Tuesday, February 7, 2023
From the time you start your day until you wind down and go to sleep, ads are everywhere. They are a constant presence in our everyday lives. If you wake up and take a look at what happened on your cell phone while you were sleeping, they will be there; but they will also be there if you turn on the radio or television or if you prefer to start your day by reading the newspaper. After that first contact, advertising doesn’t stop: it is estimated that the average person comes across 6,000 to 10,000 messages from brands every day. The Internet and mobile devices – which mean we’re always connected – have caused these numbers to grow.
Advertising is important for the companies that make the ads – it is one of the few ways to speak directly to consumers – and for the media that host them, from traditional media to social networks – it is a source of revenue, and sometimes the only one. Consumers' relationship with advertising is, as the Facebook relationship statuses of a decade ago put it, complicated; they sometimes feel it is excessive or too annoying.
However, consumers’ feelings are not the only issue in calculating the effects of ads. Although it has long been forgotten, there are also environmental issues to consider. Advertisements have their own carbon footprint, and this growing number of advertising messages has meant that their environmental impact has grown. The advertising industry is starting to become more aware of this, and studies on when and how ads pollute have begun to follow.
The industry is concerned
Estimates are not optimistic. The consultancy fifty-five indicates that the digital ecosystem is responsible for 3.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions produced. Moreover, it points out that its annual growth is now higher than that of civil aviation. A single ad campaign generates 70 tons of CO2 equivalent emissions: the same as what 7 people on average release into the atmosphere in a year.
The Advertised Emissions study, produced each year by Purpose Disruptors and Magic Numbers, focuses on what is happening in the British market, but its findings serve as an example to understand that advertisements have a direct impact on the environment and one that is increasingly high. Between 2019 and 2022, the advertising industry's emissions have risen by 11%, they warn, and 32% of each person's carbon footprint now comes from the ads they see and receive. Right now, advertising is responsible for the equivalent of the emissions from 56 coal-fired power plants in a year. These are the British numbers: globally, that would be many, many more coal plants.
Where does the carbon footprint come from?
But how do ads pollute? Their carbon footprint can be explained by a variety of factors, both direct and indirect. On the one hand, their impact derives from the products they advertise, since advertising encourages consumerism and buying things that have a high environmental cost. In fact, a study by the New Weather Institute think tank and Greenpeace has calculated the greenhouse emissions that can be linked to the sales generated worldwide by car and flight advertisements.
Their conclusions are striking: the effects of this type of advertising are equivalent to two times the emissions emitted by Spain each year. If only car and air travel ads in the European Union are considered, the emissions are equivalent to those of Belgium. “Polluting cars and airlines spend billions on ads for a reason: they accelerate sales, but they also accelerate the climate crisis,” lamented Greenpeace activist Silvia Pastorelli at the presentation of the study's results. The NGO then called on the European Union to ban advertising for products with a high carbon footprint.
On the other hand, advertising pollutes because of where these messages appear. Fifteen percent of global online ads end up on pages created only to serve advertising and not on legitimate media, as calculated by Ebiquity PLC and Scope3 PBC. Not only do these websites provide no value to the brands behind these campaigns, but they also have a high environmental cost. These are messages that are put out into the world – with all the expenses that go along with that – but that are not really reaching anyone. The emissions generated by reliable sites are 52% lower than this type of website, because the technological load of the former – which have fewer advertising bids in automatic online ad sales marketplaces – is lower.
Because that is, finally, the other big point that explains why ads pollute. Their own creation processes and the way they reach consumers come at a cost to the environment. Ads are behind 10% of all energy expenditure generated by the Internet, according to a 2018 estimate. Fifty-five's latest research identifies three major contaminating phases in online advertising: the creative process, which includes travel, filming, and post-production; media broadcasting, with viewing or tools that support those processes; and targeting, with the increasingly complex technology that helps determine to whom each ad is shown.
How to reduce pollution
Still, all is not lost in advertising. Creating ads more responsibly is possible and the advertising industry seems to be starting to take notice.
GroupM, one of the biggest names in media buying for major brands, has just launched a coalition to decarbonize the industry. Its methodology includes new ways to calculate the emissions of each ad, but also recommendations to change how advertising is purchased. These include a commitment to fewer, but higher quality advertisements. Additionally, as reported by The Wall Street Journal, those responsible for the Ebiquity PLC and Scope3 PBC study also recommend choosing quality journalism to reduce the environmental footprint.
These are not the only ways. According to fifty-five, optimizing video content, thinking carefully about how and where ads are to be filmed, or having campaigns delivered only over Wi-Fi connections and not via mobile Internet can reduce the emissions generated by ads by 50-70%.
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