Is it unethical to spend money on Facebook and Google Ads?

Below is an email that harshly criticized my use of (and recommendations to use) Facebook ads due to how unethical the company is.

I’d like to know your reactions to it — both the substance of the email (the issues) as well as how it came across to you.

After I share the email, I will share my thoughts about it, and also the comments from my clients when I anonymously shared this email with them…

​George,

How do you reconcile *paying* for Facebook or Google ads with the concept of authentic marketing?

These are two behemoths that stand for everything that is utterly and completely inauthentic and untrustworthy.

They mine and monetize people’s most private details and habits with little recourse and in shocking ways most people are unaware of. From analyzing faces for personal insights to building shadow profiles on people who don’t even use their systems! It’s incomprehensible what they’re doing. None of it is anonymous either, researchers have shown it’s all very easily de-anonymized.

They collaborate with three letter agencies who conduct unconstitutional searches on a mass scale.

They kowtow to authoritative regimes all for the sake of, literally, only money and nothing else (China isn’t the only one — leading Google to finally drop their ironic slogan of “Don’t Be Evil”…)

That’s just the tip of the iceberg; and all of it has been proven thanks to investigative journalism, congressional hearings, and whistleblowers.

Yet you, and those who follow your advice, choose to willingly give these horrible companies even more money in order to make yourself money.

Do you see why I don’t understand your message?

Playing Devil’s advocate: I could argue you’re not the one performing all of this immoral and unethical behavior. So you’re still being authentic in your marketing practices in the superficial sense.

Yet your entire premise of utilizing Facebook or Google ads in order to grow your own business rests completely on a mountain composed of inauthentic practices, immoral algorithms, and sometimes illegal behavior. Without all of that, you wouldn’t be able to use Facebook/Google ad services because they couldn’t/wouldn’t exist otherwise!

1. When you use Facebook or Google ads, what you’re actually doing is using a surrogate company (FB/Google) to do the dirty work (mining personal info for ad purposes without true consent) for you. All in order to target your marketing efforts to make yourself money.

2. Even if you disagree with #1 then it’s hard to argue against the fact that by giving them money, you are directly enhancing and supporting their inauthentic marketing/ad practices in order to make yourself money. That’s inarguable.

3. Ergo, by using their ad services, your revenue is ultimately — de facto — tainted with inauthenticity no matter how superficially authentic your marketing practices actually are.

Paying for FB/Google ads, yet touting authentic marketing practices in order to making an income is the same to me as a vegan buying fur coats in order to resell them for income. Sure, the vegan didn’t kill nor eat the animal, but he just supported someone who did.

Please don’t take this message as an attack on you. If it were, I’d have posted it publicly. I have no personal beef with you.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

​Here’s my response back:

Thanks for taking the time to write me this long email. Although you say at the very end that it’s not meant to be an attack on me, the email does read as a bit hostile… I invite you to re-read your own email and try to look at it from my point of view and see how you might feel if you were me. It’s not the best feeling from which to start a learning dialogue…

​His response back:

“Responding to tone” is the best you could do?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Graham%27s_Hierarchy_of_Disagreement.svg

That answers everything for me.

Maybe I will take my argument public at some point.

Please unsubscribe me from your email list as you’re clearly not an authentic marketer. Better than most of today’s marketers, for sure, but nothing even close to what you appear to be preaching superficially.

That’s truly unfortunate.

All the best.

Wow.

Whether or not he has good points, the way he interacts doesn’t help to create feelings of connection and wishing to dialogue more. It doesn’t create safety and openness to learning what the other person’s point of view is. See here: dealing with internet criticism and the higher purpose of online discussions.

Now I’d like to respond to the substance of his email… about how evil Facebook and Google are in mining our data and violating our privacy.

