchers from Johannes Gutenburg University Mainz published a list of ethical concerns that might arise with the use of VR by researchers and the general public, along with concrete recommendations for minimising the risk. This has been touted as the first virtual reality code of conduct. It is a fascinating read from an intellectual perspective but also a precursor to the type of code of conduct that the marketing and advertising industry will inevitably have to consider in the near future.

Because although there are (obviously) no long-term impact studies of VR experiences available as yet, academics are speculating that it could affect people’s viewpoint more than any other technology due to the same immersive and lifelike experience that has the potential to offer marketers such creative and engaging opportunity. It is therefore incumbent upon the marketing industry to make careful decisions as to how to harness VR and at ADMA we are beginning to look at how best we can responsibly advocate for its use.

The great power that VR promises comes with even greater responsibility, offering marketers exciting but exacting potential. It is going to be a fascinating ride.

Tags: emerging technology, digital marketing, data-driven marketing, virtual reality

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