News Exchange: Marketers must lead the digital detox

News Exchange: Marketers must lead the digital detox

In the week that GroupM predicted digital would claim an even bigger share of advertising spend in 2020, a couple of CSR stories should give marketers cause to consider their digital strategy. 

Global advertising spend will grow 6% in 2020, thanks in no small part to political spend around the US presidential election. Spend on digital is set to account for 50% of total spend in 2020 – up from 25% in 2014. These were the headline predictions from global media giant GroupM’s latest ‘This Year, Next Year’ report.

The prediction for digital needs some unpicking, reckons CIM marketing director Gemma Butler. “There could be a few reasons for digital continuing to grab market share. There are still businesses who are experimenting with digital by simply throwing money at it. Other businesses are treading more cautiously and thus having to spend more on brand safety, which has become a big issue around digital and might be included in GroupM’s calculations. Or is digital advertising simply getting more expensive?”

Butler herself favours a careful approach. “Digital is not a silver bullet, so simply throwing money at it is not a good enough strategy. It’s a crowded space now and sometimes it can be best to go against the flow and explore other channels if you really want to cut through the noise. Digital is good for getting eyes on your message, but it doesn’t necessarily deliver the kind of lasting engagement that ensures that message is received properly.” CIM’s Ally Lee-Boone agrees: “Businesses should always factor in accurate, reliable measurement as a cost of investing in digital advertising.”

Rule changes

However, noisiness and fleeting engagement are not digital’s biggest problem right now. That title belongs to an that cuts across all marketing channels: corporate social irresponsibility.

Two recent stories highlighted the problem again. As of 14 June, marketers in the UK can no longer fall back on familiar old tropes such as women struggling to park cars or men ineptly handling their kids. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has banned gender stereotypes that it says are harmful and can contribute to social inequality. It has also outlawed the sexual objectification of women and anything that promotes unhealthy body images.

“It’s concerning that this has had to be enforced from the top down,” says CIM’s Adam Pyle. “Research has shown that lots of groups of people feel misrepresented in advertising, yet some marketers clearly still operate in a bubble in which they imagine they are doing a good job.”

Still, it’s clear that marketing has, at the very least, acknowledged the problem. Back in 2017, multinationals such as Unilever, Google, Johnson & Johnson and Mars embraced the UN Women’s Unstereotype Alliance, which aims to deliver ‘significant change’ by 2020.

Nevertheless, that deadline now looks tight, even if the ASA’s move does increase awareness of advertising’s power to influence society. “No one thinks that marketers set out to cause offence or perpetuate harmful stereotypes,” suggests Lee-Boone, “but the regulation should make them think a bit harder and help them to navigate grey areas where, if they are not careful, they can fall foul of interpretation.”

Butler warns that the onus on marketers to get digital messages out quickly can make those channels particularly susceptible to misjudgements of this sort. “The speed at which messages now have to be delivered can cause marketers to overlook potential issues.”

Safety is paramount

The second of those two stories we mentioned also narrows in on the digital channel and the need to safeguard its users, as well as the brands who utilise it. This week, some of the world’s biggest advertisers, agencies, industry associations and digital publishers and platforms have come together at Cannes Lions 2019 to launch the Global Alliance for Responsible Media. Aiming to improve digital safety, the new group includes giants such as Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Diageo and, on the other side, Google and Facebook. The hope is that the different sides will join forces to create a robust infrastructure for better protecting people and brands.

“There is a business case for the two sides to be working together,” says Lee-Boone, “because a digital platform that responds to consumer concerns and makes itself safer for users will also be a safer space for brands to operate, so its value proposition to marketers improves.” Until now, however, the sheer scale of the changes that would be required to improve oversight has been prohibitive. The Guardian this week reported that it would take over 2,000 years to watch all of the content uploaded to YouTube. Imagine, for example, the manpower needed to filter the 500 hours of new video content uploaded every minute.

The group’s formation is welcome, but it is overdue. Research just published by CIM shows that 46% of British teenagers who use social media have seen posts that they do not think should be allowed. Only 7% of those teens said they always reported harmful posts. Among adults who see inappropriate posts, the figure only rises to 20%. Herein lies the need for a marketer-led change of approach that Butler believes could deliver the best possible solution to the digital safety issue.

Currently, the UK government is consulting on its Online Harms White Paper, which proposes a new duty of care towards online users that would be overseen by an independent regulator. “But to completely regulate social media is potentially to destroy its very reason for being,” says Butler. “It exists for the free exchange of unregulated ideas and opinions.”

She believes digital advertisers, in conjunction with action from the government, should take the lead in forcing the hand of the major social media platforms. “Social media wasn’t originally a place for brands, but it has become an important forum for both business and society. If brands can now help to make social media safer for users, this would not only have business benefits, but it would also be an act of true corporate social responsibility.”

The Global Alliance for Responsible Media has already held its first meeting in Cannes and has promised to provide regular progress reports. Butler suggests one of its early moves should be to harness the vast marketing power of its advertiser members to launch a public awareness campaign that shows online and social media users – especially teenagers – how to report harmful content. This would reduce the burden on platforms to identify such content, while increasing the pressure on them to remove such content and help make online a safer place for everyone.


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Tobias Gourlay Journalist
Gemma Butler Marketing Director CIM
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