Playing the Meta game certainly has its advantages for brand owners, given the vast reach of Instagram and Facebook. But the negative effects of these digital spaces—from spreading dangerous misinformation to feeding body dysmorphia—are increasingly coming to light.
Brands like Uoma and Selfmade have taken action with online campaigns that push messages of inclusivity and open up conversations around mental health, subverting the very online spaces that perpetuate negative dialogues into places of positive connection and much-needed discourse. The Stop Hate for Profit boycott of Facebook advertising in 2020 saw over 120 brands across a variety of industries, including personal care and beauty companies Unilever and Birchbox, halt their Instagram and Facebook ad spending in a bid to have the social media giant take responsibility for the proliferation of racism across the platform.
Lush has taken an even more radical stance, putting their money where their mouth is. Back in November 2021, the independent British beauty brand deactivated its social media accounts across Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and Snapchat (remaining on Twitter and Pinterest) as part of its Anti-Social Media Policy—a move which was expected to cause a loss of £10 million ($12.1 million) in sales as a result. Previously the company had also created its own Digital Ethics Policies to guide the design and launch of any digital product, pledging to only use open-source and OSI-approved technology, hardware made from conflict-free materials where possible (hosted on 100% renewable energy), and ethical consumer data practices.
The British brand also recently hosted Lush House at SXSW. Activations included a panel to discuss the creation of a more beneficial online landscape with Facebook whistleblower France Haugen, who released thousands of documents that exposed Facebook’s awareness of the negative impact of social media on teenage mental health, its role in spreading misinformation, and its use for human trafficking networks.
In their latest proof of protest, Lush announced it would be reducing the funds going into Google ads by "millions," prioritizing the metaverse for more organic and democratic consumer interaction.
In partnership with The Future Laboratory, Lush has released the Digital Engagement: A Social Future report, exploring the impact of the shifting digital landscape on consumers and offering a manifesto of ethical practices for the future, The SOCIAL Framework (an abbreviation for sustainable, open-source, community-controlled, iterative, accessible, and life-affirming). Their research found that 69% of 12,000 adults in the US, UK, and Japan believe brands should step away from unethical social media platforms. 62% of adults express respect for a company that prioritizes ethics of the platform they advertise on over reach numbers.
A backlash against online platforms with a negative impact is also becoming evident, with 35% of Meta users using the platforms less frequently, while 49% believe these spaces aren’t doing enough to protect users from harm, manipulation, and harassment. “People are shunning social media and the reasons for this departure are complex. The promise of social media was connection, expression and community. But today, many consumers distrust social media platforms. Some even experience digital platforms as a hostile space,” Lush Chief Digital Officer Jack Constantine states in the report.
55% of consumers desire a decline in the amount of control that Big Tech has in the online space, speaking to a likely ensuing disruption of the Meta grip as we know it through the advancement of web3 and open-source-technology-led spaces. The biggest looming question is, will these decentralized spaces fall victim to the same problematic topics and dynamics as their predecessors? Metaverse activations are a trending topic in the beauty space, and some brands such as Rook Perfumes have used DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) to engage with brand followers, with imminent growth in the brand space set to ensue.
70% desire global legislation to protect consumers more, and while there have been strides like Fewe campaigning for a reduction in the cyber censorship of women’s health, the implementation of widespread policies across all social platforms has yet to be implemented. Brands have the power of advertising spend to pressure change, but being willing to forgo the audience reach that comes with advertising on these platforms could equate to a financial demise for smaller companies. Alternatively, political legislation could force the hand of these larger platforms (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok) to potentially shift to a more positive space so that brands can advertise with a better conscience surrounding the end point of their marketing dollars.
As for protecting the emerging spaces of web3 and the metaverse for the future, the nascent nature of these arenas means there is the opportunity to learn from past mistakes. Problematic subjects such as racism, discrimination, and damaging beauty ideals won’t disappear overnight, but there is a chance to implement structures and policies which give them less of a space to expand than they did in the “wild West” of the early days of social media.
Despite the negative impacts of these current spaces, from corruption to online bullying, there is hope for the years ahead, and an opportunity to do things differently. The increasing pressure mounting in the public sphere for change may just give hesitant companies the courage to forge ahead, knowing their willingness to take a risk in the name of the greater good will be rewarded by a growing and loyal audience. As Lush states: “Despite how it may come across, we are extremely optimistic about the future of digital and the potential for technology to positively impact both society and the planet in harmony with one another. As emerging technologies and younger generations collide with force, we are beginning to peek over the horizon of a brighter future.”
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