Meet advertising's new CAN: brands have the power to fight back

Conscious Advertising Network officially launched today.

CAN: manifestos cover six topics
CAN: manifestos cover six topics

A new industry initiative, the Conscious Advertising Network, has launched with the aim of empowering advertisers to make choices that will take a stand against unethical practices in advertising.

CAN, which is supported by ISBA, currently consists of 30 organisations from different areas of the advertising landscape, including Accenture Interactive, The Body Shop, the7stars, VaynerMedia and Creative Equals.

It has produced a series of concise manifestos, covering six of the most pressing issues facing advertisers and outlining points of concern and steps that companies can take to promote ethical practice. The manifestos cover: hate speech, children’s well-being, fake news, anti-ad fraud, informed consent and diversity.

Companies wishing to sign up to CAN are being asked to provide training and information sessions for their staff on the manifestos and report back to CAN after six months on how many staff have received training and the extent to which briefs and RFIs to agencies have included the content of the manifestos.

At an event this morning (12 June) at ISBA’s office in central London to officially launch CAN, its co-chairs, Jake Dubbins and Harriet Kingaby, shared an example of the unintended ways in which advertising can support unethical content.

A simple search had found the website of far-right agitator Tommy Robinson displaying ads for The Times and Sunday Times, despite Robinson’s threats against journalists, and Islamic Relief, despite his use of hateful language towards Muslims. In a rather poetic illustration of the point, a third brand seen on Robinson’s site was the Cannes Lions.

Speaking to Campaign, Dubbins, co-founder and managing director of Media Bounty, said the challenges facing advertising in many cases resulted from a lack of awareness of where ads can end up, the types of content they fund and the involvement of organised crime in ad fraud.

He added: "The main question we’re really trying to ask is: do you want your money to fund exploiting children, hate speech, fake news?" 

CAN was not aiming to completely eradicate the problems it was taking on, Dubbins said: "I don’t think this is a problem we can solve overnight; it may be a problem we’re never able to solve. There is always another site or channel you don’t want to advertise next to. But if you’re always having those conversations, you’re being proactive rather than reactive."

The manifestos do not specify where brands should and should not advertise; different companies will arrive at different conclusions about what is acceptable, Dubbins said. Rather, they contain points that will help ensure advertisers are making properly informed decisions.

Aside from the imperative for everyone in the industry to stop funding harmful content, Dubbins became eager to play a leading role after a friend was the victim of a racially motivated violent assault: "One of my neighbours in east London was beaten up badly for simply being Turkish in his local pub – so I’ve seen the rise of hate crime."

While advertisers have become increasingly aware of the dangers around, for example, Islamic extremist content or material that exploits children, Dubbins pointed to the recent rapid rise in radical climate change denial material based on fake science to illustrate that new threats can always emerge.

Dubbins said he believed that platforms such as YouTube had still "not done enough", despite it being almost two-and-a-half years since the first reports in The Times showing that YouTube’s blacklists were failing to stop major brands appearing next to extremist content.

"I think they’ve struggled with the pace of change and the pace at which content is uploaded to their sites," he said. "But they still took a very long time to go from hands in the air, ‘We’re a platform, not a publisher, it’s not our problem’ to where they are now. But also the algorithm they have is to keep people on the platform. It works by asking users: 'Are you outraged by this? Well, be outraged by this too,'" Dubbins continued.

But CAN was based on the idea that it is not simply the responsibility of media owners or adtech providers to solve these issues. Dubbins said: "It’s time the advertisers themselves put more pressure on the platforms. Advertising is fundamentally still powered by human beings and human beings can choose what they do."

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