Bigger than one platform: when ad spend works against charitable intentions

Originally posted on the blog of The Conscious Advertising Network.

The recent Facebook boycotts pose a headache for charities. On one hand, Facebook is a key fundraising tool, on the other, it stands accused of failing to take action on hate speech, setting back civil rights, and posts on the platform are implicated in genocide in Myanmar. Not to mention removing fact checks from climate denial.

Over 1100 companies worldwide have pulled millions of dollars in advertising from the social network, with brands from Coca-Cola to Ford, Unilever and Disney demanding that Facebook monitor hate speech more aggressively. And grassroots campaigns are now targeting brands and organisations who don’t take action.

However, the issue is far broader than simply one platform. To understand the problem in its and think about solutions, we must look at the role of advertising as the funder of a free and open web.

Let me speak plainly — part of your ad spend is probably working against your charitable intentions.

We at The Conscious Advertising Network encourage advertisers to see their ad spend as an investment in the online world they would like to see. Advertising is an imperfect funder of the internet, and with that great power comes great responsibility. Issues with advertising funding hate speech and misinformation are way bigger than just one platform alone.

A $235 million problem

Advertising as a key funder of online hate and misinformation, which disrupts elections, incites religious violence, and is stopping us effectively tackling climate change. At least $235 million in revenue is generated annually from ads running on extremist and disinformation websites, fueled in part by well-known companies across all sectors, according to The Global Disinformation Index. Even the UN are concerned, CAN steering committee members took part in an event dubbed the ‘Economics of Hate’ in 2019.

Sadly, we consistently find brand clashes on hate speech on the open web and on other platforms. Think Muslim charities on websites owned by members of the far-right, environmental and sustainability-based organisations on YouTube channels touting climate denial, or even those supporting human rights defenders appearing next to white supremacist narratives. By appearing on these sites, these charities are inadvertently funding content and people who work directly counter to their mission.

And the results are shocking. One of our charity members has had to move offices because of racist thugs threatening their staff, hate crimes have doubled in 5 years, and we have 10 years to stop catastrophic climate change. These issues are here, they’re on our doorstep, and they’re partially fuelled by our advertising money.

Diverse media is struggling for funding

“We’re optimising for a straight, white internet.” Chris Kenna, Brand Advance

The funding of harmful and illegal content is not the only problem with the system. Diverse publications are also struggling for funding, due to blocklisting used in programmatic advertisement placement. Blocklists are words which advertisers do not want to appear next to, such as an airline listing the word ‘crash’.

However, A study by Vice found that words such as ‘Muslim’ and ‘lesbian’ were blocked more often than ‘guns’ and ‘murder’, and Cheq estimates that 73% of safe LGBT content is rendered unmonetisable due to blocklists. This means that vital publications for diverse communities struggle to fund themselves under the current system of programmatic advertising.

All of the above is degrading internet health and placing more burden on affected communities.

Solutions can be simple

It’s time to think of your media spend as an investment in the kind of online world you want to see, and solutions can be simple. The Conscious Advertising Network has created a clear roadmap for how advertisers can act to avoid funding the worst of the internet, and to better fund the bits we need to keep. We’re free to join, and all our materials are open source.

This month is #ConsciousAdMonth, and we’re asking every advertiser and every agency to take at least an hour this month to sit down and say ‘What are we doing already to tackle hate speech, ad fraud & fake news? What more can we do? How can we instead fund journalism, quality content and diversity?’. If you work on the publisher/platform side then ask yourself how you can make this easier for advertisers, to guarantee safety in your environments, and how we can work together as an industry to improve measures of quality & attention, and bring them into our trading.

At the very least, you can join CAN, use our audit tool to work out how you can use your adspend more effectively. Many of our members also offer solutions to help you spend you ad money in a way more in tune with your charity’s aims. For example:

  • Brand Advance place ads with diverse media to ensure it is funded.
  • Good Loop offer ‘opt in’ ad formats which also make donations to charity.
  • Media Bounty are a creative social media agency with a conscience.

Example tips

Programmatic

  • Audit yourselves against the CAN hate speech and misinformation manifestos.
  • The key thing is to direct more spend to quality, diverse publications, and defund the rubbish. Ask to see a full site list of where your ads appear.
  • You’ll likely want to ignore your ‘performance metrics’ for a bit and be creative.
  • You might want to think about things like creating strong inclusion lists, as opposed to relying on key word blocking, and if you can afford it, switch to contextual brand safety tools to ensure you don’t appear in places you don’t want to.

Platforms

  • They’re listening to you right now. Use your collective voice to talk to them.
  • Look for new ones, get creative.
  • Compile lists of creators and channels you’d like to support, and those who are off limits.

A huge thanks to GOOD Agency, whose invitation to speak inspired this post. Get in touch with us at hello@consciousadnetwork.org for more information.

Mozilla Fellow and co-chair of the Conscious Advertising Network. Advertising, ethics, AI and climate change. Yes, they do go together.

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