GB News Dragged Brands Into the Culture Wars. Here's What Marketers Should Do Next

A reaction to the advertiser boycott of Britain's newest broadcaster

The launch of Britain’s latest news broadcaster GB News has certainly divided opinion. To some, it is a center-right TV startup that gives voice to the ignored. To others, it is a dangerous alt-right attack dog looking to further divide the nation.

To advertisers, which have faced very public calls from pressure groups to boycott it, it’s a new media channel that reportedly attracted higher audience numbers on its launch night than the more established BBC News and Sky News. 

With its figurehead, veteran newsman Andrew Neil, promising they “won’t forget what the ‘B’ stands for,” the channel, with its chest-thumping patriotic tones, has already spread doubt about the pandemic, undermined the Black Lives Matter movement and given some familiar and (to some) unpleasant faces undeserved airtime. It’s early days, sure, but I’m personally not a fan. 

Reactive, exclusionary behavior only serves to fuel extremism.

However, I also am a big sister, and I know exactly how it feels when the person you are tormenting falls neatly into the trap you have laid. That satisfying moment when they say and do exactly what you were expecting them to, teeing you up perfectly to land that killer blow.

Prepared for the backlash

After weeks of speculation in the lead-up to launch, GB News knew there would be calls to boycott them. They’ve seen the tireless work of Stop Funding Hate, Sleeping Giants, Check My Ads and other activists across the industry fighting to make the internet a better place. 

Andrew Neil and comedian and journalist Andrew Doyle were ready and waiting. Their regular segment Woke Watch was perfectly positioned with indignant cries for an end to censorship. It’s an impassioned segment spent chastising the “peddlers of hate” who seek to silence the powerless and dismantle the free press.

This is familiar rhetoric, but the emotional roots of their argument ring true: Censorship is dangerous, and the powerful silence the powerless. 

So, in a sense, I agree with both sides. I agree that this is extremely important, dangerous to get wrong and intrinsically tied to advertising spend. But the responses from advertisers so far have been varied. Some brands proactively planned ahead, ensuring their ads didn’t run on GB News—at least until they had a better sense of what kind of media channel it would be. 

With GB News ads bought programmatically through Sky Media, some slightly less organized brands are realizing their ads appeared on the platform without warning and are publicly giving their agencies a wrap on the knuckles. Pinterest issued a statement emphasizing that they “had no knowledge and would never have approved it,” while Kopparberg Brewery insists its ad “ran on this channel without our knowledge or consent.”

Einstein once said that madness is doing the same thing and expecting to get a different outcome—I wonder if he worked in ad tech? 

Swift brand reaction

Some brand reactions have been swift and bold.

Lego, Kopparberg and Grolsch Brewery have all come out in support of the proposed boycott, explicitly saying GB News is not aligned with their values. This is brave, and for some, bang on the money. If your brand is inherently political, socially active and liberal, you should not appear in places that you feel contradict your values, alienate your audience and undermine your purpose. 

Others, such as telecom Vodafone and skin care brand Nivea, have taken a more measured approach, politely pausing activity until they have a better sense of what the channel is all about. Right-of-center views are a valid and important part of a healthy democracy, and quality media that serves viewers outside the fetishized metropolitan, ABC1 demographic is long overdue.

Reactive, exclusionary behavior only serves to fuel extremism, so I respect what these brands have done. It’s important that GB News is given a fair (and very public) chance to not spread hate. 

Meanwhile, supermarket chain Co-Op, responding to people questioning why its ads appeared on the channel, defended itself by tweeting its approach to advertising, including, “We will ensure our values and principles are clear and undiminished regardless of surrounding content.”

For me, while Co-Op deserves respect for consulting its members and clarifying its position, this is an example of a response that misses the point. “Surrounding content” is important for two reasons. Firstly, no matter how strong, purposeful and values-driven your message is, where you choose to deliver that message matters and has the power to completely undermine what you’re saying. Creative is what a brand says and media is what a brand does, so the two must be in harmony. 

Secondly, advertising is never divorced from the surrounding content because it’s funding that content. At the heart of our industry is a precious value exchange where consumers let us sell them stuff, and in exchange, we contribute to society. Our ads pay for bus shelters to keep their heads dry, and our ads pay for amazing journalists to create important journalism. This means advertisers have a duty to ensure their $400 billion spend is positively contributing to the society we all operate within. 

Media is the final frontier of brand purpose. When it comes to deciding if you are Team GB, brands must not shirk responsibility. Inaction is irresponsible.

But let’s also avoid snap reactions, put down our broomsticks and leave the canceling to our woefully underutilized Audible subscriptions. Ad dollars are powerful. Let’s put that power to work in shaping GB News into a much-needed channel that diversifies advertiser reach and empowers the powerless in a positive and inclusive way.