My response is simple:

  1. FB and Google have done way more good than harm. They connect people around the world, organize and share information, help businesses advertise to those who are more likely looking for their products (which means, they help to solve the problem of irrelevant advertising), and they help many non-profits raise money. The good outweighs the harm.
  2. As for the harm? I think the talk about these companies violating privacy, selling our data, is mostly an imaginary harm and fear-mongering. I don’t personally know of anyone who has been harmed by these companies mining our data. Do you? I only know of advertisers who have benefitted, and consumers who have benefitted by finding products they want. Maybe I am naive about this, but I honestly can’t name a person who has been harmed. However, I can name many people who have been harmed by manipulative marketing, which is the battle I’m choosing to fight with my content about authentic marketing.
  3. It’s ultimately about choosing the causes we care about the most: that is what authentic business is about. It’s not about perfect purity in ethics, which seems like an impossibility, and can be easily used to judge and criticize other people (and even ourselves.) We can simply do our best to advocate for the causes we believe in, while being open minded to learn about other causes, to the extent that is personally sustainable for our energy and time.

I shared his email with my group coaching clients (without revealing the sender), and I thought their responses were worth posting here…

From Angie Evans:

1) I’m so grateful to you for putting yourself out there in a way that’s easy for me and others to be able to learn, collaborate, share and work with you.

2) That person either has too much time on their hands or is sadly in a dark place or angst — easy to go there these days for sure. By glomming onto FB and Google, they’re trying to find something to hold on to, try to control or change. But our worldly issues are far bigger than these two entities.

3) This particular system can be used for good or bad. You certainly are using it to do a lot of good in the world.

From Ruth Toledo Altschuler:

Truly, how could a gathering of people like the one we have right here could have happened without the internet and the functioning of the different media platforms that have connected us all?

I value this so much, that if only for possibilities like this one that we are experiencing in MasterHeart, I would give some of my money to Facebook and Google. In thanks and in gratitude, for the possibility of connection of souls of similar consciousness and vibration.

I would say there has been harm that has resulted from use of data and manipulation for political purposes. We see it by the shift in policies the planet is experiencing right now, with the reversal on paths that could help humans and the planet.

And yet, we all know this kind of manipulation has always happened in different ways. These are just the contemporary tools for practices that have been present throughout the human journey on this planet.

Yes, some people are gullible and fall for these manipulations. They allow themselves to be played through their fears and are not acting in conscious ways. They are allowing themselves to be manipulated.

If we think in those terms, what is happening now is shocking us awake! And I would say these awakening shocks are needed.

This is happening not because these companies (FB and Google) are the ones who are evil and are the ones causing the harm. But the tools they make available can and have been used to cause harm. And can and have been used to cause good too….

For great part of my life I have watched these radical — and very polarizing — ideological stands taken by people and by groups. In the face of this, it has been my choice to observe, understand where they are coming from, understand their patterns of thinking, and make my own choices, clarifying where I stand in the face of all of this.

Rereading all of what this person wrote, I see patterns that are typical of thinking modes that I have often seen voiced by the radical left: a very polarizing kind of thinking, full of judgment, things seen in black and white ways. It is typical of this kind of thinking to throw heavy judgement onto those who don’t embrace their way of seeing the subject discussed.

Have you read Wild Swans, the novel that describes several generations living in China, including the last part during the Cultural Revolution? This kind of ideological radicalism reminds me of that.

In my now long life, I have seen so much of these kinds of discussions, and unfortunately I know this kind of thinking leads to separation, rather than more clarity and discernment, and more co-creation and collaboration. I have to say this path is certainly not my choice.

Historically, this kind of “ideological purity” approach has led to paths that I don’t think take us ahead, towards more unity amidst our complexities.

And it certainly does not contribute to unite us at this time, when the planet is in peril. And we need to learn to cooperate by becoming more aware, while embracing our different ways of thinking, each one of us trying to help and do our best.

And then there is this other piece, an initiation that you may be going through at this time.

I had a spiritual teacher that used to tell us that when we were growing in our mastery and personal power, and we were ready to cross a certain threshold, we most certainly would be tested.

