Marketing Ethics in VR: Can Marketers Set Moral Guidelines?

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Virtual Reality for Marketers

It’s VR Book Club time again! This month we’re reading Marketing New Realities by Cathy Hackl and Samantha G. Wolfe. The book is written for those in marketing, branding, and public relations. The authors address their readers as the “Marketer”. With that in mind, I’m going to review this book from a marketing point of view and as a consumer.

In Augmented Human, we learned that virtual and augmented reality has the biggest impact when it’s used to tell stories. Virtual and augmented reality tell more compelling stories than 2D media. These technologies use touch, tactical sense and spacial audio. Hackl and Wolfe express the same benefits to VR and AR in advertising. Good advertising is good storytelling.

Since 2016, “which is now commonly referred to…as Year One of the birth of truly mainstream VR”, I’ve reported on the billions of dollars of revenue the VR/AR industry will bring in (2). First, virtual reality was supposed to be an $80 billion dollar industry by 2020, then a $120 billion dollar industry, now it could reach up to a $150 – $162 billion dollar industry by 2020 (19). I think that’s great because it means that we’re not stagnating in innovation. These numbers prove that Marketers need to take VR and AR seriously if they’re going to compete for brand recognition. “It will be more of a question of what VR/AR experiences your brand needs, not if you will be doing one” (19).

Hackl and Wolfe start to write that brands will need more than a one-off virtual or augmented reality experience. Companies have to integrate VR and AR “into a larger cross-platform campaign to be effective” (18). The technology is there, the financial support is there, the hardware is there. It’s now a matter of putting the pieces of the puzzle together to take advantage of the huge revenue potential for VR/AR advertising.

In the perfect world for VR/AR advertisers, their customers will be fully immersed by wearing a headset. These headsets are loaded with sensors and cameras. They can track everything. Marketing teams are going from using your computer’s camera to track where you’re looking on a screen to seeing how your whole body reacts to a complete environment or virtual experience. They can see where you go, how long you stay there, what you interact with, how you interact with it, the list goes on. Depending what other devices you have synced with your VR experience, Marketers can determine how you physiologically react to the experience, such as if you had your FitBit with a heart rate monitor synced to VR.

“When you enter the metaverse (the virtual worlds of cyberspace), everything you listen to, visit, where you look in these worlds and for how long, even what you speak or chat, will be recorded and stored and ban be used for advertisers on and off their services” (23).

That is according to Facebook’s Oculus Rift Terms of Service.

This is an exciting time for Marketers and advertisers! Their ability to hone in on exactly what they want to sell you will only get more powerful as virtual and augmented reality are more widely adopted. “Advertising in a VR/AR world brings a literal extra dimension to these targeting efforts” (23).

In the not so distant future, immersive reality enthusiasts like
Helen Papagiannis (author of Augmented Human), Hackl and Wolfe imagine a wold where augmented reality seamlessly blends with the real world. It will sit in the background and we will interact with it without noticing. This gives Marketers and brands a new level of control over our lives. “VR will allow for a full picture of consumer behavior. And AR will show how consumers interact with and use products” (24).

That is already happening. I spoke on it during my speech at IIEX Europe in 2017. Social Media companies like Facebook already use user’s data for their company’s gains. Watch this video on a recap of some of Facebook’s practices, including their VR products.

Hackl and Wolfe acknowledge and warn marketers of the powerful influence virtual and augmented reality have on the brain. They site studies that show ads in VR are “8x more effective, and 2X more likely to share” than traditional media (24). They write how an enhanced world infiltrated with ads 24/7 “could be a very overwhelming and frustrating experience (25).

It makes me laugh because Hackl and Wolfe then go on to say that it’s Marketers job to “develop guardrails to make sure this doesn’t happen” (25). You’re telling me that advertising companies like Facebook and Google who bring in more revenue than the GDP of the bottom 100 of the 260 countries in the world are going to put “guardrails” on their VR and AR advertising? Yeah right!

Tell that to Facebook, who paid people for full access to their phones. Or to Alphabet who returns biased search results on Google and YouTube. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, was on the Joe Rogan podcast talking about Twitter’s bias and censorship rules. These companies already proved they don’t care about “moral obligations to each other and our society” (27). How are Marketers and advertisers supposed to gain our trust back when Americans’ trust in mass media is at an all time low? We don’t believe newspapers, TV, and radio. They may be able to trick us into overcoming that lack of trust with the ‘wow factor’ of VR and AR but I can’t imagine it will last for long. It will be interesting to see if Hackl and Wolfe address this in their book.

Hackl and Wolfe suggest that there will be “shoot ’em up experiences and bone-chilling horror executions”. They write, “in order to not be overwhelmed by advertising in a VR/AR world, some individuals may pay for the privilege of privacy” (25). If you can’t afford to pay for the privilege of privacy you will just have to “agree to the marketing as a means to subsidize the cost of the device” or hope they don’t inflict irrelevant advertising on you – “fingers crossed here” (26). Hackl and Wolfe know Marketers, branding companies, and PR firms won’t be able to hold themselves back, even if they hold themselves to that higher standard.

That takes us through chapter 3. The book is well-written. It’s not dry. I think anyone interested in marketing or VR and AR will enjoy Marketing New Realities. Stay tuned for next week where we dive into the VR/AR empathy machine.

Read Part 1: Marketing in Virtual Reality

Read Part 3: Marketing Immersive Tech: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Get Marketing New Realities

Featured photo by Bram Van Oost on Unsplash


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