All about ... When advertisers boycott media

Advertising has become a pawn in a complicated game, Alasdair Reid says.

When the Big Brother Shilpa Shetty race row was at its height, the programme's sponsor, The Carphone Warehouse, acted decisively to breaks its links with the show.

Other advertisers weren't quite so unequivocal. Some wanted to make sure that their spot advertising didn't appear in breaks within the programme. Less sensitive companies, however, scrambled desperately to make sure that their ads did.

After all, viewing figures for Celebrity Big Brother 2007, the series during which Jade Goody began abusing her co-contestant, had been bumping along at around three million. Once the race row broke, the figures tripled to nine million - and this had become a highly attentive audience.

According to sources active in the airtime market in 2007, there was a period of confusion as the needle on the industry's much-vaunted moral compass began not only trembling, but flying about all over the place. Some marketing executives insisted on being in the show's ad breaks, only to be over-ruled by their boards; sometimes marketers wanted out, but bosses wanted in.

There was chaos of a more unusual stripe last week. And as the weekend approached, it was clear that the News of the World phone-hacking scandal had produced moral and ethical conundrums of an entirely different order.

It has long been recognised by many high-profile organisations that the intermittent emergence of internet lynch mobs, especially those egged on by rabble-rousing newspapers, poses new challenges for their public affairs, communications and marketing departments.

From the mid-90s onwards, there were scattered instances of companies coming under sustained attack from small - but well-organised and highly aggressive - cabals of internet activists. Now, however, these mobs are not only more common than they were a decade ago, their tradecraft, including smear campaigns, online picketing, black propaganda and even digital sabotage, has become more effective.

Often, those at the epicentre of these campaigns have links to groups with virulently anti-business agendas; but they're increasingly mainstream too - for instance, the Mumsnet mums, few of whom actually own balaclavas.

Even if they believe a threat is unjustified, a company has to act. Equally, if it's drawn into a campaign against a supplier, particularly a media supplier, it has to react.

A week-and-a-half ago, if you'd asked the directors of Lloyds Banking Group, Virgin Holidays, Coca-Cola, The Body Shop, Debenhams, Vauxhall, Cadbury, Renault, NatWest, Marks & Spencer, The Co-operative, Aldi, TalkTalk, Butlins, Wickes or even the office holders of the Royal British Legion whether they genuinely wanted to close down News of the World, some might have been so bold as to tell you not to be so bloody ridiculous.

Advertising has become a pawn in a complicated and potentially very nasty game.

1. On 4 July, Melissa Harrison, a freelancer writing in The Guardian, began a campaign encouraging people to harass News of the World advertisers. This was soon extended to a web page with "Tweet me" buttons, making it easier to join the campaign. On 5 July, the Media Guardian columnist, Roy Greenslade, called for people to "pressure advertisers and media buyers not to buy space in News of the World and to withdraw ads they've already booked", and he linked his blog to the Harrison campaign. Meanwhile, the Liberal Conspiracy website provided a list of advertisers and helpful tips for those persuaded to e-mail or Tweet News of the World advertisers.

2. Contrary to a popular belief that advertisers regularly interfere in the editorial affairs of media owners, there have been surprisingly few publicly discussed advertiser boycotts in recent years. Aside from the phone-hacking and Shetty scandals, the only other incident of note involved the comedian Frankie Boyle and his Channel 4 show, Tramadol Nights. Boyle is alleged to have made offensive remarks about a disabled child and to have used racially provocative terms. In response, in December 2010, L'Oreal and Nestle pulled their ads from 4oD.

3. The most notorious direct consumer boycott of a media product saw Liverpudlians take against The Sun following its coverage of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, when 96 Liverpool FC fans were crushed to death at an FA Cup semi-final. The paper's version of events caused outrage in Liverpool.



- Corporations (almost by definition) don't tend to take moral stances - they take hard-headed business decisions.

- In most cases, the hard-headed business decision is that, when you're confronted by low-level instances of blackmail, it's just easiest to give in. That's certainly the advice big companies tend to be given by their public affairs consultancies (and the crisis management agencies they use).

- And, of course, their social media advisors - because major advertisers have diverted significant chunks of their marketing spend into social media activity in recent months. And, currently, the rules of social media tend to suggest that if you want to make headway in this space, you have to act (or pretend to act) just like the consumers you're trying to influence.

- In fact, more so. That's why some advertisers come across as needy, desperate to be liked and petrified of upsetting anyone, ever, in this space (the reckoning being that retribution could be swift and ugly).

- And, of course, once you get into that habit, it's difficult to switch into any other mode of discourse.

- There are those who believe that some advertisers may come to regret offering hostages to fortune in this way.

Media owners

- Strange days. A militant minority will almost certainly be emboldened to seek new targets in the media and advertising sectors. For instance, those at the centre of the campaign to harass News of the World advertisers are long-believed to have been harbouring unkindly thoughts about the Daily Mail.