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The CMO's Guide to Ad Boycotts

By Published on .

Marketers can't stay totally out of the crossfire over politically charged or potentially offensive content. Should they even try?
Marketers can't stay totally out of the crossfire over politically charged or potentially offensive content. Should they even try?  Credit: TVs: iStock; Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly: Fox News via YouTube; Paula Deen: Food Network via YouTube; Julius Caesar: Public Theater/Shakespeare in the Park

"Bachelor in Paradise" will resume its drunken hookups on ABC despite allegations of sexual misconduct on the set. Bill O'Reilly will experiment with taking his news commentary online after getting fired from Fox News.

In other words, the countdown is on for the next potential ad boycott.

A politically turbocharged environment that just won't quit is making media a minefield for advertisers, which have bailed this year on YouTube, "The O'Reilly Factor," political news sites, an episode of "Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly" and a Shakespeare play. There's a heightened sense of caution among marketers for anything morally, ethically or politically controversial. No one wants to be the next Pepsi.

Promising to protect marketers is the selling tactic of the day. "After yesterday's meetings," said one marketing executive during last week's Cannes ad festival, "I've decided 'brand safety' is the new 'gluten free.'"

But it's also basically impossible, because almost everything outside "terrorist videos" is a judgment call, with outraged advocates on both sides. After USAA pulled out of "Hannity" last month, furious customers pushed it back in. "There is no safe choice," said Elizabeth Paul, senior VP-deputy head of strategy, MullenLowe.

How did this happen?
Activists have long tried to use advertisers as pawns against certain programs and personalities, sometimes with success, usually of the grinding variety. Advertiser backlash eventually helped force Glenn Beck off Fox News in 2011. Food Network parted ways with Paula Deen more quickly in 2013 when advertisers backed away from her racial slurs.

What's changed most is the sustained political agitation on all sides. Now any taint of politics puts your crisis communications staff on alert.

Most recently, JPMorgan Chase and some local advertisers dropped out of an episode of Megyn Kelly's NBC newsmagazine over an interview with Infowars founder Alex Jones, who claims the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax. In the same week, Delta Air Lines and Bank of America canceled their support for a staging of "Julius Caesar" by New York's Public Theater because the title character, who is murdered, resembled President Trump.

Tech changed things too, starting of course with social media. When activists rampaged across Twitter and Facebook over sexual harassment allegations against O'Reilly, his show lost more than 60 marketers in less than a month.

Ad tech has also forced marketers into a reactive position. After handing control of some of their digital ads to automated systems, many advertisers don't know everywhere their brands appear. That's what happened to many marketers whose ads ran on Breitbart News (until complaints prompted some to blacklist the site). JPMorgan Chase revamped its whole ad-tech strategy after its ads landed on a site called Hillary 4 Prison. And marketers pulled out of YouTube when reporters found ads served near hate speech and extremist content. So what's a marketer to do?

Pray for an easy call
Sometimes things are simple. If you've wound up somewhere that doesn't align with your brand values, get out. Figure out what happened and explain. "These controversies can have long-term brand implications," said Brayden King, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. While consumers don't necessarily care if a company is "good," they do care when a company is "bad," King said. Unfortunately, easy cases are the exception.

Don't play it too safe
Becoming a content cop is a slippery slope. And there's a case for marketers that just want to reach their most likely consumers. Does it matter if your ads follow your ideal consumer to a political website? Obviously, your target isn't upset to see you there.

What's more, safe content doesn't always help you get noticed. "The temptation is to make things that are unobjectionable and put them in places that are unobjectionable because no one wants to be the next negative or story," MullenLowe's Paul said. "But unobjectionable is invisible, and when brands are fighting for attention, safe is risky."

Know your customers
Removing ads is arguably a more explicit stand than staying put. Make sure you know who you're trying to please.

USAA, the insurance and finance company, reversed its decision to exit Fox News' "Hannity" after it got backlash from its core customer base of military families and veterans. Like several other marketers, it had pulled its ads during an outcry over Sean Hannity's coverage of a conspiracy theory around the death of a Democratic National Committee staffer.

USAA said the decision to pull out was in line with its policy of avoiding opinion-based news programs, an effort to avoid seeming to pick sides, and that it hadn't known it was in such shows. But it decided to reinstate all its previously removed ads "on programs representing a variety of perspectives," a spokesman said, and is reviewing its policy. "Today, the lines between news and editorial are increasingly blurred," the spokesman noted.

Watch your brand, not sales
While consumers may say they're going to stop buying your products if you keep advertising in this show or that, King said there's little evidence that they actually follow through. Many weren't buying the given brand in the first place, for reasons that have nothing to do with politics or brand safety.

An ad boycott is more about your long-term brand reputation, according to King. "Consumers are habitual," he said. These incidents likely have greater impact on sentiment from employees, government officials, suppliers and shareholders than consumers.

Have a protocol
Long before any of this happens, even brands that want no political voice need to define their internal values, boundaries and the types of content they will categorically avoid. Once calls for an ad boycott begin, the frantic news cycle pushes marketers to respond quickly, but brand managers should take care not to overreact.

Measure the extent of the outrage and intensity of the backlash, Paul said. Sometimes the fervor is really just a few loud voices and not truly reflective of a brand's core consumer base.

"Reactions often beget more reactions," she said. It's "important to pause and take a breath."

Contributing: Jack Neff

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