How advertisers and agencies should navigate the hate
A view from Lawrence Dodds

How advertisers and agencies should navigate the hate

Advertisers are increasingly more open to conversations linked to media responsibility.

The claims of inappropriateness perpetrated by the British media establishment in Harry and Meghan’s exclusive Oprah interview, and the ensuing fallout which saw Piers Morgan part company with GMB after casting doubts on Meghan’s account, once again left a lot of us wondering how we got here. 

One question many of us are now asking ourselves is: what role should advertisers play in a world in which content is often produced to polarise, shock or show a “single world” view, simply to drive clicks that in turn drive revenue from advertisers? 

With increased data and information available on consumer behaviour, media owners have turned content optimisation into a science in its own right, with journalists testing multiple headlines of each story to see which one drove the most clicks.

This is only set to get worse with the adoption of AI-driven content optimisation. We saw back in 2016 that when exposed to humankind on Twitter, it only took Microsoft’s chatbot 24 hours to adopt racist and misogynistic tones in its remarks. While we are not there yet with this type of optimisation, the point is clear: this is a slippery slope that we are already halfway down.

Should advertisers take a greater role here? It is clear that there are few others willing to drive action, and groups in place such as the Society of Editors are unable to agree if there is even a problem to address. Those in positions of power have a symbiotic relationship with media owners that could potentially restrict conversation around any type of regulation. Can you even regulate bad taste?

Consumers are increasingly voicing their belief that there is a role for brands to play in both reflecting their world views, and working to improve society in general. According to Foresight Factory, 52% of consumers approve of companies or brands addressing current social issues in their advertising. Advertisers are aware of this, but there has been little true action taken, with advertisers trying to tread a careful path in the middle of strong opposing views. However, we know from various case studies that taking a stand does not have to mean sacrificing the bottom line.

There is a clear vacuum here. Over the past few years, we have seen the emergence of groups aimed at reform and seeking to do so through the role that advertisers play in funding content. Stop Funding Hate is one such example; an organisation focused on persuading advertisers to pull support for publications that they deem to spread hate and division.

There is also the Global Alliance for Responsible Media; a coalition of brands aimed at targeting misinformation and hate speech on social media.

A few years ago, it was surprising that ethics didn’t come up more often in conversations with clients. It was often left to individual budget owners and agency planners to make a decision on what types of opportunities were right.

Often the decision was made from a brand safety point of view without taking into consideration the macro elements of each placement and how each choice might enact change. A raft of ad tech partners have sprung up to cater for brand safety specifically as a safety net for advertisers as they advertise on programmatic exchanges.

Fast-forward to 2021, and you can see the seismic shift currently under way, as advertisers are increasingly more open to conversations linked to media responsibility. Last year, we saw a number of advertisers take action against Facebook and launch a boycott that ultimately helped to convince the social media giant to make positive changes. 

The question then becomes who decides what content is right. No one is advocating a form of backdoor censorship, and it would be wrong for advertisers to try to stifle alternative views. This is not about preventing freedom of speech, but more about changing the emphasis and value of content to prevent media owners going after clicks indiscriminately. Ideally, shifting to a model where we are incentivising positive behaviour.

If advertisers want to move away from simply protecting their brands to delivering media responsibly, then I would say that, absolutely, advertisers need to take a more direct role.

The media choices being made do, to some extent, promote content and to the consumer can confer a form of tacit approval. However, it is not good enough for brand safety to just focus on avoiding scandal; it is about delivering on a commitment to protect the very communities that a brand operates in.

Advertisers and agencies looking for a framework to help them navigate an increasingly complex content landscape face an often-challenging task in auditing each platform. In response to this UM and IPG Mediabrands launched a pioneering Media Responsibility Index; actively evaluating media owners against our 10 Media Responsibility Principles.

These principles, now officially adopted by the 4As (the American Association of Advertising Agencies), were developed with the aim of reducing subjectivity, and guiding both agency planners and advertisers as they deploy campaigns into market.

Our Media Responsibility Index, first launched last August, and an industry-first, was born out of the need to educate our clients on the policies of top social platforms, and to help clients hold media partners accountable to commitments to improve. The index has been endorsed by GARM.

We propose that advertisers, marketers and the industry align their CSR principles and apply this to develop public-facing media responsibility principles. This would serve as an important check and balance in helping marketers and their agencies make better-informed decisions on how to invest media budgets, weighing the societal impact of the content, the publishers and services, and the platforms being funded by advertising. 

Lawrence Dodds is client director at UM London