Thursday 21 November 2019

Hook fallout shines light on brand safety debate

George Hook. Photo: Mark Condren
George Hook. Photo: Mark Condren

John McGee

The recent hullabaloo surrounding George Hook and his now infamous on-air comments about women and rape has raised important, but often overlooked, issues about how brands and advertisers should respond when confronted with controversy and public outrage.

The show's main sponsor, the Dalata Hotel Group, took immediate steps to disassociate itself from Hook's inflammatory comments by publicly announcing its decision to terminate its sponsorship of his show and voicing its outrage about the comments.

Although its sponsorship deal was due to expire in October, it sent out sharp reminders to the wider media and marketing community that brands are finally becoming a lot more principled than ever before and that - to flip Marshal McLuhan's oft-quoted theory on its head - the medium is no longer the message.

As the main sponsor, Dalata's decision to terminate its relationship is perfectly understandable and justifiable but when leading advertisers like Tesco and Snap also decided that they too didn't want their ads running in and around the show, the commercial and, dare I say, moral ramifications of Hook's outburst became all too clear.

The fallout and the subsequent reaction by these leading brands will not have gone unnoticed in the wider media and advertising community in Ireland. This year as much as €1.2bn will be spent by Irish advertisers on creative, media and sponsorship services across all media channels. It's probably fair to say that this money is invested in the hope that it generates brand fame rather than brand shame.

Given that brand safety is high of the agenda of many marketers, it will come as no surprise to learn that many are now on high alert. Increasingly more of them are concerned about how their advertising and sponsorship monies are being spent and, more importantly, the environment in which their investment ends up.

It's a topic that has loomed large on the agenda of many of the big international marketing and advertising conferences this year and it's one that's not going to disappear any time soon.

Whether it's a spoiled brat footballer, a sporting organisation that has been tainted by the faint whiff of sleaze and corruption, a pompous broadcaster, a right-wing website that spews racist bile or a situation where a brand's ads are being served up on dubious websites and clicked on by bots, the days of sponsors and advertisers burying their heads in the sand are pretty much over.

Historically, marketers have tended to shy away from making tough decisions about terminating advertising or sponsorship deals.

Many of them have also resisted the temptation to look under the hood to see what's really happening with their marketing and advertising investment at a granular level. And, yes, they've often ignored the wider moral implications of their investment and the impact it has on consumers and society at large.

In the past, morality and marketing have often made very uncomfortable bedfellows. The notion that brands can actually possess a moral compass and do what's right for their customers and the world is a relatively new but tantalising concept.

Apart from the fallout from George Hook's remarks, we've already seen several incidences of major brands pulling their ads from platforms like YouTube when it emerged that they were appearing alongside training videos for Jihadi terrorists. And then there was the mass exodus of advertisers who learned that their ads were being served up alongside inflammatory alt-right content on Breitbart News, the website chaired by Steve Bannon, one of Donald Trump's former advisers.

More recently, we've seen Facebook being outed for facilitating offensive search terms such as "Jew hater" or "how to burn Jews" on its advertising platform for targeting users. For those that missed this, US website ProPublica published a story two weeks ago that demonstrated how advertisers could reach thousands of Facebook users by entering hateful search terms on the company's platform. Not surprisingly, Facebook quickly disabled the function, changed the algorithm and duly apologised.

While digital has rightly been the focus of most of the brand safety debates to have taken place over the past 12 months, you can see it raising its head elsewhere. With less than a year to go until the World Cup in Russia, the recent spate of scandals that have dogged FIFA has also left many previous and potential sponsors concerned about any future political fallout that may occur in the run-up to the tournament.

But the idea of brands taking greater responsibility for their actions and developing a genuine moral consciousness is a good thing.

Of course, not every brand will be capable of it while others will squirm at the mere thought. Those that do, however, will garner respect among consumers and possibly secure their future.

Sunday Indo Business

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