It’s Time for Brands to Take Brand Safety Seriously

Opinion: No more platitudes. Stop advertising on hate-filled programs

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Headshot of Josh Sternberg

Over the weekend, a man walked into Rabbi Jeffrey Myers’ Pittsburgh synagogue, opened fire and killed 11 people who were worshiping on the Sabbath.

Leading a vigil on Sunday night, Rabbi Myers, speaking to all Americans, said, “It starts with speech. It has to start with you as our leaders. My words are not intended as political fodder. I address all equally. Stop the words of hate.”

He also would have been well within bounds had he asked for advertisers to stop giving money to media organizations that promulgate hatred. Advertisers spend money—lots of money, $628 billion in 2018—to deliver their message to the right audience. But what is that right audience? Is it an audience that comprises Nazis and nationalists and fear-mongers?

Marketers say they want “brand safety.” They crow about their ads running in front of questionable content on platforms like YouTube and Facebook. They make clarion calls at industry events about how platforms need to get their houses in order. However, these same marketers never seem to worry about sponsoring TV shows or websites that push lies and hatred, sexism and racism.

And while these TV shows alone do not cause a man to murder innocent people, they do play a role in how people develop a particular world view, according to a media effects theory called Cultivation Theory. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, George Gerbner, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, studied how media affects us and one of the things he found was that those who watch too much television are more likely to see the world as a mean place. He called it “Mean World Syndrome.”

When you watch the evening news, for example, you see the world as more violent than people who don’t watch as much news. Why? Because the news shows the worst of humanity. (And sports and weather.) Every night. We are, then, cultivated to view the world as scary, violent, unsafe, and a place to fear.

You can see where I’m going with this.

Advertisers make a choice, every day, on where to spend their money. And it’s always interesting to see where they draw the line, a line that seems to both be arbitrary and constantly moving. But what’s the line an advertiser draws?

This week, Land O’Lakes and Purina each made the right, if not bold decision to publicly say they are no longer financially supporting Iowa congressman Steve King. It took a massacre in a Jewish house of worship to shine a light on King’s racist views.

Johnson & Johnson and a whole slate of companies, for example, pulled ads from a Laura Ingraham show back in March after the talk show host mocked David Hogg, one of the Parkland survivors. But pulling ads for one show, hoping that the storm blows over, is not the same as not spending at all.

And boy, do advertisers spend at Fox News.

Its main weekday morning show, Fox & Friends, the one that You-Know-Who watches and live-tweets the same way angry sports fans take to the platform to yell about their favorite player who is mired in a slump, brought in $45 million in ad revenue last year, according to Kantar Media. In 2017, three prime-time shows, Hannity, Ingraham Angle, and Tucker Carlson Tonight, collectively raked in almost $178 million. 

Over the last couple of years, a cottage industry of advertising watchdogs has cropped up, blistering social media with campaigns of boycotts, getting the masses to tweet at and even call advertisers who spend money with some of the more abhorrent voices in media.

Advocacy group Sleeping Giants has led several successful campaigns, pushing advertisers to pull ads from Fox News star Sean Hannity.

Parkland survivors-turned-activists have taken to social media to apply pressure to brands who advertise with TV programs and websites that push a hateful agenda, like Ingraham.

Then there’s FoxNewsAdvertisers.com, which gives running updates of advertisers that spend money on Fox News.

Media watchdogs aside, what would it look like if advertisers decided that brand safety was a public safety concern and not a shareholder one?

Had the congregants of Tree of Life synagogue gotten to the Torah portion this fateful day, they would have read Genesis 18:1-22:24, a heavy passage that does a couple of things. But the big one, I think, introduces the notion of monotheism—of putting your faith into the hands of God. But it’s also a passage about choice.

Here, God tests Abraham. God tells him to take Isaac, his son with Sarah, bind him and sacrifice him. (Abraham has another son, Ishmael, with his maid Hagar. Both would be banished after Isaac was born, thus setting the stage for Islam, which stems from Ishmael. This happens in the same Torah portion, by the way. It’s a busy passage.) Abraham chooses to follow his God, not his son. Of course, God knows it’s a test and gets an angel to step in to stop the madness.

Perhaps it’s time for Americans to test corporate culture, to show advertisers that the choices they make to spend their branding dollars on news sites and networks that spew lies and hate are not only bad for their businesses, but bad for society.


@joshsternberg Josh Sternberg is the former media and tech editor at Adweek.
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