In these polarizing times we live in, controversy never seems to be too far away. From day-to-day politics to the world of sport, it appears we have an attraction to things that cause a bit of a stir. One might think that it would be an obvious plus to have your ad next to something that is going to draw attention to a reader’s eye. However, be careful what you wish for.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as kicking up a fuss and sitting back waiting for the sales to roll in. Controversy, by its very nature, can be damaging to a brand, and worst of all, sometimes you can attract it without even meaning to.
Let’s look at a real-world example. In one of the most talked about ads in recent memory, reality star Kendall Jenner walks off a photoshoot to join a crowded protest. The demonstration eventually comes to a halt in front of a line of policemen, where Jenner walks up to an officer and tries to make peace with … a can of Pepsi. Seems friendly enough, right? Wrong. The clip had more than 1.6 million views on YouTube after only a few hours, however, it generated five times as many downvotes as upvotes. In less than 24 hours, Pepsi pulled the ad and issued an apology. Ouch.
Integral Ad Science Inc., a firm that ensures ads run in content deemed safe for advertisers, said that of the 2,637 advertisers running campaigns with it in June, 1,085 brands blocked the word “shooting,” 314 blocked “ISIS” and 207 blocked “Russia.” Almost 560 advertisers blocked “Trump,” while 83 blocked “Obama.”
As the audience of approvable content becomes more parochial, the revenue to the advertisers correlates and is less as well. The longer the blacklist of words and names, the less possible opportunities to place an ad. With that said, controversy sells, whether it’s the sexual deviants like Jeffrey Epstein, or Richard Gere asking Americans what we did wrong after 911.
Like everything else, controversy can work in the ad world in moderation. In a recent study, researchers Jonah Berger and Zoey Chen analyzed more than 200 articles to see how controversy impacted engagement levels. Their results indicated that low-level controversy encourages engagement, but anything beyond that decreases the likelihood of high engagement.
Examples of companies looking for a suitable marketing location include CarMax, which blocks online ads it purchases through automated systems from appearing next to news content in categories such as “disasters,” “extreme violence” and “inflammatory politics” to ensure the integrity of its brand. Hard news is seeing a flight away from new advertisement. McDonald’s currently is blocking hard news from its automated ad purchases in the U.S.
Madison Avenue must adapt, as corporate America no longer has tolerance for controversy. Niche businesses that focus on brand safety are a hot commodity. Ad-technology firm OpenSlate said so many companies have asked for help avoiding news and political content on YouTube that it developed an algorithm last year to identify channels focusing those areas. According to CEO Mike Henry, “About one-third of its top 100 clients are currently avoiding news and politics on YouTube.”
As with the Pepsi example above, anything too gratuitous has a good chance of backlashing against the company. One sees this gimmick used repeatedly to pander to the military and those that served our country. Whenever I see an ad that says something like, “We are a proud supporter of the military,” I wonder if the cynicism is seen for what it is. After all, the purpose of advertising is to make money.