Ethical advertising in the intelligent age
AI raises important industry questions
The world is abuzz with the potential of artificial intelligence to transform every industry from healthcare to space flight. Next to these stories, pondering the future of advertising feels almost trivial. But while technologists and philosophy majors debate the long-term impact of driverless cars, AI-enhanced advertising is already here. Its arrival is testing our ability to grapple with the ethical dilemmas created by machine learning today, let alone those of tomorrow.
Thanks in part to the abundance of data available to marketers, the advertising industry will be one of the first to fully embrace AI. Just this year, Essence used machine learning to beat expert sales forecasts 70% of the time, match or outperform our best human media optimisers nine times out of ten, and even eliminate ads that would have otherwise annoyed consumers and wasted money. Examples like these emerge every day as algorithms stumble on serendipitous opportunities in troves of data that would be impossible for humans to parse at the same speed.
But with AI comes the potential to enable marketing that is more relevant and more profitable come difficult questions. AI is allowing us to connect the most motivating messages with the most motivated individuals, giving marketers enormous new powers. As one of the first industries to wield this technology, we need to wrestle now with the implications and the responsibilities it creates, while we have time to agree standards for how it should be used.
Our first challenge is how to code morality into algorithms. On a daily basis, advertisers are required to make moral judgments about whether their ads meet subjective standards for being “good”, “honest”, and “decent”. They also need to protect the brands they work with. Determining whether it’s safe to partner with any given brand ambassador is not on a par with prescribing which lives an autonomous vehicle should prioritise in an accident, but the decision is just as complicated. Algorithms could conceivably pair even the most innocuous platforms, brands, and content into terrible and exploitative combinations at a scale where human oversight is impossible. We will need something better than today’s blacklists of websites and words if we want machines to make these decisions for us.
Then there are the difficulties algorithms have with incomplete information. When humans are uncertain, they are able to consider context and weigh outcomes to make decisions. Algorithms resolve uncertainty through trial and error, making thousands of mistakes to find an approach that works. When a person purchases a bottle of wine, an algorithm only recognises the triggering of a conversion tag; it cannot wonder whether the wine was purchased for a graduation party or a funeral in deciding what to do next. To get to the right decision with AI, advertisers will either need to accommodate an unprecedented amount of error or give algorithms access to an unprecedented amount of contextualising information. Without the right data, machines might be worse than we are at planning for the future. Short-term thinking has seen respected news institutions turn into clickbait farms, thanks in part to overzealous algorithms. Unless we factor longer-term and broader horizons into the equation, machines could produce even more extreme outcomes when the pressure is on to meet quarterly revenue targets.
This new era demands new levels of accountability and leadership – but from whom? Whose duty is it to protect the gullible from conspiracy theorists or recovering alcoholics from an effective new gin campaign? Should companies inform consumers that their experience was designed by AI, or their interaction handled by a bot? When AI allows companies to personalise their communication in ways that appeal to everyone’s individual tastes and biases, what happens to the concept of a brand? And who will ensure that same individualised communication is not inadvertently driving society further apart, the way we have seen social media create filter bubbles and division?
The responsibility, of course, belongs to the whole advertising industry. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have each taken steps to publish important guidelines for the development of AI, and now advertisers should follow suit. As long as technology companies remain reliant on ads to fuel their business growth, it is the duty of advertisers to make their expectations clearly known and to shape what they make and do. They must set high standards to retain trust in this new era.
Now is the time to determine how to evaluate whether an algorithm has enough information to make good decisions on our behalf, to give partners incentives to develop the right kind of capabilities, and to encourage marketers to re-prioritise long-term objectives over short-term gains.
If we get it right, AI offers us the opportunity to rebalance the value exchange between advertisers, publishers, and consumers to create new sustainability in this industry. Advertising may not be the most obvious beneficiary of AI, but being among the first, its potential to shape the way these technologies are implemented makes it one of the most important.