Voices

“The advertising ecosystem is your supply chain”: Why O2 signed up to the Conscious Advertising Network

Posting a black box and a hashtag is no longer enough; consumers are demanding more accountability from brands about where their advertising appears.

Nicola Kemp

Managing Editor, BITE

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“Words are of diminishing importance however well-articulated. Action is the only game in town.” Jake Dubbins, Co-Founder and Co-Chair of the Conscious Advertising Network captures the urgency for brands in taking action and responsibility for the platforms and context in which advertising appears. 

Now perhaps more than ever, talking tangible action on an issue which has long plagued the industry and had a catastrophic impact on trust in advertising is long overdue. With brands such as North Face and Patagonia publicly joining a campaign to boycott advertising on Facebook in June 2020, to protest at what a group of organisations in the US, including the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP describe as Facebook’s failure to “regulate hateful content”, fake news is once again top of the marketing agenda. Campaigners are calling on industry leaders to hold Facebook to account by placing more restrictions on sharing and applying more human moderation.

The campaign comes at a pivotal time for the industry. While executives from across the industry have voiced concerns over the impact of fake news, few brands have made the unequivocal statements of North Face or Patagonia. Media experts have pointed to two possible reasons for this silence; either marketers think that Facebook is not a problem, or they think it is simply too valuable a marketing channel to boycott. 

Yet there is no question that advertisers and agencies can make more conscious choices about where their advertising appears. The Conscious Advertising Network (CAN) has long argued that the contract between people and brands is being re-written. A shift which has been brought into sharp focus by the tragic death of George Floyd and the urgent need for action in order to ensure brand support for the Black Lives Matter movement is more than an empty gesture.

The time for hiding is over. The advertising ecosystem is your supply chain. You are responsible for it. You can either choose to turn a blind eye or step up and be part of solving the problem.

Jake Dubbins

Consumers expect action 

“The time for hiding is over,” explains Dubbins who has a clear message for marketers: “The advertising ecosystem is your supply chain. You are responsible for it. You can either choose to turn a blind eye or step up and be part of solving the problem.”

“If you just say words without taking action those words will be found to be hollow. If you are talking about committing to Black Lives Matter by posting a black box and a hashtag on your social channels but also funding white supremacy through your advertising, you will be found out. If you are committed to reducing your carbon emissions and contributing to a net zero economy but you are also funding climate science denial through your advertising, you will be found out,” he adds.

The Conscious Advertising Network is a voluntary coalition of over 70 organisations, and it has continued to build momentum and gain support across the industry because it provides a clear action-orientated framework in which to operate. The organisation has focused on ensuring that the industry ethics catch up with the technology of modern advertising. It focuses on eradicating advertising fraud, ensuring the industry and the content it produces is diverse, that people are seen as active participants in their online experience, that hate speech is not inadvertently funded by brands, that advertisers don’t fund fake news and that advertising to children is age appropriate. 

Brands stepping up

It is a manifesto which is continuing to build support from some of the UK’s biggest brands. Earlier this month O2 became the latest brand to sign up, supporting CAN, and in particular its Fake News manifesto to continue to combat the deluge of misinformation and conspiracy theories which surround 5G. A toxic spread of misinformation which has led to the abuse of engineers, including those working on a mast that serves the Nightingale hospital in East London. 

Nina Bibby, Chief Marketing Officer at O2 explains: “The misinformation around 5G is just one example of the damage that fake news can cause. As a provider of technology it is our responsibility to ensure it is used as a positive force for good.” O2, which is the first network operator to join CAN, says the move marks its commitment to helping the industry establish “clear ethics and practises that positively impact consumers’ lives and wellbeing.”

The need for collective effort to tackle the context in which advertising appears has risen up the marketing agenda in recent months. For Dubbins consumer awareness of the role of context in advertising has “unequivocally” increased. 

“There are multiple public campaigns popping up all over the world making the link between the content published on the platforms or in media and the brands that fund that content through advertising,” he explains. Dubbins points to the rise of Sleeping Giants, the activist group already in the US, France and Australia, while Stop Funding Hate in the UK have kicked off a campaign called Stop Funding Heat which raises awareness of advertising funded climate denial. 

It’s a truly global movement, one that brands need to act on, as he explains: “There are groups in Poland confronting anti-Semitism and homophobia funded by advertising, people in India shining a light on ad-funded anti-Muslim hatred and [others] in Australia highlighting anti-immigrant rhetoric and climate denial content. This awareness is going global quickly and is becoming a key issue for brands.”

What people are waking up to is that brands who espouse virtuous values and make public statements on equality and sustainability are also funding the worst of the internet. People are beginning to hold brands and companies responsible for this hypocrisy.

Jake Dubbins

From activist movement to mainstream  

Clearly a growing tranche of consumers across the globe expect more action from brands and agencies when it comes to context in advertising and specifically on fake news. But will we also see a shift in terms of consumers being more vocal about the need to support a greater range of diverse media platforms?

For Dubbins, this is an idea that is yet to go mainstream in the public consciousness. He says, “What people are waking up to is that brands who espouse virtuous values and make public statements on equality and sustainability are also funding the worst of the internet. People are beginning to hold brands and companies responsible for this hypocrisy. You simply cannot make grand statements on LinkedIn and Twitter and then carry on funding white supremacy.”

From COVID misinformation to climate change denial, consumers are waking up to the damaging impact of fake news and expect action. When brands fund so much of the internet not only taking a stand to eradicate fake news, but also taking a more active role in supporting diverse media platforms is key to ensuring a sustainable and mindful approach to marketing which extends beyond posting a single black Instagram square.

“We need to see media as more than the pursuit of eyeballs,” explains Dubbins. “It is an investment in the open web. What sort of web do we want to see? A race to the bottom of monetised clickbait where fake news, hate and outrage are part of the economic model? Or a conscious investment in plurality, diversity and trusted fact checked news while respecting healthy disagreement and exchange of differing ideas.”

In a month in which media and marketing leaders across the industry were called on to boycott Facebook and address hateful content and fake news, the collective action and endeavour of CAN is difficult to ignore. In a world of few certainties brands and agencies alike can be sure that the time to step up is now.