Top among the trends that are running most swiftly in 2020 is the examination of how businesses work. The world is becoming increasingly concerned with ethics (in the treatment of workers) and the environment and there are more and more people ready to call out companies and brands that do not make efforts to evolve themselves. Social media has provided an infinite number of windows into how organizations operate. It is both a magnifying glass and a megaphone.
The media space is no different, and digital in particular. On the surface, shifts towards digital – whether that is to help remote working or to abandon traditional media supports – represent progress. Printing 500,000 pages of ads for magazines adds up to much more physical energy and resources than running an equivalent digital campaign. Keeping people at home more often cuts down on emissions during commutes. But the digital space is very complex and a lot of it is invisible. It is critical then to understand that digital is not a simple, catch-all solution: within the domain of digital there are decisions that can be labelled responsible and those that cannot.
There are many dimensions to unfold here when it comes to discussing responsible digital media. Start off with what is being said, or the content of digital ads. Second, where are the ads being shown? Who are the partners that are selling inventory? Third, how are you treating the people – and their data – you are targeting? And finally, dig into the real energy impact of digital advertising campaigns.
It Starts With What’s In The Ads
Even if 2020 might go down as the worst year in recent memory, a lot of good has come from it. One of the positive things is the drive towards diversity and inclusion. The revival of the Black Lives Matter movement is the most visible part, but the backlash against the white establishment runs much deeper. Brands and companies that rely on only white faces to hawk their wares are getting pushed back.
As brand marketers, we have an obligation to push towards inclusion. We have a choice in the creation of content and the people we employ to embody our brand messages. Responsible advertising starts with making people feel included. It is irresponsible to not consider the mix of faces, genders, and races in our communications. Even if our products are predominantly purchased by a specific group of people, we need to think of the reach and message that our audience will see. By denying diversity, we are working to keep the status quo – one that is heavily biased and tilted against people of color.
Race is only one part of the equation, gender is important too. It takes effort and attention in order to make sure that the people appearing in your digital ads are equally represented between genders – and that they are on equal footing.
The list goes on: body types, handicaps, and age are all criteria for discrimination, and in your digital advertising plan you can push towards more inclusion. It is extremely rare to see alternative body types in major advertising campaigns, let alone someone with a visible disability. Yet these people make up a significant portion of the world’s population. You might not notice their absence from advertising, but to them it is flagrant, and it is something that we can work on together to create a more inclusive and responsible digital advertising.
Your Digital Media Budget Is Your Power
Digital marketers are often not those who are creating institutional content. At our level and in our departments, we have to make due with what we have, even if we might have the ability to create supplemental or “always-on” content on our end. If the campaign features a skinny, young white woman, it is unlikely that you will be able to push back to reshoot an inclusive campaign. Your power, then, lies in how you use your budget.
Ad space has to be bought. You decide where you buy your space. It is relatively straightforward to determine if the partners that you are using are up to your moral standards. You should choose not to support outlets that you feel are doing more harm than good. If you have any moral bone in your body, you should not buy digital adveritising from Fox News, for example (not just in digital but anything). Many businesses boycotted Facebook this summer because they felt that Facebook was not doing enough to push back against hate speech. This is another, much less clear-cut example, but one where digital marketers took a stand against something they felt was wrong.
In the programmatic space we often don’t know where our ads will be shown. Extremist or fake news sites provide eyeballs to SSPs, but that is often invisible to brand safety tools that are supposed to make sure that your ad doesn’t end up fueling controversial content. Responsible digital advertising means digging, doing your homework, parsing out, and blocking any website, app, or service that you feel should not be supported on moral grounds.
Where do you draw the line? Everyone has their own moral compass and definition of what is acceptable or helpful/harmful to society. A site that I think is undermining democracy might to you be a site that legitimately criticizes a broken system. Objectively, there is no right or wrong answer here. But what is wrong is to pursue performance at all costs, ignoring any sort of moral evaluation in the effort to drive as much business as possible. It is irresponsible to not do the groundwork and to take some sort of stand.
The flip side of this argument is to seek out media partners and outlets that support the causes you believe in. Advertising dollars are means for outlets to perform necessary tasks for the betterment of society, whether that be investigative journalism, promoting positive messages, or even contributing directly to causes via sponsorships. These are decisions that can be made on a campaign by campaign basis, and no amount is too small to help. It is our responsibility to do so.
