The dark side of AI-powered marketing

Artificial intelligence (AI) has become a major tool in the growth marketing arsenal, helping businesses drive growth and increase revenue. In fact, as the world has been introduced to consumer versions of AI through tools like ChatGPT recently, businesses have been using AI-powered campaigns and marketing channels for a long time. From TikTok video feeds to Facebook ad delivery, machine-learned targeting models have already seeped into our daily interactions and experiences on our phones and devices. Even Siri and Alexa (as primitive as they seem) voice assistants are deep learning TTS (text-to-speech) model rooted in AI technology. Businesses use AI-powered marketing rooted in machine learning algorithms to analyze user behavior and personalize marketing campaigns in real-time. This allows businesses to reach consumers more effectively and efficiently than ever before. However, as AI becomes increasingly prevalent in marketing, there are emerging pockets of ethical risks that potentially pose harm to you and me.

One of the leading concerns about AI-powered marketing is a tale that we’re all familiar with: the spreading of misinformation and fake news through AI-powered social media campaigns. AI algorithms can be easily manipulated to create fake news and spread false information to millions of people. According to a study by MIT Technology Review, false information spreads faster and more easily on social media than true information, which can have serious consequences for public opinion, trust, and democracy (MIT Technology Review, 2018). For example, the 2016 US Presidential election was influenced by AI-powered media campaigns on social media, which helped shape public opinion and ultimately influenced the outcome of the election (The Guardian, 2018).

Another area of concern is the manipulation of consumer behavior through AI-powered personalization. AI algorithms can track and analyze consumer behavior, including their browsing history, search history, and social media activity, to personalize marketing campaigns. While this can be a powerful tool for businesses to reach consumers more effectively, it also has the potential to exploit vulnerabilities and sway consumer behavior in potentially unintended ways. According to a report by the World Economic Forum, as AI algorithms become more advanced, they will have the potential to manipulate human behavior to a much greater extent, creating new risks for consumer welfare (World Economic Forum, 2021). For example, brands or organizations can use AI algorithms can be used to target vulnerable populations and exploit data to drive adoption or education, leading to negative consequences.

Big data could become another driving factor behind unethical practices in AI-powered growth marketing. AI algorithms are fed massive amounts of data to analyze consumer behavior and personalize marketing campaigns. According to a study by McKinsey & Company, big data analytics has the potential to generate significant value for businesses, but it also presents significant risks to privacy and security (McKinsey & Company, 2016). Vast quantities of data collected by algorithms can be easily manipulated to create false patterns and trends, leading to skewed results and unethical practices. Having worked in technology companies with access to large data sets, I know that there are several levels upon which data can be biased, both in how we determine which signals to track, how we define them, and ultimately how we interpret what the data is telling us. The scary thing is that we don’t fully realize that we’re making biased decisions, because we think the data is objective.

One could even see a world in which perfectly fine-tuned AI, which is based on mathematical models and algorithms that are designed to analyze and interpret patterns in data, can lead to a worse or more mediocre customer experience overall. These algorithms struggle to understand the complexity of human behavior and the context in which these behaviors occur. According to a report by Harvard Business Review, AI algorithms are still limited in their ability to understand human behavior and the context in which it occurs, which can lead to homogenous and generic experiences for consumers (Harvest Business Review, 2020). As a result, AI-powered growth marketing can create homogenous and generic experiences for consumers, ignoring important cultural and contextual factors that can influence consumer behavior. Imagine a world where every experience on the Internet is a 3.5-star Yelp restaurant one – homogenous, not too good nor too bad. Optimized right for the crowd.

To address these ethical concerns and limitations in AI-powered marketing, I believe that businesses must take a responsible and ethical approach. This might come in the from of more businesses putting ethical guidelines front and center, in addition to their terms of services. We need a cultural system (or even formal regulation) that can ensure the right incentives for transparency and accountability in AI-driven marketing campaigns, protect consumer privacy and data security, and create meaningful and respectful experiences for consumers. Our best bet will be to find the sweet spot in combining AI with human intuition and creativity, and then putting together the charter upfront for how these interact.

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