What Advertisers Are Worried About After the O'Reilly Controversy

  • Controversies at Fox News, YouTube highlight ‘brand safety’
  • ‘Every one of our top 50 customers has sat down with us’

Bill O’Reilly is no stranger to controversy.

The Fox News host, who built a following with a combative style and sometimes coarse put-downs, has also made news by settling sexual harassment lawsuits as far back as 2004. Yet revelations of more O’Reilly settlements this past weekend sparked a stampede of advertisers pulling spots from his show.

Why now? Call it heightened awareness among advertisers of “brand safety.” A recent uproar over ads being placed next to hateful videos on YouTube highlights the shift. While apparently not noticing for years, many advertisers are reviewing where their ads appear to ensure they’re not associated with objectionable content.

“Every one of our top 50 customers has sat down with us in the last two months,” said Wayne Gattinella, CEO of DoubleVerify, which vets online ads for companies and whose clients include Centrica Plc’s British Gas. “We’re seeing a record number of ads that we’re now blocking as a result of a category of ‘inflammatory politics.’”

Other factors are feeding the newfound sensitivity. Politics in the U.S. and Europe has become more polarized, adding pressure to brands associated with cable-news controversy. And media has become focused on personalities -- whether it’s YouTube star PewDiePie or O’Reilly -- whose unfiltered statements made advertisers uncomfortable. When disputes arise, social media makes it easy for activists to pressure brands into taking action.

Fanning Flames

“It’s about the speed at which social media has allowed the backlash to generate and to really rage out of control,” said Ross Barnes, chief technology officer at The&Partnership, a collection of media agencies that is minority-owned by WPP Plc, the world’s largest advertising company. “It’s just a whirlwind. You can’t predict where that’s going to go or the scale it’s going to reach.”

This week at least five automakers -- Mitsubishi Motors Corp., Hyundai Motor Co., BMW of North America, Jaguar Land Rover North America and Mercedes-Benz -- said they’re withdrawing advertising from “The O’Reilly Factor” following allegations against its host that were reported in the New York Times.

A plethora of global brands, including PepsiCo Inc., Starbucks Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. pulled spots from YouTube in recent weeks, amid concerns that their marketing was appearing next to hateful and extremist content. JPMorgan Chase recently shrunk its ad placements to 5,000 websites from 400,000 because it wanted to reduce the chances its ads will be next to offensive content or fake news.

While advertisers may have been unaware that their ads appeared next to terrorism videos on YouTube, it’s hard for them to plead ignorance with O’Reilly, said Brian Wieser, an analyst at Pivotal Research. “The O’Reilly Factor” is a tempting buy for advertisers: He’s built a loyal following of consumers as the most popular host on the most-watched cable-news network in the world’s biggest marketplace, the U.S.

“Bill O’Reilly is one of the most popular personalities in all of television,” Wieser said. “Any advertiser who was surprised hasn’t put much thought into their media planning.”

Kangaroo Skin

The creator of the Twitter account Sleeping Giants took screen shots last fall of ads appearing on Breitbart News in a successful campaign to get brands like Kellogg Co. to leave the website, which has been accused of espousing racist and anti-Semitic views. Breitbart, in turn, started a campaign to get readers to stop buying Kellog’s cereals.

Sensitivities can lie on both sides of the political spectrum, so companies must be careful either way. After Budweiser beer aired a Super Bowl ad that celebrated the immigrant roots of its German-born creator, Adolphus Busch, some supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump called for a boycott of the AB InBev Worldwide Inc. brand. Ethical Consumer lists 48 active boycotts for progressive causes, from Adidas (using kangaroo skin) to West Country Dairy Products in the U.K. (badger cull).

The pressure can bear some unexpected fruit. The U.K. activist group Stop Funding Hate scored a victory of sorts last month in its campaign against British tabloids over articles it considers anti-immigrant. But Co-Operative Group, which operates grocery stores and bank branches, stopped short of pulling its ads as requested.

Instead, the company met with executives at two newspaper publishers, News Corp.’s Sun and Daily Mail & General Trust Plc, to ask them to change their editorial stance -- a move that raises questions about press freedoms. Stop Funding Hate said it welcomed the spirit of the Co-Op statement but made clear it hadn’t asked the advertiser to demand editorial changes.

“We’re having interesting discussions with our clients,” said Barnes, of The&Partnership. The topics range from whether companies want their brands to appear in certain publications to whether they want business from customers who hold contrary views, he said.

Easy Switch

Those unhappy with their current media associations have many options to reach audiences on TV and online. That makes it easy to bail out for any reason.

“If I was an advertiser in 2017, I’d steer my money away from hosts and cable networks who are serially being sued (and are serially settling) sexual harassment cases,” said Ian Schafer, chief executive of the creative agency Deep Focus. “Audience is a commodity. There are many other ways to reach them.”

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