The Moral Dilemma of Brands: Marketing in the Age of Social Justice

When it comes to ad purchasing, brands generally look to where they will reach the largest portion of their target demographic for the least amount of money. Advances such as programmatic ad buying have made this process faster and more efficient than ever, but a new factor has come into play in recent years that adds a layer of complexity to a brand’s ad buying strategy.

People no longer expect brands to simply sell them products or services; they expect brands to represent their values. Although plenty of companies have paid lip service to this idea in the past, it was rare that they were called to back it up. However, in this new age of dizzying interconnectedness, and with people able to access brands directly like never before, words are no longer enough. Consumers are realizing how much power they hold over advertisers and they are not hesitating to take advantage of it.

For example, take the departure of controversial host Bill O’Reilly from Fox News. “The O’Reilly Factor” consistently pulled in more than 3 million viewers every night, and in the first quarter of 2017 averaged almost 4 million, making his show No. 1 in its time slot by a wide margin. These record-high ratings continued even after news broke on April 1 of sexual harassment allegations against him. So why did Fox pull the plug?

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Because money talks, especially when it’s taken away.

While the allegations may not have deterred loyal viewers from tuning in, it galvanized a vocal faction of opponents who directly targeted advertisers purchasing airtime during his show. The hashtag #droporeilly began trending on Twitter, encouraging companies to pull their support. Within days, big names such as BMW, GlaxoSmithKline, Jenny Craig and Orkin had acquiesced. All told, more than 60 companies moved their advertising to other time slots. After that, it was simple: No money meant no show. By April 19, O’Reilly was out.

O’Reilly may be one of the most high-profile targets for advertiser withdrawal, but he is hardly the only one. In years past, networks might have been tempted to stand behind their stars, especially if they were as popular as O’Reilly. Now that the public can hit them in the pocketbook, brands are under far more pressure to distance themselves from controversial figures.

YouTube has been experiencing this backlash as well, with brands swiftly responding to customer feedback that their ads are appearing next to controversial or even hateful content on the video-sharing website. Highlighted first by The Times of London and then picked up by The Wall Street Journal, giants such as General Motors and Starbucks suspended their advertising until Google promised to revisit their placement processes. The sheer volume of content on YouTube combined with the proliferation of programmatic ad buying makes the situation infinitely more complicated than the O’Reilly backlash. Nevertheless, Google has learned that putting their advertisers in ethical predicaments can translate quickly into millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Owing in part to the growing interconnectedness of things, 24/7 democratized communications and a generation that demands more than ever from brands, marketers increasingly are realizing that their brands cannot remain comfortably agnostic as in the past. Rather, brands are now expected to have a conscience and take a stand on controversial social, moral and even political issues. This is not a comfortable spot for most marketers, but there is no real choice as customers increasingly demand it.


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Lisa Crawford
Lisa began her career as a China analyst in Washington, D.C., before moving to Phoenix to attend the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Since then, she has gained experience in account service, project management, branding, media placement and campaign strategy. Her clients have ranged from resorts to transportation companies and nonprofit organizations, as well as both B2C and B2B companies. She holds a dual B.A. in international affairs and Asian studies from George Washington University, as well as a master’s degree in international marketing from Thunderbird.

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