hidden effects of digital advertising

  • A typical digital-advertising campaign for a single brand can produce hundreds of tons of carbon dioxide.
  • Brands like Heineken, Nestle and Toyota are figuring out how to reduce those emissions.
  • This article is part of the “Making Net Zero Possible” series, which highlights forward-thinking solutions that can make a net-zero future a reality.

Many of the world’s biggest brands want you to feel good about their promises to reach net-zero emissions. But the digital ads bragging about these promises come with their own cost to the planet.

Of the $500 billion that marketers spend on advertising each year, nearly three-quarters of this year’s total is going to digital advertising. And with digital, or programmatic advertising, powering everything from connected-TV platforms, retail media and outdoor advertising, the industry’s carbon emissions are only likely to increase in 2022 and beyond.

According to a recent estimate from Fifty-Five, a marketing agency, a typical digital-advertising campaign—which includes the shooting, editing, presentation, and measurement of video, social, display and search ads—produces for a single advertiser. 323 tons of carbon dioxideOr the equivalent of 160 round-trip flights between Paris and New York.

In the milliseconds it takes for an ad to load on a webpage, dozens of companies from advertising agencies, data-management platforms, ad exchanges, ad servers and brand-protection vendors participate in a competitive-bidding process to win an auction. Advertises to a specific type of consumer.

Graphic showing the carbon impact of the digital advertising industry


Alyssa Powell / Insider


In the process, thousands of servers are activated, each requiring electricity to power the advertising call. “It’s the hidden costs of advertising that need to be unveiled,” said Ruben Schreurs, chief product officer at marketing-and-media consultancy Ebiquity.

A handful of big brand advertisers—including Nestle, Himachal Pradesh, Toyota, Heineken and British supermarket chain Tesco – are investigating how they can reduce their digital-advertising footprint. But experts say the complex nature of the online-ad ecosystem and its many energy-busting middlemen have made the task difficult.

Other marketers are hesitant to add another audit to their growing list of responsibilities—especially one that is unlikely to translate into immediate sales growth when high inflation may prompt some consumers to pull back on spending.

Carbon calculators and vendors to help track, reduce and offset emissions from digital ads

Last year, Nestle began tracking emissions associated with its digital ads in Europe. In France, Nescafé worked with Impact+, an edtech company, to halve the energy produced by an online video-ad campaign.

Nescafe France also used a tool from Publicis Groupe, another advertising agency, to calculate the cost of offsetting the carbon emissions of a campaign for KitKat candy in the UK. It came in only a small fraction of the £460, or $547 – £1.6 million, or $1.9 million, campaign.

Nescafe packaging on a supermarket shelf

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Nestle has begun measuring the carbon impact of its digital ads across a handful of its brands in Europe.

Universal Images Group Editorial / Getty Images


Tina Beucher, global head of media and partnerships at Nestlé, told Insider that these initial tests are encouraging signs that green digital-ad buying efforts can boost sales and other business metrics.

“It’s not a cost driver per se,” she said. The fact that companies don’t have to choose between green ad-buying and reducing costs is a benefit, Beechler said.

Tesco is applying its strategy The company’s media plans to cut plastic waste. Last year, the supermarket chain began using carbon calculators from its media agency, Mediacom, to measure emissions in Tesco’s marketing channels, and turned to vendors like Mobusta to reduce wasted ad impressions.

Toyota is working with a media agency The&Partnership and Swedish tech company Syndis reduce load time Minimizes the data usage of your digital ads and thus your campaigns. Both Himachal Pradesh And Heineken is also in the early stages of determining the environmental impact of its digital spending.

Who should reduce the emissions of the digital-advertising industry?

Some experts believe that the marketing industry has a long way to go in measuring and reducing its carbon footprint.

Mikko Kotila, CTO at Kawaii – an edtech firm – and author of the research paper “Environmental Impact Assessment of Online Advertising“Advertising companies focus on reducing their direct emissions, yet the largest source of emissions is the consumer after purchasing an advertised product.

Scope3, a startup that measures the carbon footprint of digital ads, said the trade desk, an edtech giant, eliminated about 5,400 tons of carbon a year by shutting down Google’s open bidding ad-auction platform. Scope3 calculated that if each advertising company stopped buying ads using open bidding, it would save 100,000 metric tons of carbon annually – the same as removing 20,000 cars from the road. Google did not respond to insider requests for comment.

“I’m not optimistic. But at the same time, we have some very active stuff,” Kotila said. He pointed to The Trade Desk’s exit from Google’s open bidding tool, saying the move has reduced inefficiencies in the bidding process for advertisers — even if sustainability wasn’t its original goal.

Other industry experts say marketers should eventually take responsibility for cleaning up the digital-advertising industry’s emissions.

Yet there aren’t many global standards and standards for marketers to follow, and others are unwilling to go public with numbers of their own first.

Another key challenge for marketers is proving the return on investment of their sustainability efforts to the rest of the C-suite.

“We have to be very serious about putting the responsibility where it is, which is on the vendors,” Kotila said.