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“The algorithm outpaced the ethics”: Why the Conscious Advertising Network wants to clean up digital advertising

Launching its manifesto, the Conscious Advertising Network has urged brands to use their influence to prevent the spread of hate speech and fake news.

Nicola Kemp

Managing Editor, BITE


“Our mission is to get the ethics to catch up with the technology of modern advertising.” Unveiling its manifesto for change, Jake Dubbins, Co-Chair of The Conscious Advertising Network, laid out the fundamental challenge facing the digital advertising industry.

The network is a voluntary coalition of over 30 organisations which have come together to help ensure that industry ethics catch up with technology. The group’s manifesto sets out six key areas of focus: fake news, children’s wellbeing, hate speech, informed consent, diversity and tackling advertising fraud.

Phil Smith, Director General of ISBA, said, “Advertisers are going to have to lead change because we aren’t seeing it from other sides of the industry.” Pointing to the “tsunami of regulation” that is on the horizon for the industry he warned that the long-term decline in public trust in advertising has translated to a lack of political trust.

We need to move the conversation on from reach and frequency to brand safety and human safety.

Jake Dubbins, Co-Chair of The Conscious Advertising Network

The legacy of ‘Brands Funding Terrorism’

It has been two years since The Times sent ripples across the industry with its front-page headline on ‘Brands Funding Terrorism’ yet the urgency surrounding brand safety shows no signs of abating.

According to Dubbins, last year recorded hate crimes increased by 17% while recorded religious hate crimes increased by 41%. He pointed to the lack of transparency in the digital supply chain, highlighting adverts from The Times and The Sunday Times appearing on Tommy Robinson’s website: “Freedom of speech means that Tommy Robinson can say what he likes, but brands can also choose not to fund that.”

He added, “We need to move the conversation on from reach and frequency to brand safety and human safety.” Noting the growing focus on purpose and brand values in marketing, he explained that unless brands reflect that purpose in their advertising, it is simply “bullshit and purpose-washing”. He also believes that there is some soul-searching to be done around how brands act, rather than what they say.

Conscious Ad Network goal.png

Bridging the ethical divide

Amir Malik, Digital Marketing Expert at Accenture Interactive, said that the “open economy of content” fuelled by the web is a positive thing. However, he warned that most advertisers are not aware of their power: “Advertising appears next to Jihadist content, homophobic content. The algorithms have outpaced the ethics.”

He urged the industry to place a greater focus on evaluating where it is investing: “It is a mixture of people, process and technology.”

Carolina Hernandez of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations added that change was on the agenda. She explained, “We can point to a number of big companies challenging the narratives [around immigration]. We see them not advertising on media channels promoting these negative narratives. There is still a lot more to be done.”

Abi Slater, Director of Communications at ISBA noted that the conversation surrounding brand safety amongst marketers has shifted from “I don’t want my brand to appear next to this content” to “do I want my brand to appear in this environment at all”.

The focus [of adtech companies] will be on precision and efficiency unless brands remind them of the need for ethics.

Amir Malik, Digital Marketing Expert at Accenture Interactive

The ROI of ethics

The panel noted that advances in adtech technology and capability have not been matched by an equal focus on trust and transparency. “Big global brands, Fortune 500 companies are advertising on Jihadi websites, against homophobic content and technology is facilitating this. The focus [of adtech companies] will be on precision and efficiency unless brands remind them of the need for ethics,” added Accenture’s Malik.

He explained, “They have grown in a completely unregulated environment and they will only respond to their own clients: advertisers.”

According to Dubbins there is a genuine opportunity for advertisers to positively impact the digital ecosystem in which their marketing messages appear. He believes that ethics should be baked into the fundamentals of adtech design.

As ISBA’s Thomas noted, advertising money sits right at the heart of this problem, a state of play which makes it vital for the industry to lead the charge against extremist content.

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