Tuesday 23 April 2019

John McGee: 'Morality enters the debate about Facebook advertising'

Ireland's youngest ever Paralympic athlete Ellen Keane
Ireland's youngest ever Paralympic athlete Ellen Keane

John McGee

Two weeks ago, the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) held its Global Marketer Conference in Lisbon, Portugal. The event bought together more than 800 of the world's top marketing leaders, including those representing brands that will spend a considerable chunk of the estimated $334bn in digital advertising this year.

One of the topics up for discussion among the gathering was the growing concern that their money was being spent on social media platforms that were facilitating the dissemination of offensive, shocking, divisive, misleading and illegal content.

Coming only weeks after the live-streaming on Facebook of the shocking mass murder in Christchurch, New Zealand, it was clear that the WFA and its members - including the delegation from New Zealand - were in no mood to put up with this any more. They called on their members and the advertising community in general to hold social media platforms to account.

And if they fail yet again, then they should suffer the financial consequences.

"All these platforms are funded by advertisers and as such those that make them profitable have a moral responsibility to consider more than just the effectiveness and efficiency they provide for brand messages," says Barry Dooley, CEO of the Association of Advertisers in Ireland (AAI), who attended the WFA conference.

Around the same time as last week's WFA conference was taking place, Facebook executives were finalising details of Mark Zuckerberg's trip to Dublin as well as putting the finishing touches to his op-ed piece, which was published by a number of leading newspapers around the world, including the Sunday Independent. In his opinion piece, Zuckerberg finally put his hands up and said that Facebook alone could not regulate the internet and he had finally come to the conclusion that help would be needed by legislators around the world.

Fans of conspiracy theories might like to draw a connection between the timing of the two events, but let's put it down to a coincidence. At the same time, however, given that the brands represented at the WFA gathering make up a sizeable chunk of Facebook's annual revenues, one can be sure that the company took note of the sentiments that were expressed.

The reality is that the writing has been on the wall for Facebook for a long time, and despite its whack-a-mole attempts to deal with some of the many issues that have dogged it since the Cambridge Analytica fall-out, it has largely failed.

In the face of much deserved criticism from legislators, consumers and now the advertisers who fund Facebook, the company now faces into what is likely to be its most difficult period in its 15-year history.

Facebook is fighting a battle on number of different fronts, some of which have to do with data privacy, misleading advertising, divisive content and yet again - as we have seen this week - even more data leaks.

You can add to this list possible antitrust issues, given its dominant position, alongside Google, in the global digital advertising market.

What is interesting about the WFA gathering, however, was how the debate about digital advertising has moved on from one which has focused on brand safety to one of morality.

When YouTube, for example, was rumbled a few years ago for serving ads for some well- known brands alongside training videos for jihadists, the ensuing fall-out centred on brand safety and it became a rallying call for the digital advertising industry to get its house in order.

While it remains an important concern for advertisers, the debate has now moved into the realms of morality and what is morally right for brands and society in general.

As Lindsay Mouat, chief executive of the Association of New Zealand Advertisers, put it to the delegates at WFA conference: "This is not an issue of brand safety any more, this is a moral question to hold social media platforms to account - in the same way we do for traditional media."

And Mouat is perfectly right. In the parallel universe that is the offline world, media is held to account on a daily basis and there's no shortage of legislation that protects consumers, their identity, their data and their reputation.

There's also clear standards and regulations in place that prevent the dissemination of offensive and abusive content as well as misleading and fraudulent advertising. Why should it be any different for the online world? And why has it taken so long for regulators to grasp this?

In the past, morality and advertising may have made for uncomfortable bedfellows but as more and more brands try to wrestle with some of the bigger issues society faces, morality, ethics and advertising are, well, meeting somewhere in the middle of the bed. And not before time.



Although adept at letting us know about a range of industries and the companies that make them up, the public relations sector is, somewhat surprisingly, not up to speed with the goings on in its own sector. All this will change, however, with the publication of a new survey by the PRII which is being carried out by Amárach Research.

Participants have until April 18 to complete the confidential survey which is on the PRII's website with the report published later this year.



Ellen Keane, Ireland's youngest ever Paralympic athlete, is the star of Allianz's latest 'We Cover Courage' campaign which aired this week.

Created by In the Company of Huskies, the new iteration of the insurer's campaign follows on from the TV ad which depicted the Minister for Education, Donogh O'Malley announcing free education for all Irish children, in a famous speech in September 1966, much to the surprise of his cabinet colleagues.

Sunday Indo Business

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