Why Now is the Time to Sign Up to The Conscious Advertising Network

This story originally appeared on Creative Brief Bite in September 2019. It was written by myself and Jake Dubbins for the Conscious Advertising Network.

Ask most CMOs if they want their advertising to appear next to hate speech, or to fund damaging fake news, and the answer would be an emphatic, NO. Ask them whether they’d be happy for half of their programmatic ad spend to be lost to fraud, effectively lining the pockets of shady, criminal organisations, and the answer would be more emphatic still.

Yet, that’s the state of the advertising industry today. The ad money that we insist should be helping us to reach customers in the moments that matter, is not fulfilling its promise. The waste is chronic and trust in our industry is in terminal decline.

A 2019 report by Credos found that advertisers have a worse reputation than bankers and politicians. Yet ask the same people who they trust to sort out the world problems, and they’ll place the burden of expectation on business over government.

The world has serious, systemic issues and people are crying out for leadership. Concentration on brand purpose positioning will get us so far, but our good intentions must be backed up by action. If brand purpose or mission is undermined by ad targeting based on performance metrics, we lose trust, waste money and are responsible for things that harm our customers and the societies they live in. And this happens every day, often inadvertently, across advertising ecosystems the world over.

It was these issues the Conscious Advertising Network was set up to look into, on a cold February morning 18 months ago. The morning of the meeting, Keith Weed had let rip about the state of the internet and threatened to pull Unilever’s ad spend from Google and Facebook: “Fake news, racism, sexism, terrorists spreading messages of hate, toxic content directed at children — parts of the internet we have is a million miles from where we thought it would take us.”

His message was clear: advertising was inadvertently funding some of worst of the internet, damaging brands and spreading harm. And we had a collective responsibility to change it. What could be a more rallying cry to action than the CMO of one of the world’s largest companies, threatening financial sanctions unless something happened?

So why, when the Gazeta Polska scandal erupted, did we find evidence of major brands and tech providers funding highly homophobic content on the site through their advertising? Why has it taken terrorist atrocities for us to consider our role in funding far right content online? Why was a huge fake news operation surrounding The UN Global Compact on Migration, which ultimately caused the collapse of the Belgian government, featured in the British press and funded by advertising? These are all issues of human safety and national security, inadvertently funded in some way, by the advertising spend of major brands, and facilitated by agencies and tech providers.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In the same time period, we’ve seen positive brand action have major impact. Tommy Robinson’s website was quickly removed from the Google Display Network, when major brands were informed about their presence on his site. HP’s challenge to its agencies to hire more diverse people resulted in more efficient advertising and a six-point increase in purchase intent, year on year.

Pressure on YouTube over children’s welfare concerns led to them turning off comments and take steps towards reform. Advertisers have the power to create real change, cutting off the funding to harmful content, choosing to promote and create richer content, from more diverse audiences, even tasking their agencies and tech providers to tackle the issues that they can’t.

The Conscious Advertising Network is on a mission to help the ethics catch up with the technology of modern advertising. We believe by tackling six key issues, we can create more efficient advertising that’s better for everyone. We’ve convened experts to write manifestos on six topics: children’s welfare, consent, diversity and inclusion, fake news, ad fraud, and hate speech.

Our ask is simple; that advertisers embed our principles in all RFPs and inform us of their progress every six months. Our manifestos signpost to existing initiatives, from the IAB Gold Standard, to UN definitions of hate speech as well as suggesting practical steps organisations can take to rid advertising of some of its unintended consequences.

We believe in pragmatism, collaboration and open sourcing. With industry initiatives such as the WFA-backed Global Alliance for Responsible Media hitting the headlines, we hope that we will be out of a job by this time next year. C.AN is free to join and run completely voluntarily, because we believe this is the way to ensure that change happens, fast.

All our manifestos are available via our website and not everyone taking action has made a public commitment, although we strongly encourage it. Since we launched in June, our membership has grown to over 60 organisations including People Against Dirty, Unite the Union, Gyro, and the NUS. Success stories include:

  • The Body Shop working towards training its global marketing team and its agency partners to implement the CAN manifestos and report progress.
  • Merkle Periscopix appointing CAN ‘leads’ across their business and partnering with clients to tackle issues from hate speech to the protection of vulnerable people.
  • Media Bounty building lists of sites that are well known for climate change denial and blacklisting them from client advertising.
  • A global pharma company training over 100 employees in our manifestos and making CAN part of day to day decision making around their advertising.
  • A large agency creating audit tools to help check for compliance with the manifestos.

At the heart of doing brand purpose effectively is the principle of consistency. A purpose is something which, when done well, creates a framework that informs everything the brand does. By adopting the CAN principles, we hope to end advertising abuse by helping advertisers to ask the right questions of their suppliers. We can only realise this vision with the widespread support of the industry. #TogetherWeCan.

For more information, visit the Conscious Advertising Network website or email hello@consciousadnetwork.org

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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