Ethics: The Only Tool Advertisers Have To Drive Social Media Change?

Another week, another bit of congressional testimony. This week it was Adam Mosseri, Instagram’s CEO, who was grilled about the damage social media has on the mental well-being of its users. We know there is damage, because Meta’s own research told us so (thanks to whistleblower Frances Haugen). We also know it from a report by the Aspen Institute's Commission on Information Disorder, which came out this week.

The Aspen Report states that "tech platform leaders have abused customers' trust, obfuscated important data, and blocked research that would help illuminate … the full scope and scale of the problems society faces.”

Instagram launched a number of initiatives in the few days leading up to its CEO’s appearance, but it did little to sway the anger from the Senate’s Consumer Protection Subcommittee.

It is abundantly clear what needs to happen: Social media platform owners should “own up” to the damage they are doing. But they’re not.



The initial defense from the platforms was that they could not be held responsible for the actions of users, whether they are sharing innocent cat videos or copyrighted materials or blatantly racist content. Platforms said they were not media, but distribution systems. Eventually, they gave up on that argument. Now, they are saying they need the government to step up with legislation, full well knowing that as fractious as our government is, it will never reach agreement on what should or should not be permitted.

It’s smart strategy to stall and continue to make money from impressionable minds.

The EU is driving social media change harder than U.S. regulators. Writes Politico: “In Brussels, officials are finishing rules that require Facebook to carry out regular independent audits of how they’re handling potentially harmful content. They also will force the company to open up its closely guarded algorithms used to promote material in people’s feeds to regulators. If the firm fails to comply, the tech giant could face fines of up to six percent of its annual revenue, or tens of billions of dollars.”

Which brings me, again, to the main source of income for the social media operators: advertising, obviously. I have already written about the fact that even with a widespread blue-chip-advertiser-supported boycott in 2020, the bottom line of the social media giants was not impacted at all. So money, at least our kind of large advertiser money, does not talk.

Which leaves us with ethics. Ethics belongs squarely with advertisers. We all know that certain ads will not be shown to certain target audiences, either because of legislation or self-governance. Marketing initiatives are scuttled when it becomes clear they are not what the public is willing to accept.

It’s time for advertisers to step up and show ethical leadership. If you can’t boycott social media to force them to behave, then make them behave through contractual deliverables that would drive change in how they operate.

This approach would work sort of how the state of California sets the rules for car emissions for the nation. Simply because car manufacturers want to produce cars as economically as possible, California’s demands govern the nation’s rules.

It is time for advertisers to set the rules for the media environments where their ads appear. Not doing so is simply unethical.

1 comment about "Ethics: The Only Tool Advertisers Have To Drive Social Media Change?".
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  1. Stewart Pearson from Consilient Group, December 18, 2021 at 6:20 p.m.

    Maarten, ethicist is a role critical to the future of marketing and advertising. The Platforms will not move. (The whistleblower presented evidence that ethics do not matter when profits are at stake.)  So yes we can hope Advertisers will accept the challenge because advertising is at its root "truth well told" (McCann over a century ago).  It will help when we demonstrate to advertisers that the best advertising combines ethics with effectiveness (we have evidence from research and testing). And further, consider the role of Publishers.  As they increasingly going direct to consumers,  they take back control of their content and ensure it improves consumer well-being as well as business outcomes.

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