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Ethics of Virtual Reality Marketing

There’s a topic I’ve been grappling with lately: dealing with the realities of digital marketing in the virtual age. It’s been on my mind, in particular, because we’re a San Francisco digital marketing agency, so we like to keep ahead of the tech curve, but we’re also a certified B Corp business, and we have a duty to do business in a wholesome, responsible way.

The Ethical Quandary

Here’s the meat of it:

Virtual reality is like stepping into another body, in a very real, perceptual way. Virtual reality marketing, then, is more like marketing straight into a person’s perceptual reality. It’s as close to marketing directly to a person’s cognition as technology has ever come. As the curators of marketing outreach, do we have a moral obligation to be more discrete and aware of ourselves, when we’re treading on very personal territory?

The same argument could also apply to marketing in the mobile-first age. Cell phones are pretty much just palm-sized windows into our other, virtual lives. Cell phones are to cyberspace as our eyes and ears are to the world around us. We digital marketers want to share good content, but if we get pushy, we run the risk of overstepping decency. It has the air of inviting ourselves into someone else’s living room. As a responsible digital marketing agency, how do we strike that balance?

Virtual Reality Marketing

We’ve talked about the kinds of virtual reality marketing San Francisco is already starting to see. Admittedly, it’s still in its early stages. The technology hasn’t quite crested the hill to make VR something more than an unusual display for standard web content. We’re getting closer every day, though.

We’re starting to see content that is exclusive to virtual reality, in that it just wouldn’t make sense in another medium. 360* video, for example, is best viewed through a VR headset, and we’re already starting to see virtual spaces and online games that look, and feel, like virtual chat-rooms and spaces.

This is part of what makes it dicey for digital marketing. So far, digital marketing is something that a consumer lets in. An email comes to an inbox, an ad loads on a webpage. It’s crass when those lines get crossed. A piece of marketing malware that changed your desktop background to an advertisement or added a local restaurant into your contacts book and day-planner would be unwelcome, intrusive, and even criminal. There’s a clear and implicit divide between marketing materials showing up in content and in the medium itself.

But with virtual reality, almost by definition, that divide gets very hazy. If I create a virtual living room and sit on my virtual couch, and your company runs an ad on my virtual television, how is that materially different from just putting up a poster on my virtual wall? When does marketing change from an overture to an invasion, and, in virtual reality, can it ever be just one or the other?

A Practical Solution

The more I think about this, the more certain I am that the question can’t be answered in advance. Imagine going back twenty years and explaining to people what our present digital world looks like. They’d be horror-stricken at our routine over-sharing and our complete apathy about privacy. “Photos of your children will be stored on servers by a major corporation which is legally entitled to use those photos for their own purposes. You’ll gladly purchase a device that sits in your living room, listens to every word you say, and can communicate all that personal data to a government monitoring agency at its own discretion, because you find it convenient to be able to control your devices with a verbal interface.” On paper, it sounds like some kind of Orwellian dystopia, but we just don’t seem to mind.

“What Orwell failed to predict was that we’d buy the cameras ourselves, and that our biggest fear would be that nobody was watching.” -Keith Jensen

Past a certain threshold, we gave up our privacy in the trade for convenience, and we’re mostly okay with having done so. Virtual reality is still a nascent technology, so we haven’t had to answer these sorts of questions yet, but when we do, there’s a good chance that we’ll answer with the same vague lack of concern we’ve displayed so far.

I asked Anna — the CEO of our San Francisco digital marketing agency — for her thoughts on the matter while I was preparing this post. Though she was intrigued by the subject, for her, at least for the moment, the question seemed moot:

“One of my thoughts, and you can quote me on this, is that digital marketing tactics are getting played out, causing consumer fatigue, so newer [marketing] strategies like chatbots, VR, AR, and even drone videos can be attention getting for consumers who are hungry for the shiny new thing. However, it’s the workhorses like email marketing, that are most cost-efficient and continue to have the highest conversions and return on investment.”

So maybe I’m putting the cart before the horse, trying to answer an ethical question too early. Just as someone in the 90s would get more hung up on the question of digital privacy than we tend to, maybe I’m getting hung up on the idea of invasiveness, which won’t make sense after the paradigm shift. After all, isn’t virtual reality designed to incorporate a sort of mutual invasiveness? Do we open that avenue by signing in? If we don’t want to be contacted, we put our phones on Airplane Mode. If we don’t want to be visited, maybe we’ll keep our virtual headsets on “View Only” or “Silent Running” or something.

But even if we can’t answer the question in advance, the technology is coming and it’s up to us, we tech innovators, we social trendsetters, we corporate powerhouses, and we digital marketing agencies, to use it responsibly when it gets here, and to make sure that, whatever the social and experiential context turns out to be, that we’re staying within the lines, wherever we draw them.

Colibri Digital Marketing

We’re a San Francisco digital marketing agency that focuses on the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit. Based in the Bay Area, close to Silicon Valley, we’re the team with the sneak-peek into the future of digital marketing. If you’re ready to work with San Francisco’s first and only full-service B Corp-certified digital marketing agency, drop us a line or click below to schedule a free digital marketing strategy session!

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Originally published at colibridigitalmarketing.com on June 19, 2017.

I work to make the web a more beautiful, accessible, and functional place. I use dreams as a form of planning. And I play because it’s fun.

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