All it took was a tweet.
In a recent Twitter post, Fox News host Laura Ingraham mocked Parkland high school shooting survivor David Hogg and within a few days dozens of advertisers, including prominent Twin Cities companies, dropped their ads from her show.
The controversy highlighted how advertisers and their agencies are being forced to remain vigilant about ad placement even while the process of media buying is more automated and data-driven.
As digital media has risen over the past two decades, advertising has become more focused on precision and measurable ad views, under the belief that data meant easier access to customers. For decades, traditional media like newspapers, radio and TV could only tell advertisers broad information about their audiences. But with the help of software and algorithms, digital media offered advertisers information virtually down to the person, allowing them to target their messages more effectively.
Better precision hasn't eliminated risks, however, and advertisers are pushed to spend time and money on a marketing concept known as "brand safety."
"Every dollar marketers spend has to work as hard as possible for their brand and their business," said Jason Harrison, president of Minneapolis-based Essence, whose clients include Target and Google. "This means every ad has to be as effective as possible, but it also means protecting the reputation of our clients."
In a survey by trade publication Adweek late last year, 75 percent of brands reported experiencing at least one unsafe brand exposure in the preceding year.
In 2017, the idea of brand safety came to a head when large advertisers like AT&T and Johnson & Johnson pulled their ads from YouTube after reports that ads from big-name companies were popping up next to videos of hate speech and extremist content. The advertising boycott pushed YouTube to change its policies.
The Ingraham incident was an example of how protective companies are of their brands and the increased unwillingness of companies to be associated with potentially controversial content, even indirectly.
"Historically, it was more like a controversial show like 'South Park.' People would write letters or e-mails, but there wasn't this easy social media thing catching fire," said David Campanelli, the co-chief investment officer for Horizon Media, which has worked with clients like Geico and Corona and places ads for Minneapolis-based Sleep Number, which was also swept into the Ingraham controversy.
In late March, after Ingraham tweeted that Hogg was whining about his college rejections, dozens of companies including TripAdvisor, Hulu, Bayer and Plymouth-based Miracle-Ear announced they had suspended their ads during her program.
Resisting the boycott
Mike Lindell, the highly visible founder of Chanhassen-based MyPillow, went the other way, announcing that his company would remain an advertiser on the show.
"In general, I do not believe in boycotts because advertisers just go to other spots, which drives up the cost of advertising and that ends up getting passed on to the consumer," Lindell said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. He continued, "Every situation is unique. I will always evaluate what is best for MyPillow before I make a decision."
Even after the hoopla over Ingraham, MyPillow sales remain strong, Lindell said.
Much of what makes controversies like Ingraham's even possible is social media. Consumers can quickly, collectively and directly voice their displeasure with brands. Advertisers are often put in a precarious position where they are forced to respond to incidents and take positions in real time.
"Users probably won't notice if you're doing it right, but you can count on them noticing if you're doing it wrong," said Kathleen Petersen, vice president of media at Minneapolis agency Nina Hale.
In addition, the evolution of programmatic media buying for online advertising, which has surged in the last five years, is now branching out to traditional media like TV. With programmatic buying, an advertiser can use consumer data and bid through an ad exchange to reach those potential customers as they surf through various websites and apps. While the major benefit of programmatic buying is that often it means reaching consumers more efficiently, it could also leave companies open to brand safety issues since they aren't in direct control of where their spots are placed.
In response to the challenges, companies and agencies have started to employ a range of brand safety measures.
As a basic defense, many companies automatically eliminate potential advertising outlets that they feel are offensive as well as greenlight sites that do align with their values in processes called blacklisting and whitelisting.
"Our intention is to never advertise on websites that feature content that many of our customers would find offensive," Jeff Shelman, a spokesman for Richfield-based Best Buy, said in an e-mail. "We also choose not to advertise on sites that can't guarantee that our ads won't be placed near stories featuring disturbing images or content. Separately, we have not purchased ads on traditional cable news channels for several years."
Other steps include page-level analysis of websites, pre-bid analysis of advertising inventory before an advertiser bids for an ad, and use of negative keywords to not have ads appear on pages where those words appear so that, for example, a gun ad doesn't appear when someone is searching for information on a shooting.
Some companies have been even more aggressive on the issue. Early this year, JPMorgan Chase announced it created its own proprietary algorithm to help ensure its YouTube ads wouldn't appear next to questionable content. In March, Bank of America became the first major company to announce it had appointed an internal "brand safety officer."
Companies at the very least should have a cohesive brand safety strategy and be prepared when the inevitable controversy happens especially in online advertising, Harrison said.
"There are always going to be things that slip through the cracks and there are always going to be cases that nobody thought about or thought of," Harrison said. "To a degree, advertisers that engage in digital advertising have to be OK with that."