June 17, 2013

Brand Safety In A Changing Media World by Rob Norman, GroupM Chief Digital Officer

Censorship in the media does not exist in the USA of course, we enjoy first amendment rights and any number of media outlets use those rights to the limit. As a consequence brand owners are increasingly faced with the challenge of balancing the desirability of brand safe environments with a rapidly changing cocktail of content and channels of content distribution.

Quite understandably, advertisers are reluctant to place advertising in environments that threaten atrocious adjacency that could place them in the cross-hairs of a damaging response from any number of constituents. Brands don't censor or impose editorial control. It isn't their place to do so. They do, however, have a right to choose the environment that is adjacent to their ads because the consumer may associate the client or product with that content. They carefully position their ads to avoid gratuitous sex and violence, advocacy of controversial positions, or polarizing content or controversy that are likely to offend a significant portion of the population. They (typically) carefully clarify that they are not making a judgment of whether or not something is in good taste, or aligned with a corporate sense of morality.

In the days when Americans only had three activities (work, sleep, watch TV) this was not a big problem. After all, there were plenty of ways to reach your desired audience and, for that matter, not all that much content was deemed undesirable.

How times have changed. As media gets edgier, the lists get longer, at just the same time as the supply side of family friendly reach continues to contract. We now live in a media world where everyone can find and commit to a channel that supports very individual views of the world from left to right and from safe to scary. This is nowhere more evident than news programming where anyone can find support for their own point of you and where facts are whatever you want them to be.

This begs two questions, one practical and one philosophical.

1. Is it practical and economically sensible to place your own additional restrictions on already limited supply?

2. Are we simply out of step with our own customers and imposing a set of moral values that are different from theirs and as a result not only missing an opportunity for reach but also risking losing relevance as our choices conflict with theirs?

Practically any brand that requires complete "safety" is a frog in the pan of very slowly boiling water. You may not know it's too late until it's too late. At some point safe reach at scale may be out of reach.

Philosophically, there may be a price to pay, but the rewards are great. Brands that say that taste and relevance is (broadly) determined by the consumer can ensure that reach is reachable. The smartest brands will extract even more value by creating messaging that resonates with a fragmented society rather than depending on a one size fits all solution that reflects the broadcast past more effectively than the addressable present. In a social media age we hear repeatedly that authenticity and sincerity of brand, and corporate performance and behavior, are the key protectors of brand reputation. This may be an effective bulwark against the threats of a reduction in risk adversity.

Rob Norman is Chief Digital Officer Global of GroupM. Rob’s principle tasks are developing the interaction organization within GroupM, developing positioning and thought leadership and leading the interaction contribution to business development. You can reach Rob at @robnorman or rob.norman@groupm.com.




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