Finding Our Ethical Foothold in an Increasingly Virtual and Augmented Marketing Ecosystem

Marketing’s New Frontier Is The Emergence Of Extended Reality Visual And Interactive Content

Digital marketers have been subjected to a tsunami of Martech solutions over the last few years. The options for digital marketers are beyond unmanageable. What’s in, or vying to enter, your digital stack mushrooms hourly. Next on marketing’s new frontier is the emergence of XR (eXtended Reality) visual and interactive content.

XR covers the full spectrum of virtual and augmented experiences and it is already redefining the rules. As digital marketers, we’ve been altering images for 20 years. Now XR is taking us into new and uncharted ethical landscapes. More on that in a minute. First, how did we get here?

Sharpening photos and creating synthetic HDR images can seem like benign content management. Even with good intentions – or a desire to flatter – marketers can still hit a nerve. In 2016 and even earlier, CNN and others were reporting on celebrities taking a stand about excessive photo retouching.

Astute marketers heard that message loud and clear. Dove’s acclaimed ad campaign focused on Real Beauty. It resonated with real women, building self-esteem with honest images of true beauty. Dove’s #MyBeautyMySay campaign created honest, respectful and nuanced conversations that also built the Dove brand.

As we slide down a slippery technology slope into the world of XR, new and more challenging marketing decisions arise daily. Expect XR to rip the lid off the box of ethical questions.

If you think Brave New World or 1984 were only fiction, think again. Big Brother would have loved the ability to make 100% digital content, avatars and seemingly real people spring to life under his control. Deep down, where it matters, consumers know this.

In the world of real estate marketing, homebuilders and Realtors have been grappling with ethical questions for some time:

  • Is it ok to remove high power lines from a photo of a home for sale?
  • To create a beautiful green lawn in winter, or when reality is a weed filled mess?
  • Can I shrink the bed to make the bedroom look larger?
  • Surely it’s OK to change the color of walls? After all, the homebuyer can re-paint?
  • Should we display stunning, spare-no-expense topline appliances? Or should our renderings and VR include the standard appliance package offered by that builder?

It’s easy to end up the valley of deception before you know it. Now add the power of AR, VR and XR to this potent cocktail. Congratulations! You can empower your brand to drive through the gates of transparency hell at the speed of light.

It can start simply, with virtual rooms that appear larger than they are, or the addition of light sources in the scene to make dark rooms feel sun-drenched. These seemingly simple touches can lead to reality unchained.

Where can XR take us? And should we go there?

Consider Lil Miquela. As CNN noted, she wears high-end designer clothing with effortless style expressed in impeccably captioned and curated Instagram posts. Lil is the ideal product spokesperson, with just one catch: She isn’t real. Lil is a digitally created virtual influencer.

As a digital marketer, you can be comfortable your Virtual Influencer will never go off-brand or put a foot wrong – and damn well never get caught in an embarrassing photo or statement. But at what cost? What about authenticity, building trust, making human connections?

Aren’t we better than this? How do we re-establish the rails of legitimacy? How do we avoid using technology for evil? Should we ask Mark Zuckerburg? Oh, did I just go there? Well, let’s not.

Instead, let’s circle back to the one and only person that ever counts, your customer. Every business needs to fall slavishly in love with their customer. As marketers, we should obsess with candor, transparency and respect and always seek to understand our customers’ needs and facilitate their journey.

If we view our choices through this lens, the answers quickly fall into place.

AR, VR and XR possess the power to greatly enhance the customer’s experience and better facilitate their desired outcome. Or, they can be deployed like deep fakes to take advantage of the unsuspecting.

As marketers in the digital era, we must lead the way for truly customer-focused use of technology.

Helping consumers see what they otherwise have trouble visualizing is not deceptive, it’s empowering. Providing alternative realities can facilitate creativity and ideation. Who doesn’t want to be able to visualize their new kitchen, in daylight or at night, exactly as they designed it – before the first dollar has been spent or the first hammer swung?

We’re on the cusp of a transformational immersive marketing era. Its acceptance and utility will depend on our actions.

Violating the trust of customers with inappropriate applications of XR and our other shiny digital tools will set us back years – but the selective, customer-first application of XR experience can lead to a more intimate and personalized brand relationship. Isn’t that what we set out to do in the first place?

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