Advertising played a crucial role in building entertainment media during the 20th century. This was pioneered by P&G’s use of daytime soap operas, which expanded to cover all broadcast media with the privatization of state television in the West. Advertising continues to bankroll the traditional and credible media as well as many of the less valuable, less transparent digital and social media.
Advertisers, agencies and regulators must come together to reduce the harmful effect of social media on our youth and our societies. Given the ad and media industry’s massive arsenal of creative talent and lobbying power — with more than $500 billion of ad spending in 2017 — this alliance is too powerful for the tech and social media giants to ignore.
Historically, advertisers have been selective as to where they place adverts. Most brands have boycotted programs and media that carried violent or sexual content, promoted hatred, or were culturally and religiously offensive. In the past couple of years, P&G and Unilever were among the first to start acting responsibly by cutting ad spend on social media platforms by an estimated $100 million or more.
The moves by P&G, Unilever and other multinationals must be elevated into a coordinated effort by the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), ad agencies, media and regulators. It should become the trigger for a global campaign to fight the invasion of social media platforms into our lives. We must develop new regulations that will push tech companies to eliminate the addictive features of social media apps.
This must become part of global brands’ corporate social responsibility policies. Over the past few years, other industries have adopted more humane and socially responsible policies. For example, restaurants are providing natural ingredients options, others are providing fully recyclable packaging, and so on.
Data from most sources suggest that daily consumption of social media is close to three hours, depending on social and age brackets. More critically, total media consumption exceeds five hours daily and some stats estimate total media usage among teenagers at around eight hours per day! As a father, I can confirm that my kids during this holiday season were consuming more than seven hours of media a day.
Herbert Simon, who holds a Nobel prize in economics, was once asked, “If humans consume information, what do information consume?”
Advertisers, agencies and regulators must come together to reduce the harmful effect of social media on our youth and societies.
He answered: “What information consumes is rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”
As we spend more time on social media, refreshing news feeds, the two most important foundations of human life are being eroded: Physical and emotional health.
The French government decision to ban mobile phones from schools must be adopted worldwide. Advertisers can also help by stopping all advertising during school hours, which will make these time segments commercially inefficient to the media owners.
The business community is also suffering from lower productivity due to shorter attention spans. In a recent article titled “Your smartphone is making you stupid, antisocial and unhealthy. So why can’t you put it down?” The Globe and Mail newspaper quoted the Bank of England analyst Dan Nixon as saying, “Workers who got distracted by smartphones needed an average of 25 minutes to get back on task after an interruption.” All that distraction adds up to a loss of raw brain power. Workers at one British company who multitasked on electronic media — a decent proxy for frequent smartphone use — were found in a 2014 study to lose about the same quantity of IQ as people who had smoked cannabis or lost a night’s sleep.
Many stats confirm that improved productivity of connectivity and information flow (which in the case of social media is information that adds little, if any, value to our lives), do not justify the disadvantages of shorter attention spans, weaker social ties, less family time and less physical activity.
In sum, regulators and the ad industry should not delay pulling the breaks on the “antisocial” media epidemic. It took them more than four decades to ban tobacco ads, communicate the negative effects of growth hormones and antibiotics in livestock, or ozone-damaging CFC, and so on. We should not wait another three decades to regulate social media. The advertising industry leadership and creative minds have a unique opportunity to regain relevance by partnering with clients, media owners and regulators to protect the precious moments of our family life on behalf of our children and all future generations.
* Tarek Ayntrazi is founder and CEO of Generation C (www.generationc.com), a digital media communication and content-development agency.