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admin / March 28, 2014

In This Age of Big Data, What Does Ethical Advertising Look Like?


Published in Sustainable Brands

Part of the reason I eat less junk food these days is because I don’t really know what it is anymore. I have nothing against fat and sugar, but junk food is full of stuff I no longer recognize. A homemade cookie is one thing, Diet Coke is something else. If I put stuff in my body, I want to understand it.

This seems modest to me. I am not an organic foods zealot, but I am drifting that way because mainstream food production is economizing too much. That means more permutations (emphasis on “mutation”) of additives, crap, filler, and who-knows-what. If the rise of Chipotle indicates anything, it is that these types of concerns are mainstream.

Meanwhile, introspection surrounding consumption is spreading from organic foods to other areas such as ethical fashion. Nobody, however, is really thinking about the structures of advertising itself. Given this is the linchpin of the web economy, it is an oversight. No one is asking what responsible web messaging *really* looks like … and who can blame us? Who wants to risk picking a fight with Google?

Most web pages are a mashup of technologies, each with a monetization strategy, combining an information-gathering capacity with a paid placement. As economic pressures increase, the page fractures with distracting placements, “discovery” tools, widget after widget, “sponsored links” explicit and implicit, etc. These ads remain as mysterious and unaccountable as a junk food additive — we don’t know where these technologies come from. We don’t know what they are doing with our data. We don’t know what they are collecting about us. We don’t know how they are really financed. We don’t even know if they are part of the web site we are patronizing or not.

We know when one EULA or privacy statement meets blow-back, highly optimized content monopolies compensate around it. The business plan is gradual capitulation through retention. No one really likes additives in anything. We just cannot escape them.

This has been the thinking for 20 years and we need to ask ourselves if it really makes sense as a business model. Are we poisoning ourselves? Signs of change are emerging. Forget the economics of cat videos — social publishers want to be taken seriously. Quick hits, like potato chips, do not sustain an audience or build brand equity. Subsequently, the unique opportunities of our new publishing milieu have not been fully realized. It may be true that the Internet theoretically supports infinite advertising inventory but, by the same devices, it also supports infinite accountability. Information is not a commodity but an exchange; big data is more than a corporate database, it is a binding compact.

This is our philosophy at Uncommon Union: The future belongs to those who can put substance on the table; the rest is arbitrage. For this reason we’ve been focusing on working with businesses who are committed to social enterprise and triple-bottom-line thinking, and see accountability as ultimately linked to product quality. These companies tend to have substantive content and issues they are deeply concerned about. Furthermore, these concerns inform essential attributes of their products. This new orientation reaches a whole new level of potential when considered in context of the economics of web content I’ve just described.