How does advertising affect our freedom?

Alice Thwaite

Alice Thwaite on the evolving world of marketing in the digital age

27 September 2018 11:58

Freedom. Beauty. Truth. And a £6 jumpsuit some influencer is peddling on Instagram. It feels like all the tried and tested values are being quietly replaced with something more vapid and commercial.

‘In order to do anything that matters, we must be able to give attention to the things that matter,’ begins James Williams in Stand Out Of Our Light, published earlier this year. We’re endlessly swiping on apps that demand our attention. Given we’re so distracted, we do not have energy to spend on things we want to spend time on.

It’s common knowledge that many of the new tech giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter make their money from personalised advertising. A person’s data is used to target them with persuasive and personalised messages. Some advertisers may have low ambitions; perhaps we should buy a new handbag or sign up to ‘win a holiday’, but other advertisers have more sinister objectives – like persuading you of a false political message. Throughout recent elections, disinformation has been spread through paid advertising. We’re told that Donald Trump has very high approval ratings, when polls show that he has consistently lower approval ratings than every post-war President.

Williams argues that fake news is not the only thing wrong with digital advertising. It distracts us to the point where, in the long-term, we are incapable of determining our own goals and finding our own happiness. The goals of most social media platforms are not the same as our own personal goals. No-one aims to spend 10 hours a day scrolling through social media, and yet that is precisely what the juggernaut bosses want us to do. The kind of lives we want to lead, and the kind of lives that advertising platforms are optimised for, are opposite. Williams asks us to fight back, and appeals to the advertising industry to create goals for their algorithms that echo the goals that any one of us would choose to have in our own lives.

Armed with my copy of Stand Out Of Our Light, I set off for the Technology for Marketing and ad:tech conference in London to learn exactly how the industry is trying to manage and contain the power of attention and persuasion.

No one aims to spend 10 hours a day scrolling through social media, and yet that is precisely what the juggernaut bosses want us to do.

Trade conferences are always the worst kind of event. You pigeon-step through narrow corridors, desperately avoiding eye contact with the sales people manning exhibitor stands. The keynote speaker you specifically wanted to listen to starts speaking about something entirely unexpected and irrelevant. And now – apparently – you must be scanned before walking into every theatre. ‘But why?’ I asked a steward. ‘I expect it’s so the companies speaking can contact you afterwards’ she replied. ‘But surely you need my consent to do that’. Being followed around a physical space felt much more invasive than being followed around invisibly online. A nonchalant shrug gave me more information than the non-existent signs that didn’t tell me how my data would be used.

Equally worrying was when advertisers started to preach about the customer experience. ‘Have passion for your customer,’ proclaimed the IBM Watson representative. But this is only so you can ‘beat the competition’. It’s hardly the case that my life plan as a consumer matches the executives’ goal with this kind of rhetoric.

However, my perceptions did change. After a poor start it became clear that marketers did have some sense of ethics. Many brought it up in their presentations. Enough regulations from broadcast marketing have been transferred over to digital.

Jenny Bullis, the chief strategy officer at [m]Platform at Group M chatted with me about persuasion and manipulation: ‘Advertising is always persuasive,’ she definitively told me. Bullis defined ‘manipulation’ as occurring when a company makes a false claim about their services – and this is ‘bad advertising’. Contrast that with ‘great advertising’, which has a well-communicated message, which promises a particular service to a target audience that wants that product.

The industry is well regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), and it’s true that the ASA has remarkable influence when it comes to television advertising. Channels are required to remove problematic content. However, their powers are weak with digital. Their website states that they can ask internet services to take down advertisements, but this is not legally binding.

I was most surprised to learn that advertising effectiveness is on a downwards trajectory, post-2008 financial crash, according to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA). There are several reasons for this. One is that the internet has made it possible for small businesses to advertise and market their products. Although this has considerable benefits, it has meant that SMBs tend to go it alone without professional help. They don’t necessarily adhere to industry standards. Hence consumers witness a lot more ‘bad advertising’ than we ever did before. This is the advertising which appears to be irrelevant, and so wastes our time and distracts us.

In some ways, attending the conference did not answer my questions about the health of the attention economy. The platforms which sell the advertising space to marketers and agencies were notably absent. Facebook and Google are the means that marketers use to reach their target market and, as such, they didn’t feel the need to be at the conference. Does it really matter to Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai if there is ‘bad advertising’ on their platform? A bad advert earns them just as much dollar as a good one. And the reputational damage of the Cambridge Analytica scandal didn’t affect Facebook’s bottom line.

Does it really matter to Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai if there is ‘bad advertising’ on their platform?

We used to contrast persuasion with coercion. Aesop’s fable speaks of the competition between the North Wind and the Sun to determine which is stronger. The aim: to compel a traveller to remove his coat. The North Wind blew and blew, and yet the traveller wrapped his coat tighter around his body. Coercion failed. Next up, the Sun took its turn and shone brightly. The traveller immediately removed his clothing to enjoy the weather. This is persuasion.

But it seems as though these distinctions are almost entirely out of date. All digital advertising is persuasive. It relies on sophisticated insights about our personalities, our psychology and hormones to try and ‘hook’ us into apps and technologies that have a detrimental effect on our lives. In terms of Aesop’s fable, I freely choose to check my phone. But sometimes this impulse occurs at socially unacceptable times. I zone out of important conversations with my family and find myself playing games on my mobile. I ignore the validation of my friends who are in front of me to agonise about a particular photo receiving too few ‘likes’.

Humans should be free to create our own life goals. On our death beds, will we really appreciate bingeing that Netflix box set alone, or will we regret that we didn’t spend more quality time with our friends and family that night?

So, we need a new distinction between good and bad persuasion. Williams suggests we understand how closely a particular technology aligns with the users’ long-term goals, and how ruthless they are in commanding their attention. For example, a mobile game which hooks us, but ultimately damages our mental health, should be called ‘seductive’. Whereas a sat-nav has the same goal as the user. We want to reach our destination quickly. Although this technology also commands our attention, we should say it ‘drives’ us.

Whether we adopt these particular words or not, I think it makes complete sense to think about whether an algorithm or technology actually helps us achieve our life ambitions, or whether they hinder us. Being seduced is almost as bad as being coerced or manipulated in a digital world.

On our death beds, will we really appreciate bingeing that Netflix box set alone, or will we regret that we didn’t spend more quality time with our friends and family that night?

There are many worthy businesses and individuals who want to market themselves. Entrepreneurs create shoes and lingerie with a more inclusive definition of ‘nude’ that fits the spectrum of skin tones; activists who want to promote messages around human and animal rights; software that can reduce the workload of mothers and fathers. These are all admirable ideas and there needs to be some mechanism to get their products and messages to the audience that wants to hear them.

Nevertheless, the industry needs to create new standards to make sure users are healthy in the age of attention. The old values may be disappearing, so it’s up to us to make sure we replace them with ideas that are good.

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