Do brands have a responsibility to keep people safe?
I don’t work for WPP but still, it was pretty damn frightening to see last week that hackers, whether deliberately targeting the holding company and its agencies or not, could bring their business to a halt. It was such a dangerous attack that many WPP employees were literally told not to turn on their computers.
Frankly, if anything should keep us up nights, it’s cybersecurity, cyberterrorism, and the theft of our personal information. Because it doesn’t matter whom you work for or what websites you visit: We’re all connected to everything. And while it’s clearly a byproduct of living life in 2017, security (and the lack thereof) is only going to get more problematic from here.
But do advertising and marketing bear any responsibility for irreversibly connecting us all? Are we guilty of promoting businesses that promise connectivity without proper security? In general, is it our job to think about the consequences of what we sell for our clients?
Let’s face it: We’re in the shiny object business. Marketers and their agencies love a new gee-whiz piece of technology to promote, since it gives us something to wrap our campaigns around. Advancements used to mean “new Crest advanced formula toothpaste with Flouristat.” Now, it often means a “smart device” or something else controlled by at app that connects you and your personal information to distant server farms — and sinister people in distant countries.
As a result, we’re pushing consumers to generate more data that gets shared. More people being tethered to online accounts for every aspect of their lives. And the Gordian knot gets more intricate each day. For me, as a consumer, I’m a little wary of this; already I hate using my Facebook account to log into another site.
Brands, industries, and governments are more than willing to go further, as long as we let them. Our phones, fridges, watches, televisions, alarm systems, electrical grids, water supply — they’re all hyperlinked now. I read an article recently that reminded me the Internet was designed to be an open network so government and academic officials could exchange ideas. The security of billions of consumers didn’t matter at the time of its creation.
The ad industry also encourages the intrusiveness. A Burger King commercial that deliberately provoked a reaction from otherwise dormant Google Home devices won a Cannes Lion. A clever idea, but also a creepy one likely to inspire many copycat ads. We’re creating the monster and relentlessly promoting it.
It’s becoming the new normal. As a society, our insatiable appetite to have everything and anything at our fingertips means we’re slaves to our smartphones, other devices, and the information they control or store. If you’re like me, you get the shakes going even a day without being connected online and can’t imagine modern life unplugged. But sometimes, the devices turn on us. Like Vizio TVs that collected information about its users without permission. So it’s no surprise that there are anecdotal stories about people like Mark Zuckerberg who deliberately cover the webcams on their laptops for fear they can be accessed unknowingly. If he’s scared, shouldn’t we be?
But the reality is our clients are relentlessly pushing their technology, and we have little choice but to obey if we wish to continue working on their accounts. Even Domino’s Pizza wants to be known as a “tech company” now. No brand, not even REI who implored us to “Opt Outside,” wants us to completely unplug. It’s simply too valuable not to pursue deeper levels of tech and connectivity.
Yet I wonder if there’s more balance to be achieved, or at least a role advertising and marketing can play in recognizing the pitfalls of our interconnectedness. Because the same people that ensnared WPP will try again to interrupt our lives — using our smartphones, appliances, power grids, water supply, even our military. And the more plugged in we are (and are encouraged to be), the more vulnerable we are to serious problems.
It’s not merely a question of messaging in ads or marketing. It’s a question of industry ethics, and whether we’re willing to promote technology without simultaneously publicizing the consequences.
Who knows, perhaps convincing our clients to err on the side of better security might help us gain a bit more job security.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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