From harm to healing: Advertising on the road to 2020

By Jake Dubbins, Managing Director, Media Bounty

Published:04 December 2019

Jake Dubbins
Jake Dubbins

Picture a scenario. You are returning home from work. You approach your street. You notice something is not right. You can smell smoke. You turn the corner and see that your house is on fire.

As you start running towards it, a neighbour comes out and tells you your house is not on fire. Blinking in disbelief, you point to your house. Your neighbour shows you his phone. A headline flashes up: ‘Claims that house on fire alarmist’. Another headline: ‘House fire a hoax’.

What do you do?

This would sound ridiculous if something very similar wasn’t happening at unimaginable scale across the internet.

In December last year, I presented to the UN General Assembly on behalf of the Conscious Advertising Network. The event was to celebrate the endorsement of the Global Compact for Migration by over 150 countries on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We had been invited to speak about fake news, and how advertising is inadvertently funding hate speech against migrants and other marginalised communities. In doing my research, I started to search on YouTube for ‘Global Compact for Migration’. One of the many headlines screamed:

‘UN's Global Compact for Migration Expands on Hate Speech to Criminalise Criticism of Migration.’

‘Criminalise criticism of migration’ – quite a claim considering the Compact is not a treaty and, therefore, non-binding in international law. This is industrial scale misinformation, and exemplifies the economics of fake news. The videos were monetised by YouTube and showed adverts for big global brands. Inadvertently, global brands were paying the people behind these videos.

In the days leading up to the UN conference, countries - Poland, Australia, Romania, Chile - began to pull out of the agreement. The US did not attend at the behest of President Trump.

In just a few days, an organised misinformation campaign, inadvertently funded by advertising, had undermined an international agreement that had taken years to draft and agree.

Contrary on climate

In the lead-up to the 2020 UN climate summit in Glasgow we can expect a resurgence of fake news and organised misinformation on the clean energy transition. As citizens, we would like the negotiations to be based on evidence, coalescing around the best data the world has. Experience suggests this is unlikely to be the case.

Climate change denial is growing exponentially online.

The headline on Russia Today’s German YouTube channel states ‘CO2 is Harmless’. Geologist Ian Plimer writes in the Australian: ‘There are no carbon emissions. If there were, we could not see because most carbon is black.’ The editor of Spiked Online, Brendan O’Neill, calls for his readers to ‘Sin against St Greta’ in a particularly sinister article.

This will just be the start of a deluge of misinformation in 2020 before COP26. Whereas the fossil fuel industry has a long, documented history of deliberately funding climate denial, much of this online contrarianism will be inadvertently funded by big brands, just like the misinformation around the Global Compact for Migration.

From harm to healing

The vast majority of people working in the advertising industry accept the evidence for climate change and would not believe a word of the swirling misinformation. So, we have a choice: allow it to continue, or challenge it and change it.

From my perspective, we have to do the latter. When big brands know the misuse to which their money is being put online – because we tell them – they are horrified. But this is just a first step. Like any business sector, advertisers can and should work to a set of ethical standards – many of us do already – and those standards should logically preclude any activities that materially damage the Earth’s climate.

In the months ahead, I will be talking to others in the UK advertising industry who feel as I do and developing ideas about how we stop using the power of advertising to harm the planet.

In his 2010 book ‘Requiem for a Species’, Clive Hamilton shows how "the tactics, personnel, and organisations mobilised to serve the interests of the tobacco lobby in the 1980s were seamlessly transferred to serve the interests of the fossil-fuel lobby in the 1990s… to 'de-problematise' global warming." The power of advertising, in fact, helped spread the problem.

Once we have stopped the harm, the next stage is using the power of advertising to work in the other direction, for the Earth’s healing.

Exactly how we do this isn’t 100% clear. Advertising employs many thousands of people, and clients have many alternative sources of skills. Only through dialogue will the route become clear. But there is no doubt that hosting the UN climate summit has given a real impetus to our thinking. We need to have our own house in order before we invite the world to see it.

Greta Thunberg famously told the World Economic Forum ‘Our House is on fire’. The advertising industry has a choice. Do we ignore the flames? Are we going to be complicit in attempts to tell us it is not on fire?

Or are we going to do what any rational person would, and do everything we can to put out the flames before it is too late?

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