Ad tech has made much of online advertising more efficient but it has also contributed to big problems in the world. Amir Malik, of Accenture Interactive and the Conscious Advertising Network, explains how this is happening.

Brand safety issues continue to be a concern for brands and platforms, as we’ve seen in recent news. You may be asking yourself, if your ad dollars are funding hate speech? Homophobic content? Fake news? For many brands, the answer is likely to be: “not sure”.

Of course, that’s not because any brand intends to fund hateful content. It’s because along with the revolutionary ability to target relevant, tailored content to millions of individual consumers, adtech has also brought with it some less welcome developments: inadvertent funding of fake news, hate speech and fraud among them. Addressing these must be an urgent priority for the whole advertising industry. According to the Global Disinformation Index, at least $235 million in revenue is generated annually from ads running on extremist and disinformation websites.

It’s important for several reasons. Primarily, advertising does not exist in a vacuum. The messages it puts out – and appears next to – have a real impact in shaping and influencing public discourse and values. But it also has a big commercial impact. Consumers and wider society are placing a renewed emphasis on the purpose that companies and their brands represent.

Younger people are particularly keen on brands that take a stand on issues that matter to them: more than 60% of Generation Z consumers favour those brands that are positive and vocal about issues such as human rights, race and sexual orientation. Online communities are already less trustful. There are calls for tighter regulation and pressure from consumers. The majority believe that it’s brands that should be responsible for ensuring that social media platforms look after their personal data (71%), curb the spread of fake news (70%) and shield them from offensive content (68%).

Advertisers can inadvertently fund divisive misinformation and hate speech with the revenues they generate for sites directly contributing to the expression of homophobic, racist and other abhorrent views. Of course, advertisers want to totally disassociate themselves from hateful content. And many have taken steps to address the risks – such as using brand safety requirements to try and ensure that their ads do not appear alongside such materials. But one of the major challenges advertisers face is that the technology has evolved far faster and further than their ability to control it.

Influencing the funding of this content much more effectively than the industry has to date is what the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN) is setting out to help them achieve. CAN’s objective is to actively encourage the industry to adopt a leadership position on these key issues by adopting CAN criteria into internal policies, creative guidelines and agency briefs.

While there’s not (yet) any simple way to use technology to completely prevent the funding of such content, there are a number of concrete actions that advertisers and others in the industry can take that will make a big difference. By signing up to the CAN framework, digital advertisers can become active participants in resetting the ethics of the digital world, tackling the faults in the existing system to enhance the value exchange between people, content, advertising and data.

This is not, of course, easy.  There are a number of steps to take. CAN aims to encourage a more comprehensive approach, initiating a discussion between all players in the industry. We also want to see ethical performance becoming a routine criterion used to address advertising’s effectiveness, alongside more traditional KPIs, such as reach, conversion, ROI etc. At the heart of CAN’s mission is helping the industry move towards a new model for digital advertising that will minimise – and eventually eradicate – the potential harm that arises from ad dollars flowing to the wrong content and contexts.

CMOs often don’t realise the power they have to influence the world for the better. CAN wants to empower CMOs and other leaders by showing them they can do much more today. In a world where adtech is so efficient at placing ads, and at such speed, CAN will serve to reassure CMOs that ethical considerations will be covered, enabling them to focus on other priorities.

If CMOs better understand how platforms work, they can also instruct and brief their agencies more effectively to achieve their ethical objectives. To do that, CMOs need to become more comfortable with the technology and how it works to create the digital advertising environment of today. For example, while they will have creative and media agencies advising them, CMOs often don’t have the same access to the technology expertise they will need to navigate the complexities of the digital advertising world and orchestrate their marketing to maximise its effectiveness and its ethical impact.

Brands want to make sure that they are driving efficient advertising to the right content and context to get the most from the best content available. Understanding how the technology works is crucial to achieve that goal. For example, enabling CMOs to engage with their agencies about the settings and features in their systems that can help ensure that the marketing budgets they spend are not ending up in the pockets of people spouting hateful views and prejudice.