Cleaning Up Digital Advertising 'Litter' Is Beneficial for All Parties

It's an opportunity for brands to generate revenue while keeping the health of our planet in check

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Recently, local governments in France have been demanding that digital out-of-home advertising screens be cut for various reasons, sustainability being key among them. While visual pollution is a concern, clutter is everywhere, including in the ads we see online.

Sustainability will play a vital role in the years to come, and embedding it at the core of an organizational strategy will be crucial to meet consumer demand and regulatory requirements.

There is no doubt that adopting a greener, more conscious lifestyle has become increasingly necessary in recent years as climate change becomes imminent. The advertising industry started paying close attention to sustainability in 2022 as consumers prioritized it, so many brands are now taking concrete steps to reduce their CO2 footprint from their marketing. There’s also a clear need for governments to buckle down on their policies to reach the Paris Agreement, and this has made organizations think about transforming their operations to be more environmentally conscious.

When it comes to digital advertising, what if we pruned back the ads available to enable a cleaner environment and serve a smaller number of advertisements? Fewer advertising opportunities mean premium pricing for what is available, and uncluttered environments lead to better ad recall, according to a recent media trials study with Magna IPG.

So how do we enable a cleaner environment and take advantage of the opportunity that decarbonized media brings?

Long-term vs. short-term gains

For starters, we need to think longer term when it comes to sustainability and consider the financial gains. As businesses, we are often forced to think of a short-term plan due to pressure to demonstrate growth, be it month-to-month results or quarterly outcomes. But our focus should really be on the horizon.

Short-term planning yields quick and effective results at a potentially lower cost, but long-term actions are worth prioritizing because of the desirable ROI that comes with them and the vast potential to uplift the financial health of your organization, and ultimately the industry at large.

Ads in a low-clutter environment are more effective at driving brand trust and are more memorable for consumers.

And a bonus? We get to course-correct while we’re at it. We have a tremendous opportunity now to transform the way we execute advertising and ensure balanced success for all stakeholders.

According to Scope3 and Ebiquity data, one programmatic impression for a banner ad equates to 0.67g of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). A million ad impressions equal a metric ton of CO2e. (That’s one roundtrip flight from Boston to London per passenger.) Now that we know the impact of ads on the environment, let’s do what we can to minimize our footprint by reducing clutter.

Keeping the creative clean

In addition to addressing cluttered environments, how about rethinking our creative formats?

Low-bandwidth formats (i.e. static ads that are nonintrusive, clearly labeled and do not occupy more than 15% of the visible portion of the webpage) generate lower emissions. Those types of ads in a low-clutter environment can help publishers and advertisers lower C02e emissions by around 11.5 times compared to high-clutter webpages. And if you’re asking how this change can benefit the way you create and present ads, let’s put it this way: Formats and creative choices are a direct way for advertisers to reduce or limit energy consumption/carbon emissions and can have a lasting impact.

While we may be used to seeing ads that leverage animation and other rich media features, low-bandwidth creative offers a unique opportunity to pinpoint the messages and visuals that truly connect with consumers. Cutting away the special effects and motion-heavy graphics and distilling the creative into something clean, light and powerful could be a win on several fronts.

By keeping the focus on minimizing clutter and making more sustainable creative choices, the ad industry can lessen the carbon footprint of digital advertising across platforms and serve user demand. At the same time, we will be creating a new breed of premium ad offerings that will ultimately drive more money for the industry.

And with consumers placing more emphasis on sustainability, there may be a “halo effect” that positively impacts brands that advertise in this new sustainable manner. That too could provide new incentives for revenue generation.

The benefits of decluttering the online environment

Brands and consumers can both benefit from less clutter, as findings from the Magna study suggest. Ads in a low-clutter environment are more effective at driving brand trust and are more memorable for consumers, which goes to show that brands can remain competitive in today’s sustainability-focused landscape and improve on costs by listening to what their consumers want.

Of course, this is concerning for those of us in the industry on several fronts. Shifting our ecosystem onto a greener path is a tremendous undertaking that will require time and attention and could impact bottom lines for stakeholders across the media and marketing landscape.

However, there is a financial upside to all this: It’s a key business opportunity that can generate revenue for those in the ad industry, all while keeping the health of our planet in check.

This story is part of Adweek’s The State of Sustainability digital package, which spotlights climate-focused marketing solutions across the beauty, experiential and media spaces, and examines how an industry that was built to drive consumption is adapting to reduce its impact.