30 Oct 2018

Turbocharged digital advertising a risk to young minds - expert

From Nine To Noon, 9:37 am on 30 October 2018

When it comes to consumption, our society is "self-harming on an industrial scale" says marketing expert Gerard Hastings.

And the situation is getting worse as big brands use digital advertising to turbocharge the marketing of unhealthy products to children and teenagers, he tells Kathryn Ryan.

Digital advertising is omnipresent now, Prof Hastings says.

He likens it to banks selling algorithm-driven products they didn’t understand in lead-up to 2008's Global Financial Crisis.

“It’s complicated. It’s driven by algorithms and that is what advertising is like now. Millions of dollars of advertising are being sold in microseconds by 20-something executives on bonuses.

“People don’t know where it’s going and what is happening with it – we have to start getting a handle on this.”

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Photo: 123RF

There is a danger in people regarding online environments such as Facebook as 'normal', Prof Hastings says.

“Facebook gets 96 percent of its income from advertising. This is not a social media platform, it’s an advertising platform. Children, and the rest of us, what we are seeing online is driven by advertising.

“What has happened is the digital world has become completely commercialised in a way that even the real world hasn’t.”

Children are particularly susceptible to advertising, Prof Hastings says.

“Children up until the age of 12 really don’t get what an advert is. They recognise it’s something different from a programme perhaps in the context of television, but they don’t get that it’s partial, that someone’s trying to flog them something.”

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Photo: andreypopov/123RF

Digital advertising complicates the situation even further.

“In the digital era it’s very often difficult to distinguish an advert from a normal piece of communication, and that’s really quite new and really quite dangerous.

“In the UK, we have a similar regulatory regime to New Zealand and that is principally dominated by self-regulation, which I don’t think is satisfactory at all. We need to think about why we’re allowing self-regulation in that area when we wouldn’t in criminal justice, for example.

“The first rule is an advert has to be recognised as an advert. Once you break that rule then you are doing something more duplicitous or more slippery and people are not able to engage in intelligent analysis.”

If you want an indication of just how dangerous digital marketing is, look no further than Silicon Valley, he says.

“One of the wake-up calls here is that in Silicon Valley they do not let their children near these devices, they don’t use them. They recognise that we are playing with children's’ minds.

“There is a great danger. We say 'well, that’s just how it is, there always been people online' … No, there haven’t, it is a very new phenomenon and even people working in the tech industry themselves are extremely anxious about where this is going.”

Professor Gerard Hastings

Professor Gerard Hastings Photo: Supplied

Prof Hastings advocates for a society-wide response with the digital advertising industry taking more responsibility.

“The only way you can regulate this, I would argue, is by making people take responsibility for what they do and particularly in the commercial sector we have to make brands responsible for what they do.”

 A company with a powerful brand has to steward that brand responsibly, he says.

“We need to protect our children from this, they’re the generation coming on in the future, they’re the people who need to look at this critically and decide what’s going on. If they’ve already been drawn into this matrix before they even reach adulthood, the chances of them not making the mistakes of their stupid parents are that much less.”

Professor Hastings has advised the House of Commons' Select Committee inquiries into tobacco, food, pharmaceuticals and alcohol and is also an advisor to the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

He is in New Zealand as part of The Cancer Society's Stop Cancer Before It Starts symposium, which is focusing on effective policies around three of the biggest risk factors for cancer: obesity, alcohol and tobacco.