A new world is looming on the horizon. Can communication adapt to our changing times? And what challenges should it meet?
An endless information flow in a saturated world
Innovation has always punctuated communication with the emergence of new mediums (cinema, radio, television, Internet), taking on previous ones without replacing them. But with Web 2.0, we entered an era of unprecedented expansion. People who consume information have become content producers. And with social media, we have gone from asynchronous means of communication to instantaneous ones, reinforcing the immediacy with which everyone consumes information.
Although we referred to it as such, there’s nothing virtual about it. Whether it is the growing network of undersea cables lining the bottom of our oceans, the telecommunication satellites that are gradually filling our skies, or the data centers stretching to the outskirts of our cities on every continent. Digital is increasingly colonizing the physical world. And its electricity consumption doubles every 4 years. In 2017, internet traffic (to and from data centers) broke the 1 ZB mark, 200 times more than in 2007. A furious pace that does not seem to stop.
If communication has always embraced progress, the bias that led to considering with kind eyes the means that technology offers, to look at what it allows to achieve, more than at the potential destruction that it can cause, seems to have disappeared. The techno-critical speech is growing, with the perspective that technology cannot be the only answer to our problems. And we can feel under our skin the saturation of society. With so many suffering from information overload, digital burnout. As well as the harmful influence of dominant economic models on the design of online user experiences.
The planetary limits and environmental pollution
When we talk about costs, we often mean the cost to the client, much less the impact on the planet. Until recently, public acceptability of marketing was related to its perception in our daily lives. With limitations set by society: ad blockers, cookies & trackers blocking by web browsers, privacy laws. With the awareness of climate change and its effects, we pay more and more attention to the environmental pollution induced by human activities. And it already reflects in marketing and communication when a digital agency chooses web hosting powered by renewable energy or eco-designed POS displays.
The virtue of the adjustments made to reduce the environmental impact may seem paradoxical at times. Like continuing to make goodies, but from non-plastic materials. A curious choice for anyone knowing this principle of zero waste: the best waste is the one we don’t have to produce. Another new development is the emergence of green marketing, which aims to promote products presumed to be environmentally friendly in their life cycle.
Last but not least, greenwashing. More and more companies want to give the impression that they are taking steps to responsibly manage their environmental footprint when the opposite is true. Perhaps explained by a refusal to confront reality, due to the depth of the change involved, this practice is symptomatic of a desire to create confusion in the minds of consumers, to delay the moment when they must change.
The monopolistic social platform policies
If social platforms crystallize so much criticism, that’s because they are at the heart of our connected lives, because of their deliberate will to centralize, like tentacular portals, our uses of a decentralized Internet. To capture an infinite amount of data with which they do not necessarily make good use. As capitalist firms, they have long used anti-competitive practices. And their interests do not align with ours, as evidenced by their unwillingness to fight against disinformation.
Long gone are the days when we thought we would create a global community with their help. And that we would all share this humanist vision based on sharing, collaboration, and collective intelligence. On social media, not only is money, as everywhere, a factor for accessing a large audience. But the system (newsfeed algorithm, advertising auctions) by design discriminates and arbitrarily reinforces inequalities.
It’s one thing for advertisers to compete with each other. It’s another thing to fight against platforms that have organized a form of dependency and do little to punish abuses, set up mechanisms that penalize small advertisers while establishing privileges for VIPs, endanger their users to make more profits.
Continuing business as usual under such circumstances is a bit Kafkaesque. And yet, we collectively continue to give these platforms our budgets, thus maintaining the system.
Facing communication’s dual responsibility
As marketing or communication professionals, we are part of society. And if nobody is responsible individually for the degradation of the environment and the disintegration of society, everyone should acknowledge when contributing to entropy through their actions. It is a responsibility that we cannot ignore, that must mirror the one we have towards our clients and employers. And this is not incompatible with the issues they will face, too.
In a world where we are increasingly concerned about environmental destruction as we experience its effects, optimizing the environmental footprint becomes central to economic activities. When organizations approach the subject from the sole angle of carbon offsetting, we know that this equals painting pollution green. Here’s a scary thought: Digital advertising since the first banner in 1994 is influencing the way the Internet looks like. The digital sector is consuming 10% of global electricity consumption. Our consumption grows so fast that renewable energy is not replacing polluting energy sources. And each technological progress removes less the barriers to content consumption than it increases their amount and size… Achieving sobriety will not be a piece of cake.
Influence on consumption
There is no doubt that consumer issues will not remain on the sidelines. For the moment, it is time to consume better. So, consumption habits are still social markers. And it is the honor of the communication professionals to contribute to promoting projects aligned with the common interest. But what about tomorrow? A more significant part of the population says it is ready to reduce its consumption, to embrace degrowth. What will be the option for brands in terms of storytelling in a society that no longer places consumption at the heart of exchanges? This should raise questions about the way we market our products. As well as the notion of a competitive company with other KPIs than net sales and market share.
Everyone will have noticed that most of us live in inherited and unfinished political systems. Republics or constitutional monarchies, in which political and institutional communications replaced the propaganda of the last century, with the weakness of still using communication too often as an instrument to manufacture consent, not enough to federate and cooperate with the population. And this leaves no doubt about the type of communication that people expect: no longer a top-down, but a two-way communication in which there are fewer spin doctors than catalysts of energies and ideas working within the community.
This subject is on the rise in tech. And it should not be long before it bursts into the field of communication and marketing as there are so many ramifications between them. Data leaks and cyberattacks have become more prevalent. Privacy laws have become more complex. We can observe the consequences of the GDPR for data that flows in and out of the EU, the Schrems II decision, and the invalidation of the Privacy Shield in July 2020 by the EU Court of Justice, followed by the issuance of the new Standard Contractual Clauses (“SCCs”) in June 2021. Also noteworthy is the example of the data protection authority in Germany declaring the use of Mailchimp illegal in some cases and the request in March 2021 for a German company to stop its use.
Acceptance or denial: the problem of the status quo
Given the scale of the challenge, it would be easy not to take it head-on, staying in our comfort zone. Particularly since we often evolve in a closed-loop, our minds walled up daily in the language elements and imperatives of the clients. However, collectively, we have the duty and the ability to rethink our businesses and anticipate the changes to come. We are not talking about spotting and following trends. We are talking about altering our DNA as communication professionals.
I question some peers’ attitude of keeping a distance from any commitment in this direction. Commitment is not a dirty thing, and thinking to be above climate issues is a luxury no one can afford. Our jobs do not shine by a unanimous recognition of their social utility. Our best schools contribute to the reproduction of toxic models. Being up to the stakes that run through society is our chance to do well.
Becoming the change we want to see
More and more consultants are questioning, to varying degrees, the meaning of their profession. During the pandemic, in an unprecedented trend, many are taking the opportunity to develop or help innovative, radical projects with the ambition of bringing the change they wish to see in the world. This is not yet the case for the majority. But these are not negligible signals in an industry that does not spare its lobbying efforts to ensure that nothing changes when the lawmakers seem to want to touch its advertising practices. Let’s admit that a drop in interest among young people for marketing and communication would be, beyond the symptom, bad news for the industry and the whole economic landscape.
Communication is not more constructive than destructive. It has been the instrument of establishment and amoral mercantilism. But we can use it to serve the common interest. Carrying this ambition is a necessity. Let’s embrace its driving power on shared affects to channel energies, put forces in motion through new narratives. We must go along with the growing awareness and take our fair share of responsibility. It’s up to us to inspire positive change. By the means we use and the ends we serve.