How Questionable Media and Political Affiliations Can Shape a Brand’s Response in the Face of a Crisis

Boeing and advertisers on YouTube and Tucker Carlson Tonight have all recently dealt with this

the engine of a boeing 737
Boeing made the decision to pull its jets in the U.S. largely after the president tweeted about safety concerns. Getty Images
Headshot of Adam Pierno

For the first quarter of 2019, happenings at YouTube and Fox News have had us focused on brand safety. Instances of negative attention to each channel caused brands to question their spend and presence in these spaces.

Suddenly, 157 died in a plane crash, quickly shifting the focus to actual safety. The flight that went down was a Boeing jet in Ethiopia. Several nations grounded all jets of its class after connecting this crash to another just five months earlier. Boeing’s stock dropped 50 points overnight, losing more than 15 percent of its value.

How did Boeing handle it? Their official statement said, “Boeing has determined—out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft’s safety—to recommend to the FAA the temporary suspension of operations of the entire global fleet of 371 737 MAX aircraft.” They worked with the U.S. government to ground the entire fleet of jets in question.

Everything relating to politics has become increasingly polarizing, challenging even neutral observers to take a side.

Compare this to how brands have been handling or avoiding less harmful brand safety issues. With unsettling and controversial videos popping up on YouTube and outspoken hosts offending viewers, brands have been put in the spotlight for staying or going. Some immediately pulled their ads off of YouTube after new concerns about child exploitation and at least one suicide instruction snuck into kids videos. Nestle, McDonald’s and Epic Games immediately paused their ads.

Presumably, they stopped advertising on YouTube because they don’t want their ad to be seen immediately before or after offensive content. It is about avoiding damage to themselves and avoiding offense to their customers.

When some old comments from a Tucker Carlson appearance on a morning radio show raised concerns about race and sexism, brands also paused their ads for similar reasons, but not the same. In the case of Tucker Carlson, CareerBuilder and SmileDirectClub are concerned with an overall affiliation with his point of view. While it would be worse to have an ad pop up immediately after a controversial statement, it might be just as harmful to show prolonged support for a figure who is so often the subject of controversy.

But what about the advertisers who have stayed? For every Red Lobster that leaves Tucker Carlson’s show, there is an Outback that continues to support. Business Insider reported that 33 advertisers have cut ties, but the show goes on and seems to have plenty of ad support. Those loyal advertisers are subject to the comments of Tucker Carlson and his opponents in the media who are calling attention to anything that might be slightly offensive. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Which brings us back to Boeing. In addition to the 737 Max, Boeing also designs and manufactures the jets that serve as Air Force One. This is a multi-billion-dollar government contract. The Air Force One relationship and other government deals lead to millions in fees and donations paid by Boeing to the U.S. government, candidates and political causes, which makes Boeing’s handling of the recent crash more complex.

While they did release a statement saying they opted to ground the fleet of 737 Max jets in the name of safety, this came a day after their chief customer called their technology unstable. In a tweet, President Donald Trump suggested that airlines had taken the technology behind jets one step too far, suggesting the newest planes to be unsafe.

At this point, the brand had to react. Boeing had to find a way to take the conversation back from the president and appear to have its travelers in mind. And because of their relationship with the White House, the brand had to coordinate with the president and act in unison with the FAA.

Everything relating to politics has become increasingly polarizing, challenging even neutral observers to take a side. Even perhaps unintentionally, the president made the plane crash in Ethiopia a U.S. political issue. Why haven’t the Boeing jets all been grounded? Like everything the president tweets, pundits pile on, drawing more and more attention to the issue—and in this instance, to the brand crisis—until they act.

This is the crux of the Fox News issue as well. Tucker Carlson, like Bill O’Reilly before him, occasionally says things that inflame his critics. Most advertisers can tolerate that because the people who would be offended are most likely not even watching. Why would they be? What advertisers struggle with are the campaigns by third-party organizations that bring attention to the comments and put their sponsorship in the spotlight. By supporting Tucker Carlson, a brand might be accused of supporting racism.

YouTube is known as a place where questionable content slips through the cracks. There are user channels full of conspiracy theories and offensive content. Brands on YouTube might not be associated with those. They pause the spending only when negative content hits the news.

Luckily, thanks to President Trump, the news cycle is faster and wilder than ever. Give it a few days, and McDonald’s will be back on YouTube. Red Lobster will be back on Fox. And Boeing will be back in the sky.

@apierno Adam Pierno is avp marketing strategy at Arizona State University's Enterprise Marketing Hub.