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Marketing's Ethical Line Between Social Media Habit and Addiction

Hal Conick

Where is the ethical line in marketing between hooking a customer and getting them hooked?

Media is an open door to the public mind, Edward Bernays wrote in his landmark 1947 essay “The Engineering of Consent.”

“Any one of us through these media may influence the attitudes and actions of our fellow citizens,” he wrote. “The United States has become a small room in which a single whisper is magnified thousands of times.”

Seventy years later, the door to the public mind is wide open. The thousands of whispers have been multiplied by billions into a deafening roar of smartphones and social media. Consumers can stay in touch with the people and brands they love, meeting new ones along the way. In turn, marketers are now privy to consumer data they dared not dream could exist even 15 years ago—what consumers’ preferences are, how much they weigh, what sexual acts they prefer and the contents of their contact list. Marketers can reach consumers in their home, at work, in the car and anywhere they happen to take their devices—which, for many, is everywhere. As technology has made communication easy and life convenient, it has placed a two-by-five-inch glowing screen at the center of both. 

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Hal Conick is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at hconick@ama.org or on Twitter at @HalConick.