The Rise of Ethical Advertising

(This is a follow-up to old topic Humane advertising - ethical and mutual-beneficial: It is possible !)

There’s an increasing trend of businesses that practice Ethical Advertising.

What is Ethical Advertising?

Ethical ads respect users while still providing value to advertisers. The most important parts are:

  • Ethical advertising doesn’t track you. This means no permanent advertising cookies and no indefinite storage of personal information.
  • Companies doing ethical advertising should make money showing ads, not selling user data, so their interests are fully aligned.
  • Ethical ads should target users based on what they’re currently browsing, not past browsing history.

This definition was taken from the website of Ethical Ads who are known from their “Read the Docs” developer documentation product. Their ads also target developers exclusively.

(I’ll consider this site for inclusion on delightful-funding)

Another example of a business doing ethical ads is DuckDuckGo search engine, and alternative to Google Search (and my primary search engine I use daily). Ads are based on search queries, and don’t need tracking and PII collection.


The code for this product is open-source under an AGPL-3.0 license:

This thread is for discussing Ethical Advertising, and to collect more information and best-practices on the topic.

(Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels)

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I sent a poll to the Fediverse asking whether they dig the concept of Ethical Advertising. Given the culture on fedi I expected most people to outright reject the idea. But so far (though with only 47 respondents) the “I dig this” option is winning.

Here’s the contents of the toot:

What do you think about ethical advertising?

Ethical ads such as provided by ReadTheDocs are:

  • Ads that respect privacy, do not track you
  • Companies only show them, do not sell user data
  • Targeted on what you are currently browsing, not browsing history

Here’s more info:

And code is AGPL-3.0:

ReadTheDocs themself only target developers. What do you think about using ethical ads to fund #opensource projects?

Here’s a summary of some additional things to consider, distilled from the comments to the poll:

This idea might be combined with Donations. I.e. if a party donates more than X amount, they are allowed to place Y amount of ethical ads.

Or they may be combined with the open-source you use in your tech stack. If I chose you in my stack, then you are allowed to place ethical ads.

One might only allow vetted sustainable businesses to place ads. For instance if you use Plausible Analytics and are proud you ditched GA, and then having a text-only mention + hyperlink in your project site, e.g.

We use Plausible. Simple and privacy-friendly alternative to Google Analytics
(this is an ethical ad)


All our team members use Fairphone, the world’s most sustainable smartphones, to communicate.
(this is an ethical ad)

Even the donation request can be an ad in itself. So taking Snowdrift as example:

We prefer Donations via Snowdrift, Crowdmatching for public goods. Read why you should prefer it too. (this is an ethical ad)

There should be full transparency about what is an ad and what not, and how they apply to ethics (e.g. via an ‘This is an ethical ad’ link to a page with explanation). Also the text being used should be honest and objective, not misleading or clickbait-y.

If you only have a list of vetted parties that are allowed to advertise on your project site (see other comments), then you may have a separate page listing them all, including the reasons why they passed your vetting. Like: ‘These parties provide techstack technologies and tools that are in support of the free software movement’.


Results of the poll are in, with 50 respondents:

  • 34% → I dig this concept. Might consider
  • 30% → Slightly okay-ish. Any improvement counts
  • 34% → Ads are ads. None are ethical
  • 2% → Only if further improved (comment below)
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Great to see that your post in Humane Tech Now is getting attention!

Marketing and advertising is a most highly developed field, so I suggest the issue of ethical ads be viewed through the body of existing knowledge. I also suggest that speaking about ethical ads should also include a change in revenue otherwise meaning is lost. After all, the purpose of all ads is to get money. So the question, “are ethical ads a good idea?”, is doesn’t mean much unless you also mention that say the revenue will only be 15% of what typical ads provide.

It’s weird that ethical ads now seem to mainly target the tiny segment of information technology work-related services.

The largest categories of digital advertising are:

  • retail
  • automotive
  • financial services
  • telecomm
  • consumer products
  • travel
  • computing & electronics
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This is a very important point. Ethical advertising is great, but it should sustain your business model. I have the feeling that the concept of ethical ads and its broader adoption is still in very early stage, but is increasing in popularity. Ethical ads revenue might also be used to fill the gaps in revenue by going from a surveillance capitalism adtech model to something else (e.g. subscription plans).

