Why ethical dilemmas are putting brands and their media buying in the spotlight


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Browse recent interviews with some of the most influential marketers and you’ll see delicately worded commitments to making socially responsible investments in media.

Indeed, for many years — with a few notable exceptions — marketers paid lip service to doing their bit. But over the past year, this has changed. Marketers are increasingly aware that what they buy has an impact on society.

Explanations for this epiphany range from the cynical (good PR) to the altruistic (good for society). The reality is probably somewhere in between. Regardless, one thing is for certain: marketers better get used to making tough choices on who they do and don’t decide to buy ads from. It’s a concern that was brought into sharp focus around yesterday’s U.S. presidential inauguration.

“Clients are taking a mixed approach to the inauguration,” said Ben Hovaness, managing direct for marketplace intelligence and innovation at Omnicom Media Group. “Some clients tend to be more conservative and cautious and so will go dark for these periods whereas others are more willing to keep their media running.”

Many of those spending decisions were based not only on how well social networks could keep ads away from problematic content, but also on whether they gave marketers a clearer line of sight on what content was suitable and ethical. Part of this process looks at the prevalence of violating content on social networks, which is distinct from the number of takedown requests from users.

“Put another way, it’s like looking at the quantity of arrests that police make and the crime rate,” said Hovaness. “The two don’t necessarily correlate and if you’re picking an area to live then you’re going to be more concerned about how much crime is happening there than the number of arrests police make. It’s how we help clients think through ethical consequences of media responsibility.”

American consumers are divided politically and ideologically more than ever before. While these values have always split American society, it’s only recently that embracing those of the other side is likely to cause lasting damage. This divide extends to the media channels people follow, from the opinion news channels they watch to the online groups they’re part of. And it’s made the challenge of trying to market products and services to people all the harder.

“Clients are realizing the content that they’re funding matters as it can have an adverse impact on society that hurts customers, which subsequently hurts business,” said Joshua Lowcock, global brand safety officer at Universal McCann.

Cynics will say they’ve heard it all before, but marketers have amnesia and can’t afford not to take this issue seriously. Otherwise, they risk funding social media networks and publishers that perpetuate destructive ideas. These ideas paved the way for the insurrection riot at America’s Capitol earlier this month that was at least partly born on social media.

Since then many of the largest corporate donors in America have paused political spending. Being a marketer is tough at the best of times so when things get bad it’s no wonder why so many struggle to know which way is up. However, it is not like no one saw this coming.

There have been numerous incidents over the year where marketers have had to pull ads from problematic content, from Capital One and several other companies pulling ads from Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News in 2019 through to last year’s temporary advertiser boycott of Facebook. Both moves were in part influenced by activist groups that argued media dollars were being used to fund hate speech. With activist groups taking to social media to pressure advertisers swiftly, this will become the norm rather than an exception.

Even shareholders are speaking up. Shareholders at Omnicom and Home Depot have urged both businesses to review whether or not their ad buys help spread and fund hate speech and disinformation. The concerns were backed by advocacy group OpenMIC, an NGO focused on developing greater corporate accountability at media and technology companies.

News like this tends to send marketers in a tizzy. They have long-lived in angst of the screenshot. The screenshot of their ads next to racist comments, fake news, disinformation or any other risqué content the internet provides in abundance. Call it guilt-by-association.

“The days of having a purpose workshop are long gone because people will walk away from certain brands that aren’t credible,” said Yelena Gaufman, strategy partner at advertising agency Fold7. “There’s an opportunity for marketers to help create the change they want to see rather than just talk about it.”


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What should brands do to navigate such a potential minefield?

One option is to use the differences in ideology, political orientation and values as segmentation variables and see how they align with the core segments that the firm is targeting.

“In coming up with the Kaepernick ad, Nike knew that the issue resonated with its core consumer segments — younger, more urban, and more progressive,” said P.K. Kannan, the Dean’s chair in marketing science in the online MBA program at the University of Maryland. “While there was a backlash from conservative media and groups, it did not affect Nike as a brand much and sales remained steady or even increased.”

For many other marketers this strategy won’t be an option. Some companies just want to sell products and services. They want customers to focus on the brand’s unique selling proposition and the functional and hedonic utilities they provide. When politics and ideology get mixed into a pitch, it becomes difficult for companies. Those advertisers will stay as mainstream as possible in the message and the media they buy and avoid extreme opinion news outlets in the hope that doing so makes their pitch  more salient in consumers’ minds than other issues.

“For example, an element of the Coke brand has been ‘unity’, said Kim Whitler, associate professor from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. “It would fit their brand if they were able to create a message about how Americans have always found ways to overcome their differences — and we will again. But notice that I didn’t say that they would pick a side. That would be completely inconsistent with their brand positioning.”

Why ethical dilemmas are putting brands and their media buying in the spotlight