What role do data ethics play in advertising?

Introducing the world’s first guide on data ethics in advertising is WFA or the World Federation of Advertisers. It’s basically a brand’s guide on what you should and shouldn’t do with the data your brand collects from target audiences. This comes after the second anniversary of the ground-breaking GDPR ruling in the European Union.

data ethics

Data collection is a touchy subject for many consumers, yet it plays such an important role in the marketing process. This is where an ethical approach ensures the safety of the customers’ data – and the reputation of the collecting brand. What does all of this mean for advertising, you ask? Let’s find out:

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Data collection in advertising

Direct marketing is a prime example of the importance of regulated data practices. We’ve all received one; an email from a deceased estate attorney who wants to bequeath you with Aunt Marge’s millions (someone you’ve never heard of in your life). How did this random con artist get your email address? The only way it could have happened is if someone – who you’ve given your details to before – has sold your email address (probably as part of a larger database) to a dodgy company somewhere in Timbuktu.

The advertiser has a responsibility to handle your data correctly, especially sensitive information like credit card details and physical addresses. Consumers have the final say in whether the data can be stored or not. Monthly mailers, as an example, have to feature opt-out messages on every mailer going out. Websites that collect contact form data should also ask whether their hosting servers are safe, and only hold onto collected website data if there is a specific purpose behind keeping it (if they’ve signed up for monthly mailer updates).


The General Data Protection Regulations, and South Africa’s own Protection of Private Information Act, layout clear instructions on the handling of customer data. In today’s advertising world, a sizeable database of email addresses is worth more than gold. Like any commodity, collected target audience data should be protected and kept private. The World Federation of Advertisers list four principles that should be implemented in a data ethics approach to advertising:

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Data usage should respect the producers of said data, and brands should understand the interests of all stakeholders. They should commit to using consumer data to improve people’s lives.


Usage of data should be inclusive and eliminate bias, instead of dividing groups. Groups collecting data should examine their mindsets as they approach data handling, and be inclusive in the way they use it.


Data-contributing consumers expect brands to have transparent data practices; ones that adhere to local (POPI) and international (GDPR) governance, and that carry through to suppliers, partners, etc.


Brands should apply transparent principles, working towards more open and honest data practices. This is especially important as artificial intelligence (AI) begins to automate many decisions advertisers make.