Source: Gilles Lambert, unsplashed

Ethical Attention: Can Marketing Avoid Fueling Digital Addiction?

Ethical Attention: Can Marketing Avoid Fueling Digital Addiction?

My daughter is turning 11. Along with all the usual questions parents ponder when looking to the future of their fast-approaching teenage child, there is that most modern parenting conundrum – the smartphone and her access to social media.

At the upcoming Scottish Trendspotting Strategy event, we will be discussing topics including “Deepfakes, bias, and misinformation,” the timing of which could not be better. The event will serve as a crucial platform for delving deeper into the ethical challenges faced by marketers in the age of ‘Digital Addiction’.

Tristan Harris, an ex-Google employee who left in 2013 to set up the Center for Humane Technology, argues that although “… social media brought immediate connectivity to family and friends … it also negatively impacted childhood and adolescence”[i].

The issue's strong feelings were highlighted recently when a WhatsApp group, created by parents to delay children's smartphone use until 14 and barring social media until 16, quickly grew to thousands of members and in doing so drew national attention.[ii]

What’s the root of all this concern? It boils down to that most revered marketing goal; attention.

Again paraphrasing Tristan Harris, the race for attention - the attention economy of reaching people 24/7 – has a success model of digital addiction. The vehicle for this addiction is typically the smartphone, which carries the algorithmically-powered drug of social media, constant news, instant gratification shopping, video games, and entertainment content (remember when Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said ‘sleep’ was his company's biggest competitor?[iii]).

There is a growing set of voices, psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge[iv], who have posited a causal link between the smartphone, and the increased diagnoses of mental health conditions amongst young people seen since 2010.  

Working in the marketing industry, we are a part of the attention economy. Making sure the brands/products/services we all work for have the ‘mental availability’ in customers' minds to be consumed, means grabbing a piece of that ‘attention’.

So I ask, in the age of digital addiction, is it possible to have ‘Ethical Attention’ in marketing?

Firstly, this issue is bigger than the marketing industry. Causal links between young people’s mental health and smartphones are not proven; there’s a long way to go in the research and subsequent debate on this subject (I recommend the ‘Studies Show’ podcast for a thorough analysis of the data[v]). It’s an issue that has been discussed as far back as 2018 in the UK Parliament, and this summer the UN got involved, releasing a report recommending smartphones be banned in schools[vi].

However, that does not mean brands do not have the opportunity (or moral obligation, depending on your POV) to be proactive around the issue. As marketing professionals, we are on the inside, so we can influence.

Here then is a suggestion … measuring the ‘Attention Ethics’ of marketing plans.

For measurement, we need metrics – here are some ideas:

Proportion of the marketing plan algorithmically served

Is your plan a slave of the algorithm, or does it think for itself?

Marketing channel mix

What % is digital?

Marketing media vehicle

If a smartphone is the vehicle for addiction, how much of your marketing is served on mobile?

Campaign Targeting

Does the marketing target, or is it at risk of reaching, groups particularly affected by the negative results of digital addiction (i.e., young people)?

Marketing Authenticity

Is the marketing considered – or does it just add to the ‘thumb-through-junk-noise’ that’s generally ignored anyway?

While these metrics are tentative, I believe brands prioritising ethical engagement can lead the industry (Dove being a prime example[vii]). Not only would an 'Ethical Attention' approach have the potential to benefit society, but it may also offer a competitive edge by aligning brand values with public sentiments and charting a unique course away from the algorithms that the rest are blindly following.

Join us at Trendspotting (Strategy) on Thursday 23 May in Edinburgh.

Toby is Head of Strategy at EssenceMediacom Scotland. After a successful career in London, Toby relocated to Scotland in 2017 and has quickly become a central figure in the Scottish media landscape. At Republic of Media he rose to Business Director, delivering transformational leadership across several key accounts. In 2022 he followed his passion for planning and insight by taking on the role of Head of Strategy at EssenceMediacom. 

Published 29 April 2024











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