Why Advertisers Were Right to Boycott New British Channel GB News

Nike, Kopperberg, Nivea and Grolsch were all caught up in the pushback from advertising

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Top brands are right to pull their ads from GB News, Britain’s controversial new “anti-woke” current affairs TV channel which launched this month.

Unfortunately, a number of high-profile brands including Ikea, Grolsch beer, Nivea and cider maker Kopparberg only made this decision after receiving complaints across social media from vocal customers objecting to their apparent support for the channel.

The GB News stance

You don’t have to watch GB News for long to judge that it doesn’t reflect the values of openness and inclusion that so many leading brands espouse. The channel has taken a “war on woke” stance against even athletes taking the knee before matches as a gesture of anti-racism. And after just a few days on the air, the U.K.’s media regulator Ofcom has been flooded with complaints about a segment on the channel that railed against Covid-19 lockdowns.

GB News has been compared to Fox News in the U.S. and is accused of promoting conspiracy theories, lockdown skepticism and undermining inclusivity and the fight against racism as part of the U.K.’s growing culture war. Understandably, many brands do not wish to be associated with such potentially toxic content, as it contradicts the commitment to inclusivity they have made over the past year, particularly following the Black Lives Matter movement last year.

But there is a worrying aspect to how these brands came to pull their ads from the channel. A number of them admitted they weren’t even aware their ads would appear on GB News. That is a failure of their media agencies. Slots for ads on GB News are sold as part of a bundle by sales house Sky, alongside other desirable channels such as Sky Sports and Sky Atlantic, home of HBO dramas such as Game of Thrones.

Industry observers have known for months that when it launched, GB News would be a controversial channel, and agencies have had many weeks to opt out of GB News on behalf of their clients. So why didn’t they? Either the terms of their upfront deals—securing cheaper prices in exchange for a commitment to spend—didn’t permit that level of flexibility, or they weren’t paying enough attention to the media plan.

Advertiser responsibility

Advertisers have a responsibility to be aware of where their ad dollars are going, and it is incumbent upon agencies to ensure their clients’ ads only appear in appropriate spaces.

All of us in the media industry must take great care with media placements not least to ensure we aren’t funding hate, fake news, or helping the organized crime syndicates behind much of the world’s ad fraud. We’ve been through this before—in 2017 global advertisers, including Unilever, boycotted YouTube after their ads appeared next to some highly disagreeable online content. That boycott, supported by many global advertisers and agencies, forced Google to tighten up its processes and increase investment in content monitoring to create a more brand safe environment.

In this modern, algorithmically-driven world of automated media placement, brands are abdicating responsibility if they do not take care with the context in which their ads are seen. They should demand that their media agencies keep them informed about the channels and context in which their ads are going to appear.

This is not just a moral and ethical question. It is vital for advertising effectiveness.

We know from research over decades of media planning that the environment where an ad is seen has a massive impact on recall and response. Advertising that appears alongside people’s “appointment to view,” big budget dramas is more likely to be remembered than that which appears against programs people are less “committed” to. Display ads that appear on webpages with high-quality journalism and lower ad loads have higher impact on brand metrics because attention is greater.

More media-buying scrutiny

Regardless of political persuasion and purpose agendas, advertisers should demand that their agencies plan media into environments where there are high-quality experiences, and the advertising impact is greater. That means seeking out spaces that aren’t full of fake news, that aren’t stirring up highly charged political controversy, and knowing where your ads will be seen.

In the U.K., we have an organization called the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN), which offers guidance to media and advertising agencies about how to behave as good corporate citizens. As the use of data and ad tech grows and the media landscape changes, it is vital to ensure we do not let ethical issues fall by the wayside in this new advertising ecosystem. CAN helps train agency staff on six major principles—diversity, informed consent, opposing hate speech, promoting children’s well-being, opposing ad fraud and avoiding funding channels that feature fake news and misleading content.

Member agencies that sign up to CAN have a responsibility to talk to clients about making the right kinds of investment choices and not just closing their eyes and signing off the media plan without asking any questions. We all must be conscious about where the media money is going.

When it comes to GB News, its content goes beyond simply reflecting a different opinion. At Yonder, we buy media all the time in newspapers and media outlets that don’t reflect our own personal political leanings. We can live with opinions we might disagree with. But misinformation is where we draw the line.

We all suspected GB News might fall foul of this and the opening weekend looks like they have, with one guest claiming (unchallenged) that lockdowns “should be wiped from the public health playbook.”

That is about as responsible as telling people that it is fine to drive a car after drinking a bottle of whisky, and that is why we won’t be recommending GB News to our clients. We have seen enough already, and for us this is very much a conscious decision.