Respect People and Their Data
Ask a digital marketer what they lack and many will respond that they need more data. Data about who their customers are, where they shop, what influences them, and what they buy. It seems like there is never enough data. But to the consumer, there is a limit, and we’ve already breached it. Digital advertisers have gone too far in obtaining information about the people they are trying to target and are hiding under the chapel of performance to justify it.
More data is not the answer. Operationally, data present huge challenges in terms of storage, security, and the tools that can exploit it. While it might improve performance in some cases in terms of targeting, which could give businesses an edge, it runs afoul of most definitions of privacy and word that is not used enough in digital: decency. In some cases, the lengths that brands go to in order to obtain information could be classified as espionage.
A sincere look in the eye starts with an open proposition, just like the mythic crooners from the 50’s, or an awkward middle schooler in the 90’s, “do you want to be in a relationship with me? I want to get to really know you.” The thing is, the question has to be asked. “Accept all cookies” is not a proposition, it’s a guy at a construction site howling at any woman that walks by. It’s dirty, and in many cases immoral: it causes unknown discomfort and potential harm to the person experiencing it.
DSPs might one day be classified as one of the biggest risks that humanity faces, on par with pandemics and chemical warfare. Why? Because they hoover up all of the information they can about as many people as they can and broadcast it to as many people as they can. They take all information that is available – no matter what the source – and sell it. There is no incentive to protect people since any measure they place between the advertiser and you means less performance and less cash for them. And what’s worse; they are incentivized to find ever more new sources of data, often exploiting legal grey areas and even more often flauting the law in order to gain an edge.
Governments have slowely been catching on, but the GDPR is not protecting anyone and it was the only digital privacy legislation in the EU for two decades. We cannot turn to democracy to help us when the sands shift so quickly and the payoff makes the risk worth it.
That leaves you, the advertiser, as the only one who can do something. You can start by treating your customers and prospects with decency. Ask them to join your CRM program. Cap your campaign frequencies. Do not undercut your own moral decency in an effort to shave a fraction of a percent off of a CPC. Use holistic environments that do not share data with third parties. If a partner is pitching me a certain type of targeting, ask yourself: how did they get that information in the first place?
“But my company is demanding results! I’m just doing my job!” I hear you. But companies are not moral beings. Companies are processes that are put in place by people that then become so large that they control people. Is your personal success as a performance marketer worth the contribution to the degradation of the barriers that we are entitled to between other people? Profits over privacy? Promotion over decency? Depending on how you answer, I bet I can tell you who you are voting for on November 3rd.
As Paul Newman said in Cool Hand Luke: “callin’ it your job doesn’t make it right.”
Digital is Real: And It Consumes
We like to believe that digital is exempt from the climate pressures that other industries face. A shiny laptop connected to the internet definitely looks a lot cleaner than a coal factory. Watching Netflix doesn’t involve sending a plastic DVD in the mail, a DVD produced from petrochemicals, that is delivered by hand to your home, in packaging, before watching it and sending it back. Green, right?
Digital is certainly an advancement in terms of total impact, but it remains incredibly energy intensive. The Internet requires massive amounts of power, as do the giant clouds that populate its sky and provide the foundation for the endless list of services that we use around the world. Data centers alone account for 1% of the world’s energy usage. Then you add in all of the electricity consumed by consumer devices. Most of those devices have batteries that use Lithium, an element that has to be mined and transported, along with the hundreds if not thousands of parts that traverse the globe in the supply chains that go from rock to palm.
We cannot sit comfortably thinking that because we are working in digital we are not contributing to climate change. Digital is certainly more efficient, and many of those energy-hungry data centers are located in places near hydro-electric or solar power and are therefore green. But when so many things are invisible, like the Internet or my WiFi connection, it is easy to forget. Digital consumes energy, and so decisions that we make can have either a positive or negative impact.
Many services now talk about where they get their energy from, and if their servers are hosted in green data centers. If you have the choice, go with a greener option.
You Define Your Morals: But At Least Define Them
No one can – or should – tell you what to do. We all create our definition of morality differently. I believe that there is no ultimate right or wrong. But there is a better and a worse, for both other people, the planet, and you yourself. We all need to make decisions, at least take the time to ask yourself the right questions before you do.
In the end, we can all be more responsible with our digital media.