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Significant changes are imminent in the advertising industry. In the last month alone, Netflix announced it could enter the ad business, lawmakers introduced bipartisan bills to curb Google’s digital ad dominance, and Facebook rolled out changes to help advertisers be more precise in their targeting. As key players prepare, advertisers have an opportunity to steer these changes in a way that optimizes ad spend and addresses the problem of bias in ad technology.
Bias is a well-known problem for the advertising industry, and the programmatic technologies companies have adopted to supercharge marketing campaigns may not improve the situation. Nearly $1 trillion in digital media flows through programmatic engines that segment and target specific audiences, sometimes overlooking large consumer groups. Not only can this contribute to undue bias, but it is also an inefficient way to spend your advertising dollars.
The industry needs to do better, and we need to start doing it now.
Why now? Marketers are transforming their technology infrastructures to take advantage of artificial intelligence (AI). Netflix already relies heavily on AI to personalize content, and Nike uses it to sell directly to consumers. These developments require marketers to build trust with consumers, and to keep up with the industry, it must be done in a scalable manner.
Because of this, as an industry, we need to embrace AI and use the powerful tools at our disposal to mitigate the bias issue.
As AI algorithms dominate industry efforts to find audiences and serve ads, we need to integrate mitigation tools to avoid reinforcing biased thinking. That is, instead of letting AI exacerbate the problem, we need to make the technology part of the solution. This can help establish fairness by tailoring ad buying behavior to reach a more diverse audience. By embedding fairness metrics and AI algorithms at the core of marketing processes, we can enable a more effective exchange of value between consumers and brands and potentially achieve an improved ROI on media money spent.
The technology needed to mitigate ad bias already exists, and companies in finance, human capital management, healthcare, education, and many other industries are testing open-source toolkits that build bias into their marketing processes. It’s time the advertising industry made a concerted effort to build fairness into our marketing technology as well.
AI bias occurs when the machine learning process used to create AI models systematically favors certain privileged groups and systematically disadvantages certain non-privileged groups. Such bias could affect a financial institution’s ability to fairly assign credit ratings or grant mortgages, or it could affect an insurance company’s ability to accurately predict medical expenses for various customers.
In advertising, bias can prevent consumers from being exposed to certain brands and information based on flawed algorithmic analysis. This often hurts both consumers and brands. Embedding fairness metrics and AI algorithms into marketing processes, for example, could allow the technology to automatically – and at scale – generate anomaly reports if something doesn’t look right with data indexing while media plans are running.
If such a fairness solution can be applied to the core of our marketing today, we could not only help reduce bias, but potentially help brands achieve a better return on their media spend.
Open to business
The solution to this problem is bigger than just one company. We need the best minds and resources in the marketing industry working together to combat systematic advertising bias. If our industry refuses to acknowledge the problem and doesn’t seek to embed fairness into our core marketing processes and tools, then we could face a future dominated by ad platform consolidation, opaque metrics, and automation-driven tendencies. An open, transparent approach to governance, AI, and data sharing can help brands take back control of how they engage with their audience.
To be honest, I don’t see how anyone in our industry can be aware of the potential bias problem without passionately addressing it. It’s the right thing for society that you make information about products and services available to people who, because of prejudice, may not be exposed to those things. And it’s right for brands, as it helps them better connect with a larger group of consumers who can help drive more business.
I call for an industry-wide effort that encompasses every team, function, brand, agency and advertising technology provider. Leaders across the industry must commit to working together to address prejudice if we are to make our industry better, fairer and more sustainable.
Bob Lord is IBM Senior Vice President for The Weather Company and Alliances.
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