In April, YouTube lost 5 percent of its top U.S. and Canadian advertisers following reports that client ads were appearing next to extremist videos. The ensuing uproar came from companies concerned about their “brand safety,” which relies on the notion that a brand’s image is tainted by mere proximity to offensive content or unsavory groups. It’s a reflection of both the high-pressure environment brands are facing and the closer, more values-driven relationships they’re building with consumers in the digital age. As brands have sought to appear more like friends, they’ve given rise to higher (and some argue, unrealistic) expectations and a greater sense of betrayal when something goes wrong. Is this heightened sense of intimacy hurting more than it helps?
The YouTube controversy erupted in late March after The Times of London reported that ads for prominent companies were appearing alongside videos featuring racist and hateful content, as well as fabricated news stories. The response was swift: A slew of major brands, including Johnson & Johnson, AT&T, Verizon, Walmart, Starbucks, General Motors, L’Oreal, and Coca-Cola, announced that they were pulling their advertising from YouTube. Advertising giant Havas did the same for its U.K. clients. Several of these brands also suspended spending on Google’s search ads. The boycotts prompted a public apology from Google’s chief business officer Philipp Schindler.
In his post, Schindler apologized to the aggrieved companies for violating their sense of “brand safety.” This term isn’t new: Advertisers have long been careful to avoid having their brands appear in unfavorable contexts. Cruise lines, for example, don’t want their ads to follow a news story about a shipwreck. But brand safety only became a buzzword with the advent of online advertising, which has made it difficult for companies to control or know where their ads show up. Now companies are citing potential damage via associations or connections that are far less direct.
Their response has raised the eyebrows of some critics who consider the hubbub overblown. In an Advertising Age op-ed, ad industry veteran Andy Ball argued that no viewer would ever consider an ad’s inadvertent placement near offensive content an endorsement. Meanwhile, in an interview with Recode that defended Google’s response, Schindler indicated that the videos advertisers flagged represent a miniscule fraction (less than 1/1000th of a percent) of their total impressions.
Why, then, have so many household names been so quick to distance themselves from YouTube? In part, the rush to protect their images from even implied slights stems from the enormous pressure brands feel to avoid missteps in today’s 24/7 media environment (see: “The Perils of PR”). Companies are hyperaware that any blunder can result in an instant tidal wave of bad publicity, not to mention viral online memes that turn them into a laughingstock. Perhaps the most infamous recent examples are Pepsi’s widely derided ad starring Kendall Jenner and the incident involving a United passenger getting dragged off a plane. In both cases, the companies were forced into damage control mode following widespread outrage on social media. With public trust in corporations already low, many executives figure that it’s better to be safe than sorry.
The response can also be viewed as the culmination of a longtime trend: the emergence of values-driven brands that relate to their customers on a level that’s more personal than professional. Boomer-led companies aren’t just hawking products and services, but representing a community of patrons who share certain beliefs—in other words, “people like me.” This impression has only grown stronger as marketing messages have become increasingly personalized and targeted. As author Thomas Frank recounts in The Conquest of Cool, the association of brands with different lifestyles took off in the 1960s,when advertisers shifted away from the middle market in favor of pitching to rebels and nonconformists. The perception of intimacy exposes brands more to the idea that they are who they attract, and thus must choose the “right” crowd.
This approach has produced almost tribal levels of customer loyalty. But it’s also had the opposite effect: Brands are drawing ire for the social positions they take. The #GrabYourWallet movement urges followers to boycott over 50 companies that sell Trump-brand products or whose executives or board members backed his campaign. Executives at L.L. Bean, New Balance, and Under Armour found themselves under fire from Trump detractors, and Starbucks from his supporters. Steve Gaither, the CEO of marketing agency JB Chicago, summed up the current climate in the Chicago Tribune: “If somebody boycotts you, 50 percent of the country is happy and the other 50 percent is upset. You can either get through it or put a flag in the ground and make that happy 50 percent be fervent about your product.”
Companies not only run higher risks of wading into “unsafe” territory, but also face fierce blowback when their attempts to relate fall flat. The lambasted Pepsi ad, for example, aimed to appeal to Millennials by featuring a social-media star amidst young ralliers while invoking imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement. But what worked so well for Coca-Cola in the 1970s came off as tone-deaf today. Instead of imparting a meaningful, feel-good message, Pepsi came off as an interloper trying to steer a conversation it didn’t understand.
Nowhere is the love/hate dynamic between brands and consumers more evident than on social media, which disempowers both sides as much as it empowers them. On the one hand, sites like Facebook and Twitter have democratized the consumer experience—and brands rely on the content that users generate in order to run ads. But as incidents like Google’s ad cleanup illustrate, social media ultimately exists to serve the brands. YouTube’s recent policy changes—most notably, requiring videos to have at least 10,000 views before they can run ads—risks angering the creators who make the content and shrinking the pool that brands need to reach consumers.
All of this leaves brands on the brink of a new dilemma: Are they better off striking a personal, intimate tone, or one that’s blander and more middle-of-the-road? It’s a tough balance. Xers and Millennials do want to support socially conscious businesses. They also appreciate the direct line to brands that social media has opened up for them. But in the end, they’re much more likely than Boomers to care about the bottom-line effectiveness of a product. Younger generations aren’t as concerned with a company’s value imagery or whether it fits their “tribe.” They just want to know if it works. Brands that help people don’t necessarily make a point out of their community impact; they just help. Values-oriented messaging is useful only to the extent it can increase identification with an already well-received product—suggesting that brands might be able to relax a bit when it comes to messaging and focus instead on providing superior service.