The free-for-all days of the internet and social media in the 2000s were bound to eventually run headlong into an ethical quagmire. After all, the blinding shine and endless potential of every new technology eventually fade to reveal it has some unforeseen flaws just like everything that came before it. And in this wake, we often want solutions quickly – restrict it, ban it, regulate it. But setting aside the societally shocking revelation of these digital communication tools’ use by certain parties in a certain election, internet and social media content was never going to be easy to put limits on – even in terms of advertising.
Regulating Content: Traditional Media Vs. Online
It’s been relatively easy to regulate content disseminated by mass communication like TV and radio. Everything on these channels is generally created by businesses, advertisers, studios. These entities don’t have civil liberties like people. You can slap a law on traditional advertising practices saying certain topics, words, depictions are not allowed and be done with it. Now, these types of laws have always been up for debate in terms of whose morality is governing communication to the masses, but the argument that these regulations could somehow infringe on an individual’s free speech or expression doesn’t come up much.
But when anyone legally can have a website or post to a social media platform, things get a lot grayer. A Fortune 500 company’s content can show up in a feed or a search engine result right next to your best friend’s content. And if your best friend is a social media influencer who gets paid by companies to create and post content in promotion of their products things get even murkier.
Even approaching the subject of government regulation of the internet opens a whole pandora’s box about slippery slopes and censorship. So, we mostly rely on private tech companies like Google and Facebook to draw the boundaries for online content because, unlike the U.S. government, their operations aren’t governed by the First Amendment.
However, in trying to extend to the online world the spirit of existing laws governing advertisement in traditional media – especially of certain products such as tobacco, firearms, and alcohol – tech companies continue to run into the question of what exactly should be considered an advertisement. Is it only content coming from official company sites or accounts? Is it only content with money behind it to amplify its reach? Is it content companies pay others to create and promote? Is it content that explicitly mentions a product or anything a company produces?
With the rise of content marketing, and especially branded content, it’s become harder and harder to identify when we’re being advertised to – which is exactly the reason companies use these content strategies. In the video above the Content Marketing Insititute defines branded content as:
“a content creation tactic, typically produced through a sponsored or paid partnership between the brand and the media, that encourages audiences to engage with the brand based on its entertainment, information, and/or educational value.”Robert Rose (2015), Content Marketing Institute
We want to read about a company’s work to save the planet, not how cheap their product is. We want the social media stars we follow to share their favorites with us like we’re friends, not watch a commercial starring a celebrity. Advertisers are now more than happy to oblige these desires if it means developing positive and monetarily beneficial relationships with consumers. For the most part, we don’t have a big problem with this either until consideration turns to companies or organizations we see as financially benefiting off threats to the health, safety, and wellbeing of people.
The Ethics of Content Regulation
This is where we’ve historically been more ok placing limits on advertising. For example, tobacco is highly regulated by federal law that, among other things, restricts it from being advertised on TV and radio, via product placements in entertainment available to kids, and through event sponsorships (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, n.d.).
Alcohol advertising, although governed by federal and state laws somewhat, is highly restricted by voluntary self-regulatory standards aimed at preventing underage drinking. For example, advertisements cannot purposely be designed to appeal to those under 21 and be used in places where less than 70% of the audience is expected to be of drinking age (Editorial Staff, n.d.).
Firearms companies have been less regulated in traditional advertising, but have come to be seen socially and, more recently legally, as having responsibility for public health threats such as mass shootings in much the same way the tobacco industry has been with lung cancer. Following this precedent, it’s understandable why this industry would be targeted for advertising regulation. In the future, it wouldn’t be surprising if other industries found themselves in this position, such as oil and gas companies because of climate change.
But in 2018 a research project out of the University of Southern California found that less than half of public relations professionals thought certain organizations or companies should be prohibited from using branded content (Gretzel, 2018).
If the purpose of regulations on traditional media is to limit advertising in an effort to limit the negative impact certain company’s products or organizations’ ideas can have on society, then there’s no question the spirit of them should extend to online content created for advertising purposes. It can have just as much influence as traditional media, and, in terms of the more disguised forms like branded content, it has the potential to encourage even more unhealthy behavior as people consuming it aren’t as on guard as they might be when they are aware something has an agenda to persuade them.
Ethics in Application
This is the ethical precedent tech companies have been working with to determine what kind of advertising their platforms will allow. It’s easy, though, to block paid ads featuring alcohol from being fed to those under 21 or the paid promotion of tobacco and firearms altogether, but as I said branded content makes it tricky and provides a lot of loopholes.
In 2019 Facebook finally closed a big loophole tobacco and firearms companies were using by banning influencers on Facebook and Instagram from promoting these companies’ products in their content (Graham, 2019). The reality is, though, that these social media platforms will continue to be places where these products will enjoy advertising if from nothing else but the unofficial influencers who own and use them themselves. As we’ve seen recently with the push to stop hate groups and hate speech on social media it’s difficult even for some of the world’s most prominent tech companies to monitor and regulate 100% correctly the massive amount of content being published online every day.
However difficult, it’s the right direction to be heading. Plus, considering the seismic shift toward digital communication, it’s not surprising that precedent for advertising regulation may begin to be established by regulations placed on digital content first rather adapted for this content from traditional media practices.
We think of the internet as a technological space, but it is also a social space, a reflection of who we are – good, bad, and otherwise. We develop our societies around shared, ever-evolving sets of ethics that we expect to guide our behavior, governments, laws, and institutions in an effort to bring more stability to a chaotic world. That online content should be an exception to these ethics is to fall for the false belief that the online world is somehow fully separate and different from the real world.
Editorial Staff. (n.d.) Rules & regulations about marketing alcohol. American Addiction Centers. Retrieved from https://www.alcohol.org/laws/marketing-to-the-public/
Graham, M. (2019, December 18). Instagram bans influencers from getting paid to promote vaping and guns. CNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2019/12/18/instagram-to-ban-influencers-from-promoting-vaping-and-guns.html
Gretzel, U. (2018, December 10). What is branded content and is it ethical? USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism Relevance Report. Retrieved from https://annenberg.usc.edu/research/center-public-relations/usc-annenberg-relevance-report/what-branded-content-and-it-ethical
Rose, R. (2019, March 5). What’s the difference between content markting, content branding, and native advertising? Content Marketing Institute. Retrieved from https://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2019/03/definitions-content-branded-native/
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (n.d.). Tobacco products: Advertising and promotion. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/tobacco-products/products-guidance-regulations/advertising-and-promotion