He called this particular passage the test of the “spitters / accusers at the door of the temple”. He would say there will be a time when you are crossing a certain threshold, and you will face these accusers. A spiritual initiation of sorts.

This kind of test is understood as an initiation for the soul. We can be accused of all sorts of wrongdoing, all theses accusations would be thrown on us, and we have to understand what this initiation means and how to hold ourselves as we move through it.
In my understanding, when this kind of test comes our way, we have to center in our hearts and stay tall in our integrity. Appreciate the perspective of the other, while not interacting with it in polarizing ways. Just standing on your integrity and respecting their point of view. Valuing their stand, while hoping they can respect yours as well.

It is an initiation, a challenge, a passage.

From Liesel Teversham:

There are so many people who believe that our money systems are corrupt and evil.

Yet money can do so much good in the world.

I also suspect a huge amount of fear mongering happens and sometimes people hop on a bandwagon about that.

Money can be used for good or for evil. So can social media.

If those systems is what we have to work with right now, I choose to do good with them.

And like Ruth mentioned, demand better practices from the shareholders and owners while we use them.

From Margaret Rode:

George, this is a challenging email and I’ve received at least one similar one. I make no bones about my distaste for mega-corporations where we have been productized, and I do search for alternatives.

For example, Paul Jarvis has an alternative Google Analytics called Fathom that I am researching, and the Firefox browser is becoming something to watch again…I also use Privacy Badger to protect my data when I’m online, and sometimes even bigger tricks like the DuckDuckGo web search and TunnelBear VPN.

And to show you how far my thinking goes: Imho the internet, and specifically social media, have created an environment that has the power to turn the entire planet against one another, accelerating what’s already becoming chaotic due to climate change (migration, famine, conflict, deforestation, destructive weather patterns, water shortages, etc.)

BUT. It is, as we know, full of social benefits as well, sharing hope, ideas, solutions, and also connecting the helpers, causes, and kind people with those who need them. A machete is not evil. It can be a weapon, a tool of deforestation, but also a tool to create space to grow food to feed a family.

I wish we could somehow force the data-miners to change their policies. But I think we can’t win this battle…their survival rests squarely on being able to sell what it knows about us to people who want to market to us.

I don’t really agree that it’s harmless. But it’s a game we can’t win, so I don’t want to put my energy into that.

For now, I’ll continue to use Facebook etc to try to grow a solid audience to a size where I can still have very close and intimate connections, while still being big enough to earn an income that support me. But I do this WHILE researching other ways to do it.

My response to Margaret: As you find more ethical ways to reach our ideal audiences, we’d all love to know! Please let us know, here on Facebook… and run Ads to be sure we see it! ;-)

From Captain Orjiugo:

1). First off, I don’t see what’s challenging about the email sent to you, because it is not constructive criticism.⁣

Any criticism that does not offer an alternative pathway is an attack. I’m not overly impressed with the author’s failed attempt to paint it as otherwise.⁣

He/she eloquently described their point of view but conveniently did not give us any alternate options to consider; therefore, it’s not helpful feedback and does not pose any challenge to me.⁣

I’d simply dismiss this email with a wave of my hands & some ice cream for my troubles.⁣

But just to indulge them a bit, let’s talk about it.⁣

2). There is NOTHING wrong with adverts. We all do it in real life and it’s regarded as help.⁣

For example: George is my friend and from our conversations, I know that he’s in need of a yoga mat — only that he does not know where to buy them.⁣

I go out and meet a new friend called Lee, who just happens to sell yoga mats.⁣

The first thing that comes to my mind is “Oh, I have this friend who has been looking for yoga mats; I’m glad I met you and I’ll definitely tell him about you”.⁣

We call it referrals in real life — but that’s an ad right there.⁣

I’m going to connect my friend who needs a service with another friend who can help them with that.⁣

Am I ethically correct to use the “private information” I have about George to tell Lee that he is interested in her yoga mats?⁣

