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Ask five of your colleagues, friends, or family members for a definition of ethics. Chances are you will end up with five different definitions. And that’s normal: ‘ethics’ is the kind of notion we hear and talk about so frequently, that we tend to know vaguely what it is without having to define it precisely. But let’s give it a try though.

Ethics is derived from the Greek ‘ethos’, meaning ‘habits’, ‘custom’. And that’s just what ethics are: what a population is used to, what they consider customary, socially acceptable behavior. What is ethical is ‘right’ because this is how we do things, how we expect them to be.

In our context of data marketing, ethics are therefore what our data subjects would consider socially acceptable usages.

As we all know, legislation is created to promote socially acceptable customs, and punish unacceptable ones. Does it mean that legislation and ethics are the same thing? Well, not quite. Mostly because of the difference in speed between innovation and legislation (see previous article of the series). But there is of course a strong link between the two: legislation often follow ethics. Laws are a way to help enforce ethical behavior. What is important for remember in our business context is that:

The ethics of today are the laws of tomorrow

So, we start to see the advantages of looking beyond legislation and focusing on ethics too: it can be a perfect way to change already. To be ready when legislation, in a few years, makes this change mandatory. So starting early, ethical compliance can become a decisive competitive advantage.

The evolution of spam is a good reminder of the power of ethics.

  • In 1994, spam is a marketing innovation. Created in the 1990’s by two American lawyers, spam took advantage of the absence of rules on the novel internet ecosystem. By automating posting on thousands of discussion groups in a first phase, then automating email crawling and newsletter sending, spam managed a huge consumer reach. AND IT WORKED! It worked so well that a marketing agency specialized in spam was created and attracted large advertising business.
  • In 1997, spam is already seen as an unethical business practice. Of course, quite rapidly, consumers complained about this way of doing business. They saw it as an unacceptable behavior. The consensus was that it was a bad thing, that shouldn’t be encouraged, nor even tolerated.
  • Spam becomes an illegal practice in 2003. Legislation took eight extra years to forbid spam, with the ‘Can’t Spam Act’.

What’s interesting about the evolution of spam is that businesses stopped using it at two different dates. Some waited until the last moment and the adoption of the law in 2003. How did they prepare in the meantime? Well, they didn’t.

Others listened to their consumers and stopped Spam directly in 1997, when they realized how bad it was perceived. How did they prepare in the meantime? They built CRM databases and started asking for consent to their customers and prospects. Six years before the pack.

This is a good illustration of the power of ethics

Listening to the consumers and stopping unloved tactics, even if they are not forbidden (yet) by legislation is a way to:

  • differentiate your brand
  • be ready before the competition
  • gain a decisive competitive advantage

In the following article, we’ll cover the point that, even in the stricter context of GDPR, there are still authorized data processes that are not perceived as acceptable by the data subjects. Acting on them now will help you take advantage on your competition.

Contact our experts if you would like to know more on data ethics