What do boycotting brands really want?
A view from Maisie McCabe

What do boycotting brands really want?

If advertisers are serious about forcing Google to clean up its act and take extremist content seriously, it is in their gift to do so.

How many times have you taken part in a boycott? I stopped shopping in Sports Direct a couple of years ago amid its working-conditions scandal. I guess that sort of counts.

I also remember being aware as a kid that we avoided Nestlé because of its practice of selling powdered baby milk to starving families in Africa – Bradford in the early 1990s was a political place.

I ask because the frequency with which brands partake in boycotts seems to be stepping up a gear. We had Lego and then The Body Shop stopping advertising in the Daily Mail. But that’s nothing when compared to the onslaught of companies deciding to move their display money out of Google amid the ongoing scandal over ads appearing next to unsavoury content.

With the addition of AT&T and Verizon, we now have proper American brands joining in. Obviously the situation was serious when confined to the UK, which is Google’s second-biggest market, but we still represent just a fifth of the US monies now at risk. With the Westminster attack last Wednesday, the pressure on digital platforms has only increased.

Should brands be praised for pausing display ads while continuing to funnel millions into search?

As DigitasLBi’s Chris Clarke said on a panel at Advertising Week Europe: "Terror survives on the oxygen of attention." But as he – and, indeed, Google EMEA president Matt Brittin – said, as serious as this is, the people posting the content aren’t getting as much cash as has been suggested.

If brands wanted to use their power to get Google to properly tackle its role in disseminating extremist content, search is where the damage could properly be done. You could ask whether they’re boycotting anything at all if they’re still using the service they value the highest. Should brands be praised for pausing display ads while continuing to funnel millions into search? Otherwise, it’s like seven-year-old me avoiding milk formula but stuffing my face with Rolos. As Bill Bernbach said, it’s not a principle until it costs you money.

Much of the focus has rightly been on what Google will do next. But, in one of my many conversations on the subject over the past couple of weeks, one executive questioned what the advertisers involved were going to do next.

It’s not hard to imagine that some of the brands or agency groups might choose to do things differently if they had another shot. After all, they’ve been caught up in a crusade by journalists working as part of a wider corporate agenda. And it’s not just newspapers. TV and outdoor media have been quick to try to benefit too.

You’ve got to hope – for their own sakes – that the brands that cut spend have an idea of what they’re looking for. Because if they end up advertising on YouTube before all of this is properly sorted out, any positive sentiment from taking money away is going to disappear quicker than a skippable ad.

Moreover, once this is resolved, the industry is going to have to move on to recovering the reputation of the digital advertising industry more broadly. And that existential crisis might rival what Google currently has on its plate.