IM TERNET

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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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