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Moving Towards Ecologically Sustainable Advertising: The Five Fives

Aug. 26, 2022 | by Mikko Kotila
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Establishing Preliminary Understanding

There is a great sense of enthusiasm in making advertising as environmentally sustainable as possible. Many leading companies have already made notable commitments in this respect.

Such aspirations are oftentimes misguided by a lack of available relevant information — such as environmental information pertaining to the advertising industry — and the general difficulty associated with understanding complex systems. For example, many in the advertising industry believe that the industry’s main contribution to carbon emissions is through office buildings and business travel, where in fact those only accounts for 1% or less of all the emissions caused by advertising.

In this article, we show how ecological sustainability in advertising can only be achieved through improving the energy efficiency of advertising systems, and provide a practical outline for thinking about emissions caused by the advertising industry.

The outline can be summarized as the Five Fives of Sustainable Advertising.

The Five Ways

The first of the Five Fives — The Five Ways — consist of all the various means through which activities aiming towards sustainable advertising are possible. The five are:

  • Eradicating (wrong views and wrong understanding)
  • Energising (with the correct motivation)
  • Educating (with state-of-the-art information)
  • Empowering (with the correct methods and tools)
  • Engaging (with relevant stakeholders)

The way of Eradicating focuses on dispelling myths, revealing wrong views, and pointing out wrong understanding. Such as dispelling the Five Pertinent Myths found in this article.

The way of Energizing focuses on pointing out and clarifying the correct motivations. Such as the Five Levels of Motivation explained in this document.

The way of Educating focuses on using state-of-the-art information to educate stakeholders in a meaningful way. Such as various aspects of this article.

The way of Empowering focuses on ensuring that stakeholders have the correct methods and tools available to them. Such as the 25 Intervention Vectors as outlined in this article.

The way of Engaging focuses on working with relevant stakeholders across the industry, including trade bodies, companies, and organisations focused on sustainability.

The Five Levels of Motivation

There are five levels of motivation in respect to countering and managing emissions in advertising:

These motivations can be considered as a left-to-right progression from the least evolved to the most evolved. The least evolved being the practice of emitting carbon and then paying to offset it and the most evolved being the practice of working for societal impact.

The way these motivations should be understood is as follows. The company must address the problem through improving energy efficiency innovation by means which do not compromise business value, and as a result, successfully reduces net energy consumption. This inevitably leads to societal impact. This should be understood as the means by which the problem of carbon emissions in advertising is solved. Furthermore, having taken this path, the company ensures that all the energy its activity consumes either directly or indirectly comes from certified renewable sources. Finally, it is important for the company to play an active role in the conservation of trees, particularly of the mature rain-forest, as well as in other activities that improve this planet’s resilience.

A Formal Framework for Understanding Emissions in Advertising

Understanding emissions in the advertising industry — which is becoming increasingly digital — has four parts:

  • The condition
  • The causes of the condition
  • The solution
  • The actions leading to the solution

The condition is that advertising consumes more than 1% of global energy, and is a major cause of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The great majority of this is due to online advertising.

The causes of the condition can be explained as the primary and auxiliary causes. The primary causes consist of ad delivery and displaying of delivered ads. The auxiliary causes consist of everything else, such as office buildings, business travel, and other things required to operate an advertising business. The primary causes are responsible for almost 100% of the condition; ad delivery causing roughly 80% of the condition and displaying the delivered ads causing roughly 20%. All the auxiliary factors combined, cause 1% or less of the condition.

The solution has three parts: 1) reducing energy consumption, 2) reducing non-renewable energy sources, and 3) increasing the planet’s resilience. In terms of reducing energy consumption, there are ways that reduce energy consumption by reducing the business value that is delivered, and ways that directly target energy consumption without reducing the business value that is delivered.

The actions leading to the solution can be understood based on the Five Aspects of Advertising Systems and the Five Factors Affecting Energy Consumption in Advertising Systems. These are covered in the sections below.

The Five Aspects of Advertising Systems

Because nearly 100% of the energy consumed by the advertising industry comes from advertising systems and not the various auxiliary business operations, this article will focus solely on understanding the condition from the standpoint of advertising systems.

An advertising system has five aspects:

Combinations of these five aspects represent all possible advertising systems.

The five aspects of advertising systems are defined as follows.

The aspect of Creation is defined as the processes involved in creating advertisements and managing advertisements that have already been created.

