The turmoil following Wednesday’s storming of Capitol Hill by insurrectionists protesting the 2020 presidential election prompted many brands to halt ad placements. It’s a tactic that has become all too common, given our politically charged times.
Writing in Adweek, Jayde I. Powell, head of social at sparkling tonic brand Sunwink, advised, “Brands: This is not a marketing moment.” Still, some marketers chose to take a stand after the election result was officially ratified by Congress, in the early morning hours of Thursday. Household names such as Coca-Cola and Ben & Jerry’s publicly posted their stance on proceedings, with the Unilever-owned ice cream brand the most forthright.
Yesterday was not a protest—it was a riot to uphold white supremacy.
— Ben & Jerry’s (@benandjerrys) January 7, 2021
Meanwhile, the majority of media buying teams proved more cautious with many deciding to press pause, all of them pondering when is it safe to return.
Enacting contingency plans
After the tempestuous news cycle of 2020, these playbooks have been quite well refined. That includes crisis response tactics to acute news events, such as the BLM protests, as well as adapting to more chronic issues such as adopting a suitable tone of voice as the Covid-19 pandemic plays out.
However, given the divisive election season, some media buyers had telegraphed the potential for controversy.
“In advance of the election, we shared guidance across all our teams mapping levels of brand-suitable inventory for clients,” Kieley Taylor, global head of partnerships at GroupM, told Adweek. “So, while we had no way of knowing that the events that unfolded would be so severe, we did know that something could happen and that brands might not necessarily be comfortable.”
Hitting pause isn’t an option for all
Michelle Capasso, director of media services at Connelly Partners, also explained how her agency advised clients on ad spend, with her team gauging public sentiment on social media in the subsequent days.
Both Capasso and Taylor noted that not all advertisers have the luxury of pressing pause as a matter of principle, especially those that rely on direct response campaigns.
“Performance advertisers, however, will stay the course, unless they have an opportunity to provide substance to the ongoing social media debate,” added Capasso. “To that end, as we’ve seen with early boycotts, some advertisers don’t necessarily have the luxury at this time to shift budgets to other news and information outlets, so it’s important to work with each client individually, based on their unique goals, budgets and tolerance for the debate within the platform.”
GroupM’s Taylor noted how such tactics were refined over different parts of the 2020 news cycle, in particular around the Stop Hate for Profit movement that saw many brands pause ad spending on Facebook for the month of July. “We have templates around crisis communications for advertisers, so that we can understand both from a communications perspective and approval perspective, and a what is their red line,” she explained.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, traditional news publishers were vocal about the issue of mass keyword blocking by risk-averse brands going into a general election year, especially the potential fallout it has on democracy by effectively defunding reliable, accurate sources of news reporting. Content verification companies responsible for vetting inventory sources had been criticized for this last year. To tempt advertisers to stay the course, some publishers took to constructing brand safety tools of their own.