Or have I helped my friend solve a need that’s been bothering him for so long?⁣

Was the information even private in the first place?⁣

If after selling the yoga mats to him, Lee tells her friend Brian (who happens to sell yoga pants) that George may be interested in his products, is that a good thing or a bad thing?⁣

There’s nothing different with digital ads — it’s all about using PUBLICLY AVAILABLE information to show you ads that you might be interested in.⁣

If George has already bought a mat when I tell him about Lee, he’ll simply thank me for my help but let me know that it’s no longer needed.⁣

Similarly, when you see an ad that is not relevant to you, you simply ignore it or delete it.⁣

But if you see something that you really need, you’d be grateful that you found that product or service.⁣

3). You are ultimately in control of what information you put out there.⁣

Whatever you post online is not private — it is public.⁣

On my personal FB profile for instance, you’ll see that I have no posts, pictures, or any other information. I use FB strictly for business but that’s me. I consciously try to maintain my privacy as much as possible by disclosing very little about myself online. The moment you post something, it’s out there — no going back.⁣

If you’re posting everything about your life on Facebook — from what you eat everyday to your vacation and your kids’ games — it’s because you want the world to see those things.⁣

Having businesses advertise to you based on what you’re interested is not evil in any way — they’re simply giving you more of what you want.⁣

If you like the ads, you engage. Else, you move on.⁣

4). Saying that you’re using Facebook to do the dirty work of data mining is ridiculous.⁣

What is market research? Back in the days, businesses would walk around — going all over the town with printed fliers and questionnaires in order to get information about what people are interested in. Is that evil too?⁣

Or is it because we no longer need to physically move around in order to get the same information? Does conducting our market research online make it more evil than the physical process?⁣

If the writer believes that data mining in all of its forms is evil, then so is market research and so is everything business since there can’t be business without some form of advert — whether verbal, in-person, or online.⁣

5). The analogy of a vegan does not make any sense to me. No matter how hard we try, we can never do without harming other life or the environment in some way.⁣

Where does wool come from? Where does cotton come from? Where does wood come from? If we’re so passionate about plant and animal life and climate and all that, why don’t we all go back to the cave man days and stop needing to live in houses built from trees?⁣

Why are we wearing wool and related materials to cover ourselves from cold?⁣

Why do we find it so easy to smack a cockroach but it’s a crime to put your hand on a cat? Are they not all living things? Are the trees not living things too?⁣

I could go on and on but maybe I’m crying more than the bereaved.⁣

When it’s all said and done, whether done online or in-person, there must be ads and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them of themselves.⁣

From Alyssa Johnson:

This topic is so interesting because it does weigh on my heart that data is being used to profile and target people. I feel the conflict within me. But I’ve chosen to learn the system as best as I can and work within it to effect change. To get people’s messages out into the world which are rooted in love and self-empowerment.

And quite frankly, how do entrepreneurs get word out about their work without the use of social media and reaching people who may not hear of us otherwise? Are we going to go around and post up advertisements in stores, take an ad out in the phone book, or something else akin to the Pony Express method of advertising? Of course not.

It seems highly unlikely that social media is going to go away. In fact, it’s growing. People want the connection, want the feedback and the positive reinforcement from those they love. There is absolutely a shadow side to social media just as there’s a shadow side to everything. I will never be pro-big pharma, but I still play in that arena b/c I still need some of the things it has to offer. So let me take what I need, operate with as much integrity and self-love that I can, and leave the rest.

The email poses such an interesting ethical question. What’s truly “right”? What’s most in integrity? We have to make choices and so we work with what we have. This person can choose to market on other platforms that he/she feels more in alignment with. That’s a wonderful choice. The shadow side of that is that this person may not have the exposure he/she would have on FB.

In the end, we sit with our options, we see what’s right for each of us and move from that place. And if we do it from the best way we know how to act authentically and in integrity, and model that for others, that effects real change in the system.

PS — thank goodness for the whistleblowers! They help make the system better.

