The last two months at the Conscious Advertising Network have been challenging, our mission of breaking the economic link between advertising and harmful content has been misrepresented, and we’ve been subject to personal attacks.

We have been called bullies, intimidators that are destroying society. Told that our members have had to bend the knee to our mob tactics, or that we are “sinister co-founders of a shadowy cabal”.  This is not a characterisation that any of our members recognise, and it’s upsetting for a team of passionate individuals who work hard on topics from children’s wellbeing to anti-hate.

It’s a tactic called ‘straw manning’ - misrepresent your opponent or their argument, and argue against the simplified version, to ‘win’ an argument. 

So we’re writing this article, to clarify what we do, and passionately make the case for advertising that is more effective, breaks the economic link between advertising and harmful content, and protects our 31 Human Rights. In a free market advertisers have the right to choose. In the world of human rights each and every one of us has the right to freedom of expression, freedom from degrading treatment and the right to a healthy environment.

Breaking the economic link between advertising and harmful content

Advertising placement is ultimately a commercial decision, one that is responsible for growing brands and the economy. CAN firmly believes in a free market, where advertisers have the freedom to choose where their ads go, based on their values and commercial objectives. 

Data shows that there is a distinct commercial benefit to advertising across pluralistic media, and in media that speaks to diverse communities. Importantly, data also shows that advertising in hateful, or untrustworthy environments has a negative effect on brands. 

Advertisers should not be compelled to promote extreme content or misinformation, and certainly not to advertise on or in media at the behest of the state. Freedom of expression is a right, but advertising revenue is a privilege awarded to quality content that reaches the desired audience. After all, the core principles of advertising are reach and frequency. 

Conscious advertising is about ensuring that advertising revenue is available to more quality sites, channels and publications, and that genuinely harmful content is not inadvertently funded. Our members make decisions based on content, as well as site or outlet level - allowing for flexibility, not boycotts. 

Breaking the economic link between advertising & harmful content

Media is better when it’s pluralistic. Exposure to diverse and contradictory perspectives is vital in shaping world views, and creating mutual understanding. Advertising funds the media that we consume, and therefore has a responsibility to ensure that media spend is invested with care. 

Traditionally, media from some groups has struggled to monetise. Blocklists that feature words like ‘Black’, ‘Lesbian’ or ‘Muslim’ prevent advertising revenue flowing to media from entire communities. Signposting ways to correct this and advocating blocklist audits that increase the media spend flowing to diverse media has always been a core CAN objective.  

Advertising also funds harmful content. Harmful to children, hateful, against scientific consensus or fraudulent. This leads to harm in real life. This is the stuff we alert our members to, so that they can avoid brand damage and stop inadvertently incentivising its production based on hard evidence. 

Let us be clear - children should be protected online and off, people have died believing COVID conspiracy theories, scientific misinformation is behind delays in climate action which exacerbate extreme weather, and dehumanisation of particular groups can result in violence. Conservative or progressive, we can all agree that harm to human beings should be something we seek to avoid.  

To define when content becomes harmful, CAN signposts to definitions from experts like the UN, and consensus from the scientific community. Strong definitions mean that the full spectrum of legal speech can be funded by advertising, as advertisers have clear guidance on when things cross the line into hate or misinformation. 

In fact, most of the content CAN members are dealing with is not in the ‘grey areas’ of debate. We’ve alerted members to incitement to violence, paedophilia, and a channel calling for the hanging of journalists who disagreed with a state. Stamping out ‘brand safety’ will line the pockets of fraudsters, militias, and make it easier for pedophiles to communicate online. We cannot let this happen, and we won’t be ‘getting out of the hate game’ when hate crimes are up 24% year on year

Upholding our human rights

Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that belong to every person in the world. The UK has championed the idea of individual rights since the Magna Carta in 1215. There are 31, including the right to freedom of expression, of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom from torture and degrading treatment. 

Unlike what some billionaires would have you believe, one right does not trump the other 30. They are a balance, designed to keep peace and provide a framework for a fulfilling life, and are just as applicable for advertisers as they are to teachers. 

The current misrepresentation of ‘Freedom of Speech’ (usually by people and organisations with vested interests) actually undermines true freedom of expression. Freedom of expression for conservatives and progressives can thrive under CAN’s model, as can freedom of expression for the LGBTQ+ communities. But content should not be monetised when it causes harm. It will still exist and can be funded through other methods, but it is not appropriate for advertisers. Why would advertisers make money available to things that harm children, the environment, or subsidise fraudsters?

In fact, the result of conscious advertising is actually greater freedom of speech for more groups, with fewer bad actors and less harm. 

In sum

Advertising decisions are commercial ones, and a healthy media ecosystem is better for business and democracy. Conscious advertising, with human rights as its guiding principle, is the way to ensure pluralistic media and break the economic link between advertising and genuinely harmful content. Anyone that says we’re shutting down freedom of speech doesn’t, or willfully doesn’t want to, understand the complexities of what we do.

Co-chairs, Conscious Advertising Network, Harriet Kingaby and Jake Dubbins