February 13, 2020

The digital transformation of out-of-home advertising, also known as OOH, has advanced beyond traditional copywriting and leaped into interactive entertainment that is threatening consumer privacy and data mining. Out-of-home advertising is notorious for being non-censored and publically available for all to view. It is one of the very few mass-media programs still in existence with an expected projection of $37.72 billion by the end of 2025.   

 Professor Pamela Morris, Program Director Advertising and Public Relations at Loyola University, with the help of a graduate student, Avan Francesca Battochio, recently explored this issue in their publication: Outdoor Advertising Heats Up: Transforming Digital Signage and Ethical Issues." They presented their findings at the 2019 International Symposium on Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago, on November 7, 2019. A panel of national experts was given the opportunity to debate how extreme speech can be used online. I sat down and explored the evolution of multimedia advertising and the interactive experience of digital entertainment.  

After receiving approval from the IRB, also known as the Implemental Review Board, the research began by reaching out to several global advocacy groups, focusing on social justice. The purpose of their research was to grasp a better understanding of the ethical implications of digital advertising, such as questioning content that is published, and consumer data is used. The method used was to conduct semi-structured interviews based on Drumwright & Murphy’s guideline and anonymity to help mitigate bias and social desirability.  

The ethical implications in advertising have been identified by the values or ideals that guide people's lives, which can be broken down by grouping persuasive communication tactics. Dr. Morris and Ava found that using Baker’s “five baselines, including 1) self-interest, 2) entitlement, 3) enlightened self-interest, 4) social responsibility, and lastly, 5) Kingdom of Ends.” Each group represents how people justify their own moral compass, depending on their level of ethical awareness. The sample that was used consisted of non-random, in-depth interviews, located in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, with an average of 45 minutes per interview. 

Interested in exploring more about what ethical issues agencies typically experience, Dr. Morris and Ava found that executives are concerned with “1) treating clients fairly, 2) creating honest, non-misleading, socially desirable advertisements, 3) unethical or useless products, 4) treating suppliers, vendors, and media fairly, 5) treating employees fairly, and 6) treating other agencies fairly.” The American Advertising Federation has created a guideline for media, but it fails to represent the massive increase of technological advancements that are forever altering OOH marketing measures. 

The technological advancements that they have decided to dedicate their research to consist of programmatic buying, Big Data, and privacy issues. Programmatic buying focuses on the use of automation to create advertisements and key target audiences, but also provides advice on space and placement. New platforms have programs that allow users to create and publish digital billboards, along with suggestions of location, budget, and payment that align with the intended market. Unannounced to the public, facial recognition, and audience characteristics are recorded without any awareness or permission.  

Another area researched was the use of Big Data, which can be broken down into the “(i) automation and algorithmic reliance impacting freedom of choice, (ii) big data analytics complexity impacting informed consent, (iii) reliance on profiling impacting individual and group identities and justice/fair access and (iv) increased surveillance and population intervention capabilities impacting behavioral norm and practices.” Once private data and information are collected, it is then manipulated several times to construct the idea of a consumer, which is then integrated into machine learning to learn more about behavioral decisions.  

The last area of focus was privacy, and the use of data based on the construction of barriers that have been emplaced in order to protect individuals and group individualism. The reason for its importance is to rid technology from prejudice, such as digital “redlight in internet culture which is in competition with the idea that algorithms and machines create an environment that is free of bias, oppression or even racial profiling.” 

Ava was able to locate several groups, such as Adbusters Brandalism, and Democratic Media Please, who have been involved in the destruction of OOH placement. Activists, known as “hackers,” prioritize the objective of making public spaces advertisement free zones, rather than subjective to influential OOH campaigns that focus on one particular demographic. One of the main reasons behind their initiatives is because marginalized groups are often left out during the target audience process, contributing to the lack of representation by marketers in advertisements.  

Hackers will publically attack advertisements by taking posters down, defacing them with spray paint, and use local artists to create art displays to mask the idea of public spaces being up for sale for large companies. The resistance to be categorized has spread globally and has become an internet sensation, with the help of social users who have continued to raise public awareness of the misuse of private data. 

The conclusion of their research included that ethics are based on brand, meaning, that communication by advertisers must be useful and truthful, and only when self-interested was involved would ethics be concerned regarding the collection of new data. The more experience a practitioner had, the more likely they would think ethically. Activists found motivation from social responsibility and the need to bring more positive attributes to the quality of life. Hackers felt motivated by the idea of public spaces being marketplaces of ideas and cultural representation. 

Morris and Ava have dedicated months of research to exploring this issue, and have found that many groups that have taken new strategies to spread awareness. While conducting research, it became apparent that within such an evolving market, working particularly with the use of digitization when it comes to advertising, there are many ethical issues that must be addressed. Understanding the use of data, and whether it is being used ethically by advertisers is not yet apparent, which continues to be the motive behind hackers.

Ailis Yeager
worked directly with the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy. She completed her bachelor's degree at Loyola University in 2020, majoring in integrated advertising, public relations, and history.