Can ethical reflection enhance AI-led creativity?

As creativity starts experimenting with AI, Dentsu's head of human rights calls for an exploration of the tension between tech and humanity

By Daisy Johnson

The advertising industry is under the spotlight. Platforms are facing legal cases against ad tracking, profiling, and targeting, legislation is being introduced globally in response to greenwashing claims, and stakeholders are calling out the industry’s role in the proliferation and monetisation of online disinformation and hate speech. 

Agencies are also at a critical juncture at the intersection of technology and innovation, navigating and harnessing the constantly evolving frontier of Generative AI and the potential impacts on the industry.  

In an era marked by heightened awareness of sustainability risks and impacts, stakeholders are placing growing expectations on the sector to leverage its influence to deliver purpose-driven marketing and drive positive transformation.  

Commitment to ethical leadership

As these developments collide, there is a compelling need for commitment to ethical leadership and a nuanced understanding of human rights. The sector must approach this frontier with a commitment to transparency, authenticity, originality and fairness to maintain the trust they hold with their audience.  

After over a decade of personally working with major brands on embedding human rights into core business strategy, I have seen a paradigm shift towards increased awareness and commitment to due diligence. This is perhaps largely driven by the introduction of legislative requirements across the world.  

While diversity, equity and inclusion and employee and supplier labour rights have traditionally been the focus, the rapid pace of digital innovation and adoption has also necessitated specific attention on ‘digital rights’, encompassing issues such as privacy, freedom of expression, and access to information. 

In my role as Head of Human Rights at dentsu, I’m therefore responsible for identifying our salient impacts across the business and collaborating with peers to integrate an ethical, human rights lens into everything we do. 

Ethics vs creativity?

But can the potential tension between ethics and creativity derail commitments in this area?

Stringent ethical guidelines and compliance constraints may create a risk-averse culture that discourages employees from exploring unconventional or boundary-pushing ideas. The fear of inadvertently violating guidelines can lead to conservatism, inhibiting the free flow of creative thinking and experimentation.

This feels incongruent with the vast opportunities available at the Gen AI frontier for example, where advertisers are exploring how to harness the increasing power of machine learning algorithms and predictive analytics to anticipate consumer needs and deliver tailored content.

While it is acknowledged that a balance must be struck between ethics and creativity, they shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. Instead, the industry should explore how meaningful ethical reflection can in fact, enhance creativity.

Ethics as a guiding force for creativity – the case for Sanpo Yoshi

Working at a Japanese company with an incredible 120-year heritage of craft, innovation, and technology, Dentsu has acquired a unique perspective on approaching challenges – one steeped in philosophy. A principle we’ve come to embrace at Dentsu is sanpo yoshi – the concept of achieving three-way good by pursuing actions that benefit not only business but also people and society.

Heightened awareness of ethical concerns can encourage individuals to explore alternative perspectives, question assumptions, and consider the impact on diverse stakeholders, resulting in more thoughtful, nuanced, and enduring creative outputs. Engaging in ethical discussions with diverse perspectives can also open up new collaborative avenues for creative exploration. A commitment to ethical principles can inspire solutions that not only push the boundaries of creativity but also contribute positively to society.

Whilst there are concerns over the disruptive nature of Gen AI in the industry, particularly around the role of the creative, the ability to reflect on ethical considerations and rapidly respond and leverage social and cultural movements is something still uniquely human.

Ethical reflection will enable creative solutions to the challenges the industry faces, such as transparency and accountability, improved informed consumer consent and the removal of unconscious bias.

Time for action

As the spotlight intensifies and the pace of digital transformation continues to escalate, the advertising sector has no option but to meaningfully integrate ethical considerations into their business.  

Recent discussions at the Dentsu Creative event Plug and Play highlighted the challenges brought by AI to the creative industries. Recognising the need for safeguards and governance procedures, concerns over inherent bias, intellectual property theft, and data privacy underscore the importance of ethical considerations. Unlike previous tech developments, the industry is now engaging in the right conversations at the right time.

Promoting ethical reflection as a catalyst for creative thinking rather than a barrier will unlock innovation and support the industry in leveraging its influence to deliver purpose-driven marketing that drives positive societal transformation.  

Daisy Johnson is the Head of Human Rights at Dentsu


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