The aspect of Delivery is defined as the processes involved in receiving a request, handling it, and communicating a confirmation of having done so.

The aspect of Data is defined as the processes involved in capturing, storing, and making available various information (data) resulting from the Creation, Delivery, Intelligence, and Access aspects.

The aspect of Intelligence is defined as the processes involved in using data to make inferences, such as predictions and decisions. The processes are exclusively programmatic i.e., automatically operated by machines.

The aspect of Access is defined as the processes involved in making various features and data available in user interfaces and such, for example, for reporting or data access purposes.

Showing the Five Aspects as a Procedural Continuity

Any event or a sequence of events taking place as part of an advertising system can be readily placed in the framework provided in the section The Five Aspects of Advertising Systems above. Below we will clearly define the order in which each appears as well as their boundaries. The appearance is as follows.

The Creation aspect is followed by the Delivery aspect.

The Delivery aspect is followed by the Data aspect.

The Data aspect can be followed by the Intelligence aspect and/or the Access aspect.

Each aspect can be alienated from the other by understanding how they meet the other aspect/s within their boundaries. The boundaries are as follows.

The Creation aspect ends at the point where a reference for the advertisement to be delivered has been successfully established.

The Delivery aspect begins at the point where the above-mentioned reference for the advertisement is ingested. The aspect ends at the point where the advertisement has been delivered, and the fact that it is delivered has been communicated.

The Data aspect begins at the point where the above-mentioned communication is received. The aspect ends at the point where all kinds of processes involved with (data) transforming, storing (of data), and making (data) available has been completed.

The Intelligence and Access aspects both begin at the point where the above-mentioned processes have been completed.

The Five Factors Affecting Energy Consumption in Advertising Systems

The factor of Size refers to the size in bytes for various computational objects, such as the advertisement, the connections required for delivering it, the data associated with it, and so forth.

The factor of Duration refers to the duration of each computational process, such as the advertisement becoming visible on a mobile device or delivering the ad to that device in the first place.

The factor of Number refers to the number of connections required to complete a given computational process, such as delivering the ad. For example, if many tracking tags are required for displaying an ad, then many connections are required.

The factor of Frequency refers to how frequently something is accessed. For example, if a report needs to be updated every minute, then all the computational processes and objects related to that report have to be run every minute.

Whereas Number deals with how many things are done simultaneously in order to achieve one result, Frequency deals with how things are done to achieve one result repeatedly.

The factor of Distance deals with the spatial (particularly in relation to the number of intermediary steps caused by an increase in distance) dimension, in other words, how close the sending and receiving parties can be brought.

The Five Pertinent Myths

Even those who are seriously motivated to work towards societal impact will inevitably fail in reaching their goals if their activity is based on believing myths. At best, a company following myths will appear to have reached its goals, but under objective analysis, it would become apparent that there has been no societal impact, or that only little such impact (in comparison to the full potential of the company) has been delivered.

Planting trees is a meaningful way to offset carbon emissions.
In Is carbon neutrality a viable solution for reaching sustainability goals? we provide a unique perspective to why most of the tree planting programs do not work. That said, planting trees can in fact be a part of the solution when it is meticulously planned in terms of geography and other aspects, as well as focused on long-term economic incentives that foster the motivations of tree planters and forest caretakers.

There will be enough certified renewable energy to meet the demand.
The forecast for the availability of certified renewable energy in the coming decades suggests less availability than there will be demand. In other words, renewable energy will run out in the coming decades due to energy production trends not being able to respond to consumption trends in a timely manner.

Digital advertising causes fewer emissions than conventional advertising.
Conventional advertising, albeit being production-heavy, consumes almost no energy in comparison to the amount of energy consumed by digital advertising. This is due to the fact that almost all emissions in advertising result from the delivery and display of digital ads.

Most of the energy in advertising companies is consumed by buildings and travel.
For a typical advertising company involved in digital advertising in one way or another, close to 100% of energy consumption is due to the delivery and displaying of ads.

It will be straightforward to reach various available emission goals in advertising.
Because sustainability will depend on energy efficiency optimization, which is an optimization problem, the degree to which it is straightforward can be established through clearly understanding the problem as an optimization problem. As an optimization problem, energy efficiency is multi-dimensional, with infinitely many variables, and can be considered both non-convex and non-smooth. In summary, such an optimization problem falls into the hardest category of optimization problems

by Mikko Kotila