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 (1).
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 advertising gifts, 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 is one thing for advertisers to compete with each other. It is another to fight against platforms that have organized a form of dependency and do little to punish abuses, do not account for their costly bugs (2), set up mechanisms penalizing small advertisers while establishing privileges for VIPs (3), endanger their users (4) 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 digital sufficiency will not be a piece of cake.
Influence on consumption
There is no doubt that consumer issues will not remain on the sidelines. For now, we are told that it is time to consume better, because consumption habits are still social markers. And it is the honor of communication professionals to help promote projects that are in the public 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.
Everyone will have noticed that most of us live in inherited and unfinished political systems. Republics or constitutional monarchies where political and institutional communication has replaced the propaganda of the last century, and where communication is still used to generate consent rather than open discussion with citizens.
This is a hot topic in technology. And it may not be long before it bursts into the communications and marketing space, as there are so many ramifications between the two. Data leaks and cyber-attacks have become more common. Data protection laws have become more complex. We can see the impact of GDPR on data flowing in and out of the EU, the Schrems II decision and the invalidation of the Privacy Shield by the EU Court of Justice in July 2020, followed by the publication of the new Standard Contractual Clauses (“SCCs”) in June 2021. Also worth noting is the example of the German data protection authority declaring the use of Mailchimp illegal in some cases, and the request for a German company to cease its use in March 2021.
The problem of the status quo
Given the scale of the challenge, it would be easy not to face it and stay in our comfort zone. Especially as we often evolve in a closed loop, our minds walled off daily by customer imperatives. Collectively, however, we have the duty and the ability to rethink our businesses and anticipate the changes that are coming. We are not talking about spotting trends and following them. We are talking about changing our DNA as communications professionals.
I question the attitude of some colleagues to distance themselves from any commitment in this direction. Commitment is not a dirty word, and thinking we are above climate issues is a luxury no one can afford. Our professions do not shine with a unanimous recognition of their social utility. Our best schools contribute to the reproduction of toxic models (5). Our chance to do well is to face up to the stakes that run through society.
Becoming the change we wish to see
To varying degrees, more and more consultants are questioning the meaning of their profession. Some have used the pandemic as an opportunity to develop or support innovative and radical projects in line with the change they wish to see. This is not yet the case for the majority. But these are significant signals in an industry that spares no effort in lobbying to keep things as they are when legislators seem to want to touch their advertising practices (6). Let’s face it, a decline in young people’s interest in marketing and communications would be more than a symptom – it would be bad news for the industry and the economy as a whole.
Communication is no more constructive than it is destructive. It has been the instrument of establishment and amoral mercantilism. But we can use it to serve the common interest. This ambition is a necessity. Let’s make use of its driving force for common concerns, to channel energies, to mobilise forces through new narratives. We must join the growing awareness and take our fair share of responsibility. It’s up to us to inspire positive change. Through the means we use and the ends we serve.
- (1) Nicola Jones, “How to stop data centres from gobbling up the world’s electricity“, Nature, 13 September 2018.
- (2) Lara O’Reilly, “Layoffs, lost sales, and revised business plans: How a Facebook tech glitch is wreaking havoc for companies around the world“, Business Insider, 27 September 2022.
- (3) Emily Baker-White, “How TikTok Has Bent Its Rules For Its Top Creators“, Forbes, 22 September 2022.
- (4) Siva Vaidhyanathan, “Leaks just exposed how toxic Facebook and Instagram are to teen girls and, well, everyone“, The Guardian, 18 September 2021.
- (5) Lucy Williamson, “France’s elite confronted by sexual abuse scandals“, BBC News, 19 February 2021.
- (6) “France pushes to make advertising a weapon against climate change“, RFI, 11 July 2020.
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