For decades, parents were greeted with a public service TV announcement before they enjoyed the late-evening news: “It’s 10 p.m.: Do you know where your children are?” It was a prompt to elicit greater responsibility at a time when “free range parenting” was just considered parenting.
Increasingly, consumers are offering a similar prompt to corporations and those responsible for protecting their brand reputations: “It’s 2018: Do you know where your ads are displaying?”
Before the recent advertiser boycott of “The Ingraham Angle,” sparked by the host’s mocking of a Parkland student survivor on Twitter, there was similar action in the aftermath of the unsolved 2016 murder of an employee of the Democratic National Committee. Back then it was Sean Hannity, whose claim of a conspiracy theory led to an ad boycott of his show, which was followed by his fans’ push for a counter-boycott of Rachel Maddow’s program.
Earlier, other campaigns put pressure on sponsors of shows hosted by Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck. Online, advertisers have boycotted YouTube and sites such as Breitbart.com when their ads have appeared next to terrorist and white nationalist messaging.
When it comes to brand reputation, the effectiveness of these boycotts in inflicting damage on the targeted media personality or program is secondary. Far more relevant are consumer expectations of a company’s responsibility for demonstrating its values through its spending power.
While ad purchases focus largely on maximizing reach and frequency among specific demographics, and though programmatic trading is designed to reduce costs rather than to increase precision, consumers don’t expect “free range ad placement.”
In fact, a G&S online snap poll shows that 9 out of 10 Americans (91 percent) expect companies to know where their advertising appears.
Perhaps more alarming for those managing corporate reputation, 85 percent expect companies to know the content of the programs supported by their ads, and 65 percent view advertising as an endorsement of the media content on which it appears.
This is why conscientious advertisers have removed their ads from platforms embroiled in controversy, and it illustrates the potential PR risk for which communications professionals should be on the lookout.
With the vast majority of consumers expecting companies to know the content of the media on which their advertising appears, it’s not surprising that advertising is viewed as an expression of a company’s values. It’s also not surprising when the public reacts negatively when it seems a brand’s values are not aligned with their own.
Nearly half (49 percent) of the respondents to the G&S snap poll said they would have a more negative perception of a brand if they learned that the brand had advertising during a news program with commentary counter to their values. Roughly the same number (47 percent) said they would be very likely to stop buying products or services from the brand.
This presents a challenge not unlike the one corporate social responsibility (CSR) professionals face when trying to account for the impact of supply chain partner business practices on corporate environmental and social commitments. Supply chain management, like ad buying, involves continuously evolving markets and relationships, is traditionally transactional, favors low-cost acquisition and is now scrutinized as a reflection of a company’s values.
Consumer perceptions of company responsibility for associated ad content and for supply chain partner behaviors are remarkably similar. When asked whether companies were completely responsible for knowing the content of the programs on which they advertise, 57 percent of respondents agreed. When asked whether companies are completely responsible for monitoring the conduct of companies that supply them goods and services, 51 percent agreed.
Given the similarities, corporate reputation managers can learn some lessons from their sustainability counterparts, who must work to align the values of supply chain partners to minimize business disruption and protect their own company’s reputation and brand value. Some basic approaches include:
- Understand the Exterior Landscape: Corporate reputation managers must first understand the vendors, technology and systems involved in ad placement.
- Conduct an Audit: Identify where ads are running and how the associated content compares to corporate values.
- Redesign Decision Making Structure: Create better-informed systems to mitigate risks.
- Create a Code of Conduct: Establish a red line for content that you deem unacceptable for ad placement or preferred practices to avoid conflict (e.g. not buying placements on political opinion shows).
- Collaborate to Improve the Industry: Support technology and process changes that allow the industry to transition cost-effectively from programmatic trading to more controlled media purchases.
From Foxconn to Fox News
Consumers are increasingly scrutinizing how a company chooses to spend its money. For instance, Apple bore the brunt of public backlash when reports of suicides due to poor working conditions surfaced at its Taiwan-based supplier Foxconn Technology Group.
At a recent Page Society panel discussion, the conversation turned to the fallout from the boycott of Ingraham’s Fox News show. Johnson & Johnson corporate affairs executive Michael Sneed reflected on the pharmaceutical company’s decision to pull its ads. “It’s very important, when you’re the stewards of the reputation of an organization, to really think through all the implications,” said Sneed. “Understand the impact on all your stakeholders … had we followed the process we had, we would have ended up in a different place.”
Whether it’s paying suppliers, funding political action or purchasing ads, each corporate transaction becomes a litmus test for the values its customers hold. And those customers feel well-informed. According to the G&S snap poll, 68 percent of respondents said they are more aware of companies’ stances on social and political issues now than they were five years ago. Among women, that number increased to 75 percent.
It may seem unfair, and for many companies, with a customer base as varied as society, it may seem a Gordian Knot. But there’s little indication this trend will subside. In fact, it is likely only to increase, as citizens see corporate responsibility trumping political action in affecting social change. Nearly three quarters of snap poll respondents said that expressing concerns to advertisers is a faster way to create change in society than expressing opinions to politicians.
Just as parents worry about the company their children keep and the influence that imparts, responsible corporate reputation managers need to worry about the company their brand keeps and how that reflects on its values. It’s 2018, after all – and with today’s conscious consumers, “free-range advertising” just won’t cut it anymore.