Facebook obviously didn’t feel the need to wheel out its relatively new vice-president of global affairs and communications, Sir Nick Clegg, at the Advertising Association’s recent Lead conference. This was in stark contrast to his appearance on the BBC News a few days earlier, when he was pressed into service shortly after a faltering performance by Steve Hatch, Facebook’s regional director for northern Europe.
Hatch had been confronted by the Corporation’s media editor, Amol Rajan, over Instagram’s policies in relation to images of self-harm and suicide, following claims by the father of a 14-year-old girl, who took her own life, that Instagram was partly responsible for his daughter’s death.
Rajan showed Hatch some of the graphic images of self-harm that the BBC had found on the site. Clegg was pressed on the same issue, and in a similar vein. While he gave a slightly slicker interview than Hatch, who appeared to have been caught off-guard and was consequently skewered, the response was roughly the same – it wasn’t good enough, and action was promised.
That’s not to say that Hatch or Instagram owner Facebook got off completely scot-free at the Advertising Association event, or that it wouldn’t have been interesting to see how Clegg would use his ministerial presence given the circumstances. Hatch was brilliantly ambushed by Thinkbox’s chief executive, Lindsey Clay, for, among other things, Facebook’s role in reducing the levels of trust in advertising to an all-time low, a stark fact that emerged from research by Credos (more on that later).
Moreover, Clay argued that not only was Facebook playing "fast and loose" with privacy, it continued to serve ads around inappropriate and illegal content and was not paying its way in funding the regulation of advertising in dues to the Advertising Standards Authority. This was especially pertinent, given the huge increase in complaints about online ads that it (and other tech sites, including Google) hosted.
It’s particularly shocking, given Facebook and Google’s market dominance and the vast caseload of ads they produce that require investigation by the ASA, that the two don’t attach a levy to their direct-to-advertiser sales, instead voluntarily contributing a lump sum. It’s something that many in the industry – quite rightly – want to change. Hatch acknowledged that tech companies still need to improve (whatever that means), and we’ll have to trust that they will do just that.
Back to that issue of trust. Credos’ research identified that it was the sheer volume of ads at the root of a loss of trust in advertising, rather than an increase in pernicious, misleading or offensive content. If trust levels in advertising are as low as the Credos report suggests (just 25% favourability), it begs many questions that will require action. One might be what right advertisers think they have to act as our moral guardians with increasingly heavy-handed brand-purpose messaging, given that three-quarters of the population don’t view them favourably.
While some social-purposes initiatives are heartfelt and honourable attempts at socially and environmentally responsible capitalism, the proliferation of this technique means that others are in danger of appearing to be hectoring, opportunistic, PR-driven interferences in areas of personal morality. It’s here that brands, of all things, should be careful not to tread with impunity, in case this results in trust levels plummeting further.
While Clegg was absent, perhaps back sunning himself in his Californian mansion, a pretender for his old job as deputy prime minister, Tom Watson, was making his presence felt. For those who fear that Jeremy Corbyn and his cabal on the hard left are completely anti-business, Watson, at least, cut a relatively reassuring figure. An alumnus of this industry (who knew?), his thoughtful speech was broadly positive about its contribution to the economy and to society and how self-regulation had worked in combating some of its excesses. Having shed some of his own personal physical excess, Watson is on the warpath against sugar-rich food and drink that targets children, sugar having contributed to his own heft (and diabetes).
While the ad industry has done much work to reduce children’s exposure to these products, packaging, which has done a little less, was in his sights. Regulation of packaging is the responsibility of trading standards, rather than the ASA, and while extending the latter’s remit should be given a cautious welcome, taking on extra commitments would, of course, require more funding still for the body.
Given the problems the ASA has in getting some of the biggest advertising platforms to pay their dues, this might open an entirely new front but, much like getting Facebook and Google to submit voluntarily and without legislation to act responsibly, it might still be worth pursuing. Before that, though, over to you, Facebook and Google.