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Budget power: how intentional marketing might fix some of the world’s big problems

By Tina Mulqueen, Chief marketing officer



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August 8, 2023 | 9 min read

The world’s got big problems, says Lively’s Tina Mulqueen. But using big brands’ advertising budgets intentionally just might contain an answer.

A large red arrow pointing left, made up of arrows pointing right

Can using big brands' ad budgets intentionally pull them in the right direction? / Cdd20 via Unsplash

As creatives, we can measure success by the adoption of our ideas into the cultural zeitgeist. As the iconic TV show Mad Men shows, advertising is a prism for humanity; it’s all about tapping into or cultivating shared moments – an enriching, fascinating challenge.

But while good art can move people and create cultural impact, there’s a second power lever that’s just as potent: budgets.

In 2021, total global ad spend hit more than $722bn (£561bn). The top 30 brands by advertising spend that year accounted for 10% of that worldwide spend: $72.2bn (£56.1bn).

In short, a small number of brands represent immense power in our global ad market. So, what would happen if those brands got intentional about how they’re spending their creative dollars? How can advertising investments impact culture?

Potentially, they could help positively shape what I see as the eight most pressing issues in our advertising ecosystem.

1. The ad-supported internet

When journalism is funded by ad dollars, it creates an inherent conflict of interest that often veers from human progress. Hyperbole and polarization drive clicks more efficiently than accuracy and consensus.

Worse, this system punishes outlets financially for covering serious geopolitical issues. When brands block their ads from appearing next to content about war, we’re disincentivizing the reporting that a democratic society requires.

2. Filter bubbles

Algorithms deliver content based on engagement with similar content, so you’re unlikely to be served opinions that differ from your own…unless they’re radical, further feeding your set ideology, and stoking polarization. We’ve created a fast-lane for confirmation bias.

3. Negative sentiment content

Fear and anger evoke engagement, and engagement impresses advertisers. Meta famously conducted a large-scale study (without obtaining user consent) to determine whether algorithmically distributing positive or negative content would impact engagement behavior on the platform. Spoiler alert: it does.

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4. Political polarization

Thanks to the above, you’re less likely to see political content that’s nuanced or rationally disagrees, and more likely to see content from extremists, whether pro or con, since it’s likely to provoke a reaction.

5. Organized inauthentic behavior

These concepts can also be intentionally weaponized to sway political opinion. Misinformation networks pray on algorithms to spread their narratives and disrupt democratic values.

We saw this in the US with Cambridge Analytica in 2016, and across the globe in areas like the Philippines – just read Maria Ressa’s book How to Stand Up to a Dictator.

6. Anxiety and depression

Even positive, aspirational content, particularly on image-based social media platforms like Instagram, skews the idea of day-to-day life for some cohorts and makes it hard to feel like individuals can live up to their peer groups.

Young women bear the brunt, experiencing higher levels of anxiety and depression thanks to perpetuation of beauty expectations. Meanwhile, dopamine-inducing ‘likes’ have become a proxy for genuine, real-life connection. Relationship-building conversation is a dying art among younger groups, creating yet higher rates of anxiety and depression.

7. Digital advertising fraud

It’s not just the culture we’re harming. The incentives we’ve created have also made it lucrative and easy for fraudsters to claim large percentages of the ad dollars that brands spend to engage and convert audiences. It’s hard to make informed decisions in a fractured ad landscape when we can’t trust the integrity of analytics data.

8. Data privacy legislation and a cookieless future

Publishers and advertisers face additional pressures such as privacy legislation that force new approaches to data aggregation, transparency, and ad targeting. Brands face the threat of large fines if they don’t comply with GDPR, CCPA and PIPL, all with their own respective rules for engagement.

Meanwhile, the third-party cookie, which has enabled highly individualized ad-targeting across the web, will be deprecated on Chrome by 2024 and has already been replaced on some search engines by alternate identifiers, forcing brands and publishers to look for new methods of predicting and influencing consumer behavior.

Intention is everything

The TL;DR? Our ad landscape is a mess.

So where do we go from here? Potentially, to somewhere much better. If global marketing leaders decide to be intentional with their ad spend, we can overcome the misaligned incentives created by our ad-supported internet while fortifying strategies against new pressures.

It’s not that we need to move away from targeting audiences; research suggests that humans are happy to be targeted providing it adds value and convenience to their lives. Nor is it beneficial to boycott big tech companies; we need Silicon Valley to succeed.

But we do need to be intentional about ensuring that targeting serves consumers, and that they have more control over how the aggregation of their data adds value to their lives.

Brands should build one-on-one relationships with consumers who are not beholden to the incentives created by our ad-supported internet. Not only do these direct lines of communication yield better and more actionable data; they put pressure on the ad ecosystem to adopt more human-focused models.

Intention in practice

At Lively Worldwide, we’re focused on working with global brands to build experiential media ecosystems – encouraging global brands to invest more of their ad spend on building owned channels and experiences within them. It ensures direct relationships with audiences, builds community and fandom, and allows advertisers (and consumers) to have more control over how data is aggregated and utilized to benefit humans.

The stakes are high, both culturally and financially, for the future of our ad landscape. We need to stop positively reinforcing the algorithmic distribution of extreme, inaccurate, and psychologically damaging content. Advertisers need to band together to call for big tech to evolve its behavior toward more humane and mindful distribution of content, for the sake of politics and mental health.

The first step is realizing that we hold power, in the form of ad budgets, to make an appreciable impact in the ad and media landscapes.

It’s a good time to take a chance on a new approach to media investments. Legislation like GDPR, CCPA, and PIPL make it costly for brands to misstep with data. Meanwhile, younger consumers are increasingly concerned about how brands use their data, and most consumers won’t do business with brands they don’t trust with their information.

What would happen if the world’s largest advertisers got intentional about how their ad spend impacts culture? Just maybe, we’d collectively move culture toward an environment that puts humans above profit.

Our ad ecosystem will evolve thanks to emerging pressures and technologies, whether we like it or not. The brands brave enough to adopt new ways of business and understand their role in the landscape will lead the way.

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