Brace for Impact: Politicized Environment Threatens Brands, Ad Serving

Once upon a time, brands were saluted for declining to associate with extremist views. In a political climate where populism is on the rise around the globe, extreme views have become more mainstream, increasing the risks for companies trying to shelter brands from scandal by association. Amid growing concerns about negative programmatic ad placements, and consumers’ desire for brands to align with their own activism, ad agency clients have a sudden need for brand strategy and crisis communications planning.

Brand Values and Ad Serving

BreitbartNews, a major player in the election of President Trump, called foul on Kellogg when the company announced they would pull their ads from the hard-right website in November 2016.

“We regularly work with our media-buying partners to ensure our ads do not appear on sites that aren’t aligned with our values as a company,” Kris Charles, a spokeswoman for Kellogg, told Bloomberg. Charles further cited encouragement of offensive behavior to others, and content “not consistent with our product or corporate image.” Breitbart, a source of racist, sexist and anti-Semitic views, has been strongly associated with the Neo-Nazi white nationalist movement. It has also been identified as a distribution channel for “fake news.”

Breitbart called Kellogg’s revised ad strategy “un-American,” and launched a call to boycott Kellogg’s brands with the Twitter hashtag, #DumpKelloggs. They further claimed the move was “economic censorship of mainstream conservative political discourse.”

There is a big difference between censorship, and a brand declining to associate its valuable assets with distasteful content. But Breitbart knows that just by making the claim, many of their audience will pick up the cry. And that is just one of several concerns for big brands in what Edelman’s David Armano calls the “activist economy.”

The uproar over fake news and undesirable ad associations is compelling brands to take a careful look at where their ads are being served online. Other brands affirmed pulling their ads from BreitbartNews, including Allstate, Warby Parker, Nest, Earthlink, Novo Nordisk, SoFi, and the San Diego Zoo. Possibly of greater concern for Breitbart, AppNexus, one of the internet’s biggest ad networks, blocked the site and has been joined by TubeMogul and RocketFuel.

This problem is not solely in the US; French advertising giant Havas pulled all UK ad spending from Google and YouTube because the companies were “unable to provide specific reassurances, policy and guarantees that their video or display content is classified either quickly enough or with the correct filters,” a spokesperson told The Guardian… which just pulled their own advertising from the two online ad servers. Here in the U.S., AT&T, Verizon, Johnson & Johnson, and GlaxoSmithKline have all elected to pull YouTube advertising.

Shuttlecock Brands?

Perceptions of what constitutes “distasteful” content are now as polarized as our political beliefs, and brands are being sucked into the emotional maelstrom even as they attempt to step clear of political debate. Brands simply cannot avoid enraging some large group in this environment. For every brand action, expect an unequal, negative response by consumers and their preferred media sources. That applies to left- and right-leaning media and their readers. As an example of the backlash-to-the-backlash effect, #DumpKelloggs drew many Twitter users who vowed support for Kellogg products.

Today, a media placement decision based on brand values and financial considerations is all too easily re-interpreted as “taking sides.” Social media then amplifies the perception, and the backlash. Can brands survive becoming shuttlecocks in an Olympic-level badminton beat-down? Political satirist Will Rogers used to say, “I don’t care how they speak of me as long as they speak of me.” But trending on Twitter or Facebook for the wrong reasons may inflict damage that can’t be assessed except through longer-term analysis. A better strategy is to focus on trending for good reasons.

Programmatic’s Lack of Filters

In sync with concerns about programmatic’s negative associations is the lack of transparency in ad inventory. Many brands place ads remotely using third-party, programmatic ad buying technology, but only about one-half of marketers use available filtering tools to selectively target and/or blacklist websites, reported eMarketer. There is also the issue that many advertisers expect programmatic ad buying to deliver scale (impressions) for the lowest possible cost—and aren’t choosy about how that happens. Low cost and scale are unattainable, say the ad-serving platforms, who try to deliver it anyway. A growing number of click-farm businesses, created solely to serve impressions and deliver fraudulent clicks, are the result.

More than mere laziness is at issue for marketers. Many third-party programmatic systems simply do not have a way to filter fake news and misinformation. Google and Facebook both say they are developing tools to help with this, but in the meantime, marketers and ad agencies must monitor more closely where ads appear, and whether the cost of bad associations is worth the low cost of running ads on some websites. Fake news and internet hate speech compels big brands to examine where their ads are served, and make tough decisions.

Brands’ fears about the misalignment of brand values and the websites where their programmatic ads display can be allayed, says Eric Ranchi of AdAge, by agencies and their clients taking more responsibility for their digital media buys. Blacklisting the worst sites is a losing proposition, since new unappealing sites can potentially pop up almost daily and be included by programmatic algorithms. Instead, agencies will need to build white lists of sites they approve; demand better transparency for where their ads are served; and require signed agreements from publishing and platform partners that they will adhere to white lists.

Ethics and Control

Beyond politics, protecting brands from bad associations also raises questions of advertising ethics: should our ad dollars support media that eschews ethical journalism in favor of hate speech, misinformation and outright lies? What responsibility do advertisers bear in supporting such websites? And can programmatic ad servers satisfy ad buyers’ desire for improved transparency in where ads are placed, and greater control in making those decisions?

Brands should also being counseled to prepare to respond to negative attention from the White House. Early in the new administration, the President’s wee-hours tweets directly impacted on stock market behavior around Boeing, Vanity Fair, H&R Block, TicTacs, Ford, L.L. Bean and Toyota. How a brand responds—and how quickly—could determine how well the brand is perceived and how quickly it moves beyond short-term negative attention. As critical is the tone and reflection of brand values, as in Dippin’ Dots’ response to a social media issue involving past critic, Presidential Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

The political shakeup in D.C. is going to spill over into all levels of daily life in the U.S., but especially into business and marketing. Volatility is the new normal. Do your best to help your clients prepare for it through brand strategy and crisis planning.


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