Jacob Dubbins of the Conscious Advertising Network is looking to instil marketers with a degree of responsibility in shaping a fit-to-inhabit digital ecosystem (ad spend, after all, is the engine of the internet). It is a difficult job, however, and with the sector under unprecedented pressure, are ethics even on the agenda?
To some, marketing is an inherently immoral practice and ethics and advertising oxymorons. The trade, at its worst, sparks the deepest desires of a covetous species, while guilty marketers attempt a karmic reset with brand purpose campaigns.
Back in the day, David Ogilvy drew a line: ”Never write an advertisement which you wouldn’t want your own family to read. You wouldn’t tell lies to your own wife. Don’t tell them to mine.”
The best a marketer could do was tell a profitable truth. It was up to the marketer to decide what constitutes a truth.
Winding the clock back before Ogilvy, moral philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote: “In law a man is guilty when he violates the rights of others. In ethics he is guilty if he only thinks of doing so.”
But what’s the ethical cost of ignoring the damage one causes to another?
That’s where the Conscious Advertising Network finally comes in. This coalition of more than 70 organisations launched in 2018 and has been looking to educate media buyers about the damage their ignorance and negligence can cause, be it via fraud, diversity woes, a lack of data consent, the endangerment of children or the funding of hate speech and misinformation.
Jacob Dubbins, the managing director of media buying agency Media Bounty and co-chair of the Conscious Advertising Network, believes that marketers can do good. He says: “Advertising needs to step up to its responsibility for its supply chain and the fact that it funds the internet; the good stuff and the bad stuff.”
The organization is being inundated with queries from concerned marketers who don’t know what to do. “At the convergence of the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and the Facebook boycott, we’ve been contacted from all over the world by campaigners, brands and also big networks who once weren’t necessarily too keen to engage.
“[Marketers] basically show words and pictures to people to try to get them to buy our stuff. That’s all we’re doing. It’s not that noble.”
The industry could do less active harm at least. Here, Dubbins tells us how.
An industry skills gap has enabled fraudsters to “literally steal money” from marketers via digital ad fraud. “The whole system is, I would say, deliberately opaque.“
It’s not a hugely publicized issue. It is best detailed by Cheq estimates or the WFA’s recently unveiled “unknown delta” that saw unexplainable spend atrophy that could be fraud or inefficiency. Also check out the daily rants of Dr Augustine Fou, the so-called ’ad fraud investigator’.
“Not many people are asking where that money’s going. The WFA said in 2016 that ad fraud is the second biggest funder of organized crime behind the drug trade.“
To think that ad dollars are funding criminal enterprises might make a buyer’s skin crawl. Of course, the whole 2017 brand safety scandal was sparked when it emerged that Isis YouTube videos were being monetized by top brands, so it wouldn't be the first time.
“There isn’t a big investigation into ad fraud because I don’t think enough people understand it, and certainly not in government.“
And with the sword of Damocles swinging perilously over the heads of many in the industry, there’s a real danger that the problem will be again swept under the carpet.
The biggest network agencies have been slimming down, cutting staff in the thousands. Are BAME staff more vulnerable to these cuts? Well in broader society they are, as per The Guardian, and there's little reason to believe the ad industry will be more considerate.
Dubbins believes cuts should be made with a “diversity and inclusion lens on” and that failure to do so is a “dereliction of duty”. He urges HR teams to “look at the gender split, the ethnicity split and the LGBTQ split if that data is available”.
In the pandemic, the industry’s been gifted an excuse to again avoid getting its house in order on diversity and inclusion. “It’s a longer-term issue. But the problem is that it has been a long-term issue for some time. Next to fuck all has been achieved really.”
Brands should look closely at the teams answering their briefs – does the team (or can it) represent the consumers it needs to be talking to? “You can’t sell products in modern Britain if all of the people in our client services, strategy or creative team are middle-aged white guys with beards.”
Following the roll-out of consumer data protection framework GDPR, the public is still largely unaware of how its data is being used by essentially anonymous trackers across the web. It is unclear what the solution following the third party cookie is – or if it’ll be any better for consumers.
“The technology has outpaced the ethics. Everybody says ‘oh, look at all these clever things we can do’ like targeting you outside a shop, but no one is really asking ‘should we do that?’
“Regulation and legislation are miles behind the technology. It’s a murky world.”
Consumers need to be informed what they are getting in exchange for their data, he says, and no legal contract or GDPR consent checkbox is really going to solve that.
It’ll likely take a public information campaign to get the message across, thinks Dubbins.
Hate speech and fake news
Hate speech and fake news are different symptoms of the same problem, with the broad reach of ad spend and pursuit of audiences at the cheapest prices bringing profit to some of the worst corners of the internet at the expense of some of the best.
“These are the issues that will define the next couple of years. During the pandemic, we’ve seen massive disinformation, coronavirus and conspiracy theories. Telecom firm O2 went public last week when its engineers were being threatened after phone masts were been burned down.”
It’s rare that the causality loop is tied so neatly. Could O2's ad spend funded the very same sites that spread the 5G misinformation in the first place?
“And we haven’t seen anything yet when it comes to the anti-vax movement or climate science denial!”
The Sleeping Giants movement, which has been a huge driver of the brand safety narrative, owes its existence to the hate spat out by far-right blog Breitbart. Meanwhile, Conscious Advertising Network’s origins can be traced to the UN branding the British press as uniquely hostile to migrants.
The dial has moved, although sceptics could wonder if tabloids need to change to appease advertisers.
”We still see a lot of this language being used for atrocities and violent genocide. Like calling people rats, vermin, cockroaches and, most recently, calling African migrants ’replicants’.”
These stories are monetized by some of the world’s biggest brands and Dubbins wonders what would happen to these marketing budgets if chief executives learned how they are being spent.
“We’re now in 2020 and brands are still funding white supremacy, coronavirus misinformation, conspiracy theories and climate change. There’s no longer an excuse.”
While boycotts rock Facebook for hate speech and misinformation, the Conscious Advertising Network doesn’t advocate this action. ”The problem is much bigger than Facebook and one platform.” But Dubbins would like to see more money going into “great journalism” instead.
“Just the fact that journalism’s being defunded [via overzealous, overly long blocklists] is a massive problem. We’re a bit fucked, it is a serious problem in society, this a defining time.
"The press needs advertisers, and advertisers are beginning to wake up to their power and influence. Marketers need to see their spend as an investment in the open web, pluralistic discourse, truth and information and investigative journalism.”
And finally, the last point of the Conscious Advertising Network manifesto – child wellbeing. Dubbins, as the father of two young children (one of whom performed a self-penned song on the Zoom call), sounded most impassioned by this topic.
It protects child wellbeing by monitoring how ads target children as well as checking the ads children see.
He’s not a huge fan of ads reaching kids however, regardless of the context. “I don’t want my children to be exposed to too much advertising. You’re only a child once and there’s a beautiful innocence there. This is about human safety, rather than brand safety.
“I really fucking hate the word consumer [the child had left the room, don’t worry], but when’s the point when we turn a child into a consumer?
“In a consumption-based economy that is literally fucking killing us, are we happy, that a child with all of that spirit and imagination is transformed into a consumer?”
Gambling ads, in particular, have been reaching this demographic, studies find. And then there’s the junk food argument. “The ad industry is in a very difficult spot because it basically argued that the HFSS ads don’t work.“
Childhood obesity is a huge issue that transcends advertising and is aligned with inequality in society, but Dubbins concludes: “Obesity is a huge problem and it is going to get worse with the coming recession. To say that advertising doesn’t have a role in that – I can’t, I don’t agree.”