children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the US is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no-one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.” This awful prescience might lead us to despair. But it needn’t. In 2017, more of us than ever before have been shocked out of complacency. WB Yeats wrote in “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” That has always felt depressingly true, but there are signs that it’s changing. Facebook, long resistant to the idea that it is a media company, has pledged to tackle fake news. Movements such as Stop Funding Hate have had success in getting brands to pull advertising from the a newspaper that continues to grow by appealing to the nastier side of ordinary people. If more brands follow Lego’s lead, it will become harder for hatred and indifference to spread like a cancer through society. I would hope this year, as more people wake up to what’s happening, advertisers will recognise the huge responsibility that rests with their budgets. What brand wants to be associated with newspapers accused by the Council of Europe of hate speech, as the and were?
It seems the moral compass and brand values of many of our mostloved big brands are dramatically at odds with the tone of some of the biggest media owners. At least in print, they know where their ads are going and there are signs they are prepared to act. Those brands that take the lead will in the long run reap the rewards.
In the heat of Trump’s egregious travel ban, Uber found itself on the wrong side of history, losing 200,000 subscribers as Airbnb took the moral high ground by offering to house stranded refugees. In a quick volteface, Uber boss Travis Kalanick has pulled out of Trump’s business committee, after realising it’s bad for business, and Starbucks has promised to hire 10,000 immigrants. Now, within a few weeks of Trump’s executive order, tech companies have formed an alliance against the Republicans, pointing out that the US innovation economy is powered by immigration.
It seems that, all of a sudden, brands are prepared to stand up and be counted. The best have found conviction and seem prepared to sacrifice those customers whose values don’t align with the business.
The time is now to work towards a reconfiguration of the web. This is not impossible. Most of what we are experiencing has come into existence since 2007. Brands can ask questions of how their money is spent. Towards the end of last year, led by our client Kellogg, companies pulled ads from Breitbart, signalling a more thoughtful approach to online advertising.
In a barnstorming speech last month, Randall Rothenberg (pictured, top), chief executive of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, said: “There is no such thing as a neutral technology. Everything has consequences.”
This is the kind of leadership our industry needs. It is our brands’ money that pays for Facebook and Google, so it’s in their gift to push for changes. As Rothenberg put it: “The line of code written by a junior programmer in a mobile advertising start-up in Cupertino is determining the length of future novels, the attention span of future consumers and the cultural heritage of a generation of kids coming of age in a village in rural India.”
Up until this point, the web has grown without enough serious questions being asked of its motives, without anyone fully examining the unintended consequences of replacing rigorously researched news with the short-term dopamine reward of whatever story, real or fake, makes the reader feel good and keep coming back.
In this age of incredible, bewildering change, it’s right for brands to interrogate their role in the development of the internet, the platforms that define it and the society that produces. The answer is not to switch off and walk away but to embrace these technologies, seek to understand them and configure your organisation’s use of all this wonder into something that benefits not just the bottom line but the world that is increasingly shaped by the money your company spends.
Tony Blair said in 2015 that British politics is won from the centre ground. This is no longer true. Driven in no small part by social media, we have retreated to our corners. In Yeats’ words: “The centre cannot hold.” Brands are beginning to realise that they may have to polarise if they want to escape with their soul. Some brands would profit from helping the best from both sides of our divided societies to gain the conviction that we’re stronger together. Incredible opportunity lies ahead for companies with the ability to help people thrive among all this mayhem.
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The Second Coming: Daily Mail,