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Marketers risk a consumer backlash linked to mobile-tech addiction

Amid the attention industry at Cannes Lions, former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris and Hearts & Science CEO Scott Hagedorn delivered a warning.

Marketers risk a consumer backlash linked to mobile-tech addiction
[Photo: rawpixel]

We spend an average of five hours every day on mobile apps. We interact with apps about 88 times per day. That’s compared to an average of 1.4 hours of TV. We’re addicted to our phones. We need to post. We want the “likes.” And it’s all altering our brains in ways we might not be very comfortable with.

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In a packed session at Cannes Lions on Tuesday called “Addicted to Likes,” Omnicom’s Hearts & Science CEO Scott Hagedorn and former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris delivered a pretty dire warning to the advertising agencies, marketers, brands, tech companies, and social platforms gathered in the south of France.

“At some point, when there’s a public health crisis around developmental challenges of millions of millions of teenagers, and people are lonely, leading to more suicides,” said Harris,”people are going to ask, who paid for all of this to happen?”

According to Harris, who went on to found the Center for Humane Technology, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google are caught in a zero-sum race for our finite attention. These platforms develop increasingly persuasive techniques using AI-driven news feeds, content, and notifications to continually learn how to hook us more deeply. And why are they doing it? Well, Google’s U.S. ad revenue is projected to hit almost $40 billion, while Facebook’s is expected to reach $21 billion.

Due to alarming statistics on the impact that mobile apps, particularly social networks, have on not just children and adolescents, but also adults, when it comes to addiction issues and even loneliness, Harris sees an impending public health crisis.

Omnicom media agency Hearts & Science does billions of dollars in business helping marketers place their ads in front of the right people. But Hagedorn is concerned about the balance between social responsibility and commercial viability. “On the consumer front, we’ve witnessed a seismic shift in net attention—the amount of attention anyone can spend away from traditional media outlets to mobile devices and applications,” he said. “This shift has had a big impact on consumers and users of technology themselves. They’re now physiologically different because of the influence of mobile devices and applications. And in the moves now that our industry has made to monetize net consumer attention, we’ve seen bad actors emerge with bad consequences, like identity hijacking, fake news, and ad fraud.”

While a lot of this discussion typically focuses on the platforms’ corporate responsibility and the role of government regulation, Harris and Hagedorn see a role for marketers to play in stemming the damage–and potential for more–by this zero-sum race. Two recent examples were how Google suspended ads relating to the abortion referendum in Ireland, and Facebook suspended any non-Irish ads around the referendum issue.

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“If we don’t want to fund loneliness in teenagers, imagine using your voice to pull your ad spend between the hours of 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. for the audience of 13- to 21-year-olds,” said Harris. “That’s a powerful way to use your voice.”

Hagedorn and Harris have developed a playbook for marketers interested in addressing the issue and will be distributing it to advertising trade organizations around the world. Hagedorn points to three key things brands and agencies can do: Demand transparency and audit ad delivery; test design suppression models; and join in to drive conversation forward.

Otherwise, in addition to a potential public health issue, brands could be faced with a massive backlash, impacting consumer trust and ultimately sales—which is what the ads are trying to boost in the first place.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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