Thursday 23 May 2019

The only way is ethics: advertisers need to take lead role in digital world

Unilever advertising boss Keith Weed. Photo: Getty
Unilever advertising boss Keith Weed. Photo: Getty

John McGee

This year, advertisers will spend a staggering $578bn on promoting their goods and services to consumers around the world - and for good reason. As we know, advertising builds brands and delivers growth to companies which, in turn, boosts employment which triggers economic growth.

But advertising also stimulates competition and it provides consumers with both information and choice.

And, of course, the $578bn that will be spent on advertising in 2018, according to media agency Zenith, will go a long way in funding publishers, broadcasters and social media platforms the world over.

Without this substantial investment by advertisers, most media companies would simply fold while digital behemoths like Google and Facebook would cease to exist.

While the vast majority of this advertising will be money well spent, some of it will be lost to criminally-orchestrated ad fraud - as much as $6bn according to some estimates - while other chunks of it will simply be wasted by virtue of the fact that it may never be seen or heard by its intended target audience.

Given the sheer amounts of money that brands are coughing up every year, it's not surprising that - aided by better analytics and data - they are taking a much keener interest in how and where their money is being spent. Against this backdrop of fraud, wastage, an opaque digital ecosystem and serious brand-safety concerns, they have every right to be anxious.

When bigwig marketers like Marc Pritchard of P&G and, more recently, Keith Weed of Unilever - the two biggest advertisers in the world - start talking about the murky swamps of digital advertising, they are not messing about or seeking to generate hyperbolic headlines.

They genuinely mean business.

While the overriding concern that many brands have about the advertising landscape relate to where and how their money is being spent and the safety of the environment in which their messaging appears, there is a growing debate about whether brands should take a more principled, ethical and moral view when it comes to making their decisions.

Let's be clear: there is a major distinction between the safety of a brand in any given media environment and any perceived issues of morality that may arise as a result of the advertising.

In the marketing universe, brand safety will probably always trump morality. In fact, some people might scoff at the very notion of morality and advertising being mentioned in the same sentence.

But times are changing.

Many brands are slowly realising that their relationship with consumers is now a two-way street and, at time of profound social and economic upheaval, they often need to align with their beliefs and aspirations.

Brands that do so tend to achieve better cut-through among consumers.

At the same time, many brands are also pondering how they can help create a more informed, happier, inclusive and better society. Racism, domestic violence, gender inequality and diversification are just some of the issues that brands have tackled head-on over the past few years. But all of this is still uncharted waters for companies and their brands.

Some will get it right and others will fail spectacularly. But anybody who has been following developments within the financial services sector since the last global banking crisis, for example, will be aware that ethics is now a hot topic within the industry. Putting it simply, ethical business practices tend to lead to better outcomes for customers, the business and society at large.

Already battling on a different front against the murky world of ad fraud and trying to police brand safety, it's entirely conceivable that the next front for brands will see them being judged by how responsible and ethical they are when it comes to wider societal issues, including the media outlets and social media platforms they support through advertising.

As researchers, addiction specialists and cyber-psychologists continue to shine a light into the dopamine-fuelled digital landscape that has been created, and we learn more about the effects it is having on our kids, our citizens and society at large, advertisers and their brands will need to weigh up their options and, maybe, take a moral stance on what is right, not just for their brands, but for society too.

That is not to say that brands should be the moral guardians of the digital age because that will never happen. And for lots of reasons.

But as they are effectively underwriting the media and the wider online world, and if they genuinely believe that they can drive societal change, then they should start to examine how their money is being spent.

Ethics and advertising may have made for uncomfortable bedfellows in the past, but in the future expect a lot more collaboration.

Sunday Indo Business

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