In the wake of Elon Musk’s chaotic takeover of Twitter, several of the world’s largest ad agencies have advised clients to stop advertising their brands on the social network due to concerns about “brand safety.” “. Thousands of Twitter employees have resigned or been fired, reportedly affecting moderation capabilities, including those dedicated to ensuring that ads do not appear alongside online content that could damage a brand’s image or reputation.
But advertising on Twitter was risky even before Musk took over. In general, advertising on social media is fraught with serious pitfalls for brands. Continuous news broadcasts plus potential widespread hate speech and misinformation could damage reputations with every move if there is a misstep.
No airline wants their ads placed next to the latest news of a plane crash. No brand would tolerate having their product appear alongside posts soliciting child abuse material, praising acts of terrorism, or praising a footballer famous for kicking his cat.
Musk has reportedly tried to lure some advertisers with generous incentives, such as offering to match their ad spend, but it’s unclear if this has worked.
Without a strong guarantee that brand-damaging incidents will be avoided, advertisers are likely to return only when the company’s new leadership clarifies its plans for brand trust and safety, and for good reason.
But beyond the walled garden of advertising on social media platforms, there is an entire ecosystem of the online advertising industry that increasingly presents a new challenge to brand safety. In our research of the ad-tech industry and data brokers, we were surprised to see how intrusive and damaging it has become.
These are companies you’ve never heard of, the mysterious “third parties” or “business associates” sometimes referenced in so many click-agree-to-read-not-read privacy policies. Their business is to collect vast amounts of personal information from all over the internet and essentially sell it for marketing purposes.
We have evidence of personal information collected from pregnant women through online parenting clubs, from mothers who have just given birth in UK hospitals by marketing companies allowed on wards and from people who have visited mental health websites in Europe. This data is then shared with third-party vendors without these people’s knowledge.
Due to the nature of the data broker industry, sensitive information like this is likely to be sold and resold and could end up in an advertiser’s data supply chain without their knowledge.
Imagine the damage to a brand’s reputation if illegally collected data from women who suffered miscarriages is found to be used by a company that sells baby products. This could result in women already experiencing the trauma of losing a pregnancy repeatedly seeing online ads for diapers and formula, for example.
This is a horrible situation where a brand doesn’t want to be around, but our question to advertisers is: can you be sure that data hasn’t been collected in your supply chain in this way?
We understand that brands may not have complete visibility into what’s going on at the bottom of the data supply chain, and we believe that if brands did, they would want to make a change. It’s a topic of growing importance, as privacy-focused NGOs increase their scrutiny and regulators begin to take notice. It’s only a matter of time before attention turns to the role of advertisers in funding this industry.
We at Privacy International have spent many months engaging with advertisers, presenting our evidence, outlining our concerns, and suggesting practical steps they can take to improve the online advertising landscape and reduce harm.
Advertisers can start by raising these concerns with their ad agencies and exploring alternatives to the current advertising status quo. There is room for a privacy-respecting system based on minimal consumer data, but the current ecosystem promotes an intrusive all-or-nothing approach.
The truth is that surveillance-based advertising is not that effective and risking customer privacy is probably not a price worth paying for it. There is so little transparency in the industry that advertisers cannot know for sure how many consumers are actually exposed to their ads. There is also the issue of fraud, where clicks and views are inflated; one estimate puts the losses to advertisers as a result of such practices at $23 billion.
To minimize their risks and protect their customers, companies could conduct a data supply chain audit, looking in particular at third-party databases and auction systems used by ad tech companies and data brokers. .
Companies already audit and monitor internal data practices, return on ad spend, and brand image protection by monitoring and verifying where ads are served; they also perform human rights due diligence throughout the supply chain. Using these existing audits to enforce accountability and transparency in the use of personal data can be a way to stop harmful practices and protect customers.
Advertisers are already showing that they can show some muscle in public when it comes to protecting their brand. They may also do this to protect their customers and show them that they care about their privacy.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.
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