This article was originally published by The New York Times

A who’s who of marketing and media convened on yachts and in the gardens of luxurious chateaus here last week as musicians like Jon Bon Jovi and the Killers performed at hotels and sandy beaches temporarily renamed after companies like Google and Spotify. There was a “blockchain yacht” and a “blockchain villa” and more rosé than any group of people could, or perhaps should, want to drink.

The occasion was the annual Cannes Lions advertising festival and the goal, as usual, was to fete the industry’s best marketing while conducting meetings that could ultimately influence how vast sums of ad dollars are spent. But paired with the heady exuberance this year was a growing sense of unease among some marketers about what kind of return they are actually getting once they pour money into big technology platforms — and also what sort of societal problems they may be unwittingly financing in the process.

The mere presence of Tristan Harris, the tech ethicist who has been called “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” showed some of that concern.

Mr. Harris, who joined the festival at the behest of the agency Hearts & Science, and Scott Hagedorn, the agency’s chief executive, appeared on a panel for clients where they discussed smartphone addiction, the feelings of depression and anxiety that social media can produce in teenagers, and the methods that popular apps like Facebook use to harness human attention so they can serve more ads to people.

“We don’t want to be scorching the playing field when we’re extracting attention,” Mr. Harris said in an interview. “It would just suck the air out of democracy and there’s no shared truth and then it’s like, great, we can advertise to people, but they’re lonely, depressed and they don’t believe in facts. No one wants that world.”

Mr. Hagedorn, who acknowledged that some might look askance at advertisers taking up the cause of ethical persuasion, said he heard Mr. Harris on a podcast last year when his agency was manually reviewing tens of thousands of YouTube videos to figure out what kind of content its clients’ ads were appearing with.

“I ended up basically giving myself PTSD because I saw so many horrible things,” Mr. Hagedorn said. “We’ve been, as an industry, blindly telling clients that being ‘video neutral’ is fine — you can follow the eyeballs from platform to platform — and I think we’ve been unaware, or not paying attention potentially, to what we’re monetizing and funding.”

While Google and Apple have announced initiatives around well-being, Hearts & Science has been motivated to help research how people are engaging with their phones — it says that the average person checks apps 88 times a day — and the effectiveness of ads placed next to misinformation and racist or explicit content.

 

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