Fund the ad blockers, and other ideas

Cheil Canada's Scott Suthren makes his case for the ways adland can step up in 2017.


By Scott Suthren

Thanks for a hell of a year, 2016. The dawn of 2017 is a New Year unlike any other I have seen. The world I grew up in is profoundly not the world I will grow old in.

Despite the world’s focus this January, this is not a political rant, but a look at a symptom of the political maelstrom from 2016 that threatens our industry in 2017.

Fake news and the pseudo-propaganda machine behind it will be our number one competition and concern this year. The disruptive threats posed by new business models, new technology or consumer trends pale in the face of a collective collapse in our ability to tell what is real, and what is fake.

This is our new horror: people increasingly can’t tell the difference. Media literacy is struggling. A recent Stanford University research project found that more and more students are incapable of differentiating between a real news source and a fake one. When coupled with our sharing habits the fake material spreads like a propaganda cancer, a renegade influence on legions of malleable minds.

Culturally, we are teetering on the edge of permanent disbelief. Look no further than some of the top shows this year to see the zeitgeist: Stranger Things, Westworld, Walking Dead. They are about the collapse of reality, of something ominous that exists behind our known world coming out to kill us – or in the case of Stranger Things, drag us into a mirror world we never knew existed.

This lack of faith in reality threatens to gut our business. Consumers will lump all of our work into the same bucket as fake news. The resultant glut will force people to shut down and retreat, unable to separate signal from noise, and our efforts on behalf of our clients will be in vain.

We are not guilt free. Part of the issue is how much Kool-Aid we have consumed. This content spreads across the very channels we have configured and emboldened to get our own messages out. We, the smart people who genuinely have a passion for this business (not the dilettantes or sycophants) have slowly, invisibly, allowed ourselves to become beholden to our crafty, clever tools and have failed to recognize the implications. We are more constrained than we think. In our conceit we have forgotten that the free will we sell our targets is funded by a tax on our own.

We also do everything we can to masquerade with some legitimacy and undermine the natural ability for people to assess what is true: advertorials, native placements, branded content – the list goes on. We are complicit in the development of increasingly complex means to create “consensual hallucinations,” and our role in that has enabled a machine that is now eroding truth and exacerbating the “knowledge gap.”

We need to play hardball in 2017 and undertake some drastic measures to deal with this issue. Consider the following actions:

Fund the ad blockers and other tools that give consumers more control.

Demand that our partners do a better job at identifying content sources and giving consumers the tools to manage what is in their feeds.

Open up all our algorithms across all platforms so that we provide insight into the machines that make decisions on our behalf.

Give full ownership of consumer data to the consumer and allow them to license it to trusted sources.

Establish media literacy education criteria for all awards. No more separate PSAs; every campaign should teach critical thinking skills.

Bring all advertising out in the open and create a label to clearly identify it. If we believe in it, we shouldn’t try to hide it.

The thin veil of trust we currently cavort behind is no longer sufficient to hide that the blurry lines between our appealing form and the rotting corpse of fake news are becoming increasingly invisible. The system we have built is reflecting that mirror world back on us, and the resultant vacuum is an existential threat.

Step up in 2017. Demand that we do better. Take the steps to show consumers what we do can be good, just and proper in a modern market-driven society. Most of all, promise them we won’t stand to see their fair judgement of our creations sacrificed at the altar of propaganda.

Suthren-Scott-622x662Scott Suthren is VP, planning at Cheil Canada.

Featured image via Shutterstock