From Devora-Gila Berkowitz:

If the system is indeed evil, and you cannot fight it, then use it to create good in the world, which is what you are doing. Let your conscience rest.

From Brian Smith:

Personally, Facebook has opened me up to a world of people I would have never otherwise met. I have very real relationships forged through Facebook. It provides me a platform that I can use to reach thousands of people with my message.

I don’t mind being advertised to. I don’t care that Facebook knows my habits and likes and dislikes. That allows people with a service/product to provide, to reach me.

People can opt out of using Facebook or Google or smart phones or anything else. If they do choose to use these things, they should understand that privacy is not an option when you do. You give up a bit of your privacy in exchange for using them. It’s your choice.

From Joanna Bartlett:

I’ve had a hard time with FB in general that I’ve brought up before. I think in many ways FB can be unhealthy. And so it feels weird to advertise to people on FB.

But this is the current reality for business. Especially a micro-business like mine. FB isn’t getting rich off my $80/month in ads. How else do I reach my audience?

It’s a convenient argument to try and make individual people responsible for their impact when their actual impact is tiny compared to the corporations and industries that have the actual huge impact.

If there are issues with how FB has been used to, say, cause elections to go a certain way, me not using FB to run ads won’t change that.

I’m probably not being very coherent, but I finally got my head around meeting people where they’re at to find me and the work I do, and FB ads are part of that and it’s OK. It’s not perfect, no. But it’s OK.

From Sandy Freschi:

This is a powerful question for pause and consideration. I have had more than one person contact me to talk about a product or service that they saw that I liked on Facebook. In all cases, I did not endorse the product with a like. I didn’t even know what they were. So that tells me that there is some manipulation going on. That said, I understand that there is manipulation in the system and do my best to not be naive about buying into it. Many people don’t understand and they may fall prey to some of these manipulative practices. That’s what bothers me. Not everyone is educated about propaganda and can be taken advantage of.

On the other hand, the power of the algorithms is undeniably great for getting things in front of me that I would find interesting or beneficial. So I personally don’t have a problem with that aspect of Facebook and Google practices… and YouTube for that matter.

The reality is that as long as Facebook and Google dominate the internet this is where most of the people are going to hang out. So do we abandon the masses and seek smaller alternative, perhaps less manipulative, platforms to grow our businesses or do we go with the big guys… regardless of how unethical they are behind the scenes? It’s a tough question to answer and a sticky place to be for all of us.

From Ilse Noppen:

FB and Google have indeed brought great things. Yes, they are unethical in many ways. Actually, your Facebook Marketing Course opened my eyes to how much data can be collected about me… it has shocked me. This means we have to be aware as users that anything we post, put online, even when deleted, is open to others, including the companies mentioned. Nothing is ever really deleted. As a citizen, I therefore take responsibility to protect myself but also to show up the way I want to, consciously. That is one layer.

In a digital world small business don’t have many alternatives to spread their message. And I don’t know of anyone who has been harmed by FB. On the other hand, I know a lot of people who have fallen for those fishing emails, and been blackmailed!

So, though I resent FB in many ways, I believe I can use it to spread authentic messages to reach people who I can help, and who are responsible citizens so to say.

It’s about choosing battles indeed.

The good you can do actively is clearly higher than the potential harm those companies might do.

From Mojca Henigman:

A challenging email indeed, but also a good opportunity to examine your position on this and reconfirm or change it. It’s essential to do this periodically I think!

I agree with choosing your battles, and whilst there might be negative sides to these corporations, the aim shouldn’t be to phase them out and throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The aim should be more strict regulations as to how this data is used. If political fear-mongering campaigns are steering whole nations into more hate and separation, then of course it’s serious.

But small business owners trying to spread their well-meaning message, to reach just the people who might want to hear from them? Not the same issue at all, and to call us colluders is going a bit far. I don’t think that advertising our products/services/messages from a well-meaning, authentic place constitutes supporting unethical corporate behaviour.