I did a search of ‘ethical advertising’ on DuckDuckGo for the last month, and found a recent statement of one MJ DePalma, Head of Global Multicultural & Inclusive Marketing at Microsoft Advertising:

Ethical advertising principles — 9 steps to build trust 9 steps to build trust

Microsoft Advertising supports the Institute for Advertising Ethics (IAE). The IAE has a set of 9 Principles for Ethical Advertising that are the foundation of their approach to building a more trusted digital marketplace.

They are based on the premise that all forms of communications, including advertising, should always do what is right for consumers, which in turn is right for business. These principles serve as great guidelines to ensure that you don’t risk losing trust with customers due to your advertising practices.

  • PRINCIPLE 1: Advertising, public relations, marketing communications, news, and editorial all share a common objective of truth and high ethical standards in serving the public.
  • PRINCIPLE 2: Advertising, public relations, and all marketing communications professionals have an obligation to exercise the highest personal ethics in the creation and dissemination of commercial information to consumers.
  • PRINCIPLE 3: Advertisers should clearly distinguish advertising, public relations, and corporate communications from news and editorial content and entertainment, both online and offline.
  • PRINCIPLE 4: Advertisers should clearly disclose all material conditions, such as payment or receipt of a free product, affecting endorsements in social and traditional channels, as well as the identity of endorsers, all in the interest of full disclosure and transparency.
  • PRINCIPLE 5: Advertisers should treat consumers fairly based on the nature of the audience to whom the ads are directed, and the nature of the product or service advertised.
  • PRINCIPLE 6: Advertisers should never compromise consumers’ personal privacy in marketing communications, and their choices as to whether to participate in providing their information should be transparent and easily made.
  • PRINCIPLE 7: Advertisers should follow federal, state, and local advertising laws, and cooperate with industry self-regulatory programs for the resolution of advertising practices.
  • PRINCIPLE 8: Advertisers and their agencies, and online and offline media, should discuss privately potential ethical concerns, and members of the team creating ads should be given permission to express internally their ethical concerns.
  • PRINCIPLE 9: Trust between advertising and public relations business partners, including clients, and their agencies, media vendors, and third-party suppliers, should be built upon transparency and full disclosure of business ownership and arrangements, agency remuneration and rebates, and media incentives.

There has never been a more crucial time in our business, and our society, to use ethical principles to guide us in the advertising industry.

Of course I would be very wary of trusting Microsoft with their marketing and advertising practices, but it is a hopeful sign that they start to consider doing things in more ethical ways.

Some highlights in the above are in principle 6 → respect privacy, and in principle 9 → transparency and responsible disclosure.
Pitfalls to mention are in principle 7 → self-regulation (the old trick to water down or avoid government regulation)

Yes, I think they’re one of the least compelling examples of ethical out there. Some of it is kinda meta - it’s not in what they advertise or how it’s worded, but rather what they get for spending their money in certain places and with certain conditions. They use “marketing co-payments” to stifle competition in the PC market (among other places) - I understand that many PC makers, operating on razor thin margins due to competition make most of their profit from all those “Dell recommends Microsoft Windows 10 Professional” messages on all their advertising. I think Microsoft’re probably a great source for good anti-patterns with regard to ethical advertising.

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Agreed. I would greatly encourage anyone to post their examples of ethical ads in practice, to this thread.


I found another ethical ads product that will soon launch:

How can I target my customers?
We do not track users. In the future we will analyze the landing pages and find the best matches for your product.

Is Tiny Ads GDPR conform?
Yes. We do not place any cookies or collect any personal information.
We only collect data about the ad. (Clicks, impression, exits …)
And some generic browser information. (Operation System, Browser, Mobile/Desktop).
No specific version numbers or IP addresses are saves. Finger printing should be impossible just by small tuples like (Chrome, Mac, Desktop).

3 posts were merged into an existing topic: Is Google phasing out 3rd party cookies good news?