Tech Giants' Missteps Highlight Need For More Ad Transparency

American society is suffering from a severe trust deficit. It affects everything from our national politics, to news to the ads we see. The advertising and marketing community may not be able to address all these ills, but there are some concrete, realizable steps that can at least ameliorate some of them.

Because the industry underpins so much of the communications Americans are exposed to, it behooves us — and we are obliged — to explore all avenues to improve the situation.

A considerable source of the trust problem lies with digital media, which has become enormously powerful in its ability to reach huge audiences, but has not yet evolved the kinds of standards and practices common in older media — including libel laws, ownership rules and systems to thwart fraud. 

This month, the tech giants Facebook, Google and Twitter appeared before Congress to publicly acknowledge their role in Russia’s influence on the presidential campaign. They received withering criticism for their lack of transparency, as senators complained that the companies had waited nearly a year to disclose the extraordinary breadth of Americans’ exposure to Russian propaganda — far greater than they had previously acknowledged.  



But as The New York Times reported, they offered little more than promises to do better. Frustrated senators pushed for harsher remedies, including regulations on their advertising practices akin to the rules for political advertising on television, such as a rule to require reporting of who funds online political ads.

While not publicly resisting such a rule, the tech giants’ lobbyists are reportedly doing so quietly.

Indeed, too much of the response to the increasing calls for the media and advertising communities to be more open in their business dealings can be categorized as, essentially “lip service” Besides entailing the possible risk of governmental regulations, continued resistance to transparency simply compounds the trust deficit.

Rather than resisting, the advertising community might consider the benefits of being more proactive in addressing the trust issue. After all, the industry provides the financial support for most media, and especially Facebook and Google. So it ought to have some influence on how they conduct their business.

Indeed, advertisers’ frustrations with the tech giants’ opacity in issues like bot fraud and fake traffic echo the complaints of the politicians who are demanding information on the sources behind their content, as well as their advertisers.

The need for leadership and aggressive action is what motivated the creation of the Advertising Transparency and Trust Forum, which has participants from major and agencies, as well as key trade groups. While recognizing the advertising industry cannot address all the country’s trust issues, such as “fake news” and misuse of social media, the ATTF believes it is time to move toward real solutions.

While its focus is necessarily in the media-advertising relationship, the fact is that modern communications technologies are extraordinarily powerful, both in the marketplace of ideas as well as in the promotion of consumer products. More openness in an extremely complex system can help expose bad actors to the light of day.

It’s not clear that even Google can identify all its advertisers at present.

The ATTF believes that real change in behavior will not come about simply with high-minded declarations of good intentions, but in the very concrete area of contractual agreements. To that end, it is developing the Advertising Contracts Exchange  (ACE), an open-use database of contract clauses currently used by marketers and agencies.

In identifying appropriate contractual language, which pertains to our current dilemma of advertiser trust with the consumer and/or voter, the ATTF supports the principles  of the Institute for Advertising Ethics, headed by Wally Snyder, former president of the AAF. Among these are commitments to:

  • clearly distinguish advertising, public relations and corporate communications from news and editorial content and entertainment, both online and offline.

  • clearly disclose all material conditions (payments, receipt of merchandise) affecting endorsements in social, as well as traditional channels

  • never compromise consumers' personal privacy in marketing communications

Making the legal language of clauses like these generally available can, ideally, lead to the identification and adoption of “best practices” via operating commitments. This is particularly necessary for online media. Due to the fast-changing nature of the medium, contracts are constantly in need of updating to address new developments.

As you read this, the ANA/BAA Marketing Law Conference is meeting in Chicago, keynoted by Thomas Pahl, acting director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. Ed Kabak and Dan Jaffe at the ANA showed remarkable foresight in making this choice. No doubt some of these issues are on the minds of attendees.  

In early 2018, the Advertising Contracts Exchange (ACE) will launch, turning ethical understandings into contract law.

It is time, and past time, to move beyond mere posturing to actually address the trust issues that plague our industry. By creating greater transparency, we may be able to help address some of the larger social issues in our democracy.

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