And whilst an ethical vegan wouldn’t have anything to do with a fur coat, I’d say they also shouldn’t really judge people who do eat meat. Yes, I think factory farms should be outlawed because of their cruel practices, but that’s a different thing. Nor should they judge people who wear fur coats if they live in e.g. Russia at -50°C… what’s the alternative? Some artificial material, probably plastic-based, and we know what plastics are doing to our planet and our health… just an example.

Likening your FB ads promotion to inauthentic (even hypocritical) practices is for me taking things out of context. It’s not that black and white.

It’s like saying that money is bad because it corrupts people and because of all the crime that happens because of it… when in reality, the problem isn’t money but greed. So should we denounce money in order to be ethically pure?

You’re being very transparent about your ethical standards and reasons for it, and why you endorse certain ad companies. Of course everyone is fine to disagree. Which doesn’t mean that everything else you say is worthless to them.

I also agree with Ilse Noppen (mentioned above) that it is our personal responsibility to be aware that data collection is happening, and choose how we show up, and how we respond to the advertising landscape around us. If someone doesn’t want to be part of it, they don’t need to use social media/Google (although they would certainly be at a disadvantage in some ways).

The world is going in a certain direction, and I see it well acceptable to use what is widely available to spread a message we believe in, in line with our ethical standards, whilst not harming anyone in the process — although the question is I guess by how many degrees of separation are we looking here. Even just eating in our western world can be seen unethical to an extent… as there’s so many choices to be made and the mainstream options are not usually fair trade, sustainable crops, free-range, etc.

Of course we could ALL do better in ANY area of life … But where do we draw the line….and we come back to the choosing of our battles.

I’m glad the person contacted you personally to discuss this. I think your thoughts on it have a solid ground.

From Lee Drozak:

When it comes to data mining we as the audience need to take some responsibility as to what we share and participate in. I feel that nothing on the web is without recourse as in we are always getting something from the data. It might be as simple as how to solve your problem or as complex as targeted fake news for political reasons. I feel it is what the people do with the data that ruins a good thing.

From Kim Marie:

I have been resistant to FB and Google due to my own fear of getting “taken” by their sucking forces. I determined a while ago that these platforms could be used for good, especially when I was able to join the 2016 Standing Rock movement in North Dakota due to FB. If it weren’t for FB, this movement would not have been known, and it HAD to be. It was critical that more people know what was really happening there. The mainstream news media refused to cover it. Yet even while I could wrap my head around the good that these platforms were capable of, I was still grappling for a long time with my own fear around using them.

As I build my own inner strength and resolve, my courage becomes stronger than my fear. This is an important piece. Perhaps the writer of this email is fearful of his own capacity to get “sucked in,” and thus finds it easier to talk about all that’s wrong with the platforms.

Many people know the challenges we face, but don’t have the forces to face them, and thus keep their distance in whatever way they can in order to survive. Others see the challenges and decide to face them head on. Each person is where they are on their journey, at whatever level of courage they have in their own circumstances. It takes courage to ride the beast. Just writing this is helping me to tap into more courage and know that I can meet it with the rest of you!

From Jeannette Hill:

I follow spiritual teachers on FB. I have benefitted from FB in many ways. I agree with Ruth that the person’s email was polarizing. There was no attempt to understand another perspective or the benefits to using these ads, though these companies are doing things that are not ideal. It is what we have at this time.

I see far greater benefit than harm. When I started my business in 2004 I only had the option of in person talks, classes, a basic website, a $100 ad in a local holistic magazine and handing out cards and brochures.

Now I am better able to share my message and teachings and help more people. I can actually get to know my potential clients better through social media than I could in those days from a basic ad and as a result, better serve them.

I strongly believe that people need what we in MasterHeart are offering and that George you are teaching us how to reach them. Thank you for all you’re doing and know that we are grateful.

Written by

Authentic Business Coach & Author of 4 Books including "Authentic Content Marketing" and "Joyful Productivity" https://www.GeorgeKao.com

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