If you haven’t noticed by now, there’s an advertiser boycott template and it goes like this. Activists select a television show, a radio program, a network, or a show host to boycott, and then they wait for something they can use as a justification for the boycott they have planned all along.
The goal is to get the show cancelled, the host fired and an opposition voice silenced. Secondarily, the purpose is to send a message to anyone who support those who challenge them that they could be the next target.
Once the activists identify something to be outraged about, such as a comment or an interview guest who they’ve framed as undesirable, the activists will post a list of that target’s advertisers on web sites and on social media with a call to action that is squarely aimed at advertising agency media buyers, account executives, agency owners and corporate chief marketing officers.
“Don’t advertise here, or else.”
The consequence of not adhering to their demands could be a steady and growing drip of social media posts attacking your brand, or a full-blown “Twitter storm” that conflates your brand’s decision to advertise with an endorsement of everything said on the programs where you advertise.
Traditionally, the lines between programming or content and advertising have been clear. Producers and program hosts have been free to run their shows as they wished. Advertisers determined whether or not they sponsored certain programs based on ratings and an ability to connect with highly valuable targeted demographics that certain shows can deliver. In other words, the relationship was completely transactional, and one the public and the show’s audience clearly understood.
Program hosts and producers knew to expect no efforts to influence content by advertisers. For their part, advertisers have always been seen as independent of the programming in which they advertise.
Advertisers are Skittish
What’s changed is that activists behind these sophisticated campaigns have identified what they perceive as the weak link in this process, which is the skittishness of advertising decision-makers. The activists know that advertisers are often conflict averse and can tend to overreact at the slightest whiff of controversy.
If you’re one of those decision-makers, they want you to respond to their tweet with a tweet of your own that distances your brand from the program on which it is advertising. That’s just their first step in a series designed to drive a wedge between you and their target.
They want you to rethink your entire advertising presence on the program. They want you to wonder if advertising on this particular show is worth the hassle. They want you to pull all of your advertising within days and to do so publicly so that enough pressure is applied to cancel a show or fire a host or both.
Activists do this because at least in the short-term it works. They know advertising and marketing professionals are not in the crisis and issues management business. They know that in the normal day-to-day world of advertising and marketing, the best pros are keenly sensitive to the slightest shifts in consumer sentiment and feedback, prepared to change course and strategy to seize new opportunities and avoid possible catastrophe.
While these heightened sensitives can be huge assets in the marketing process, they can be vulnerabilities that activists know how to exploit through an advertiser boycott.
An Advertiser Boycott is Not an Advertising Issue
The first thing to recognize about an advertiser boycott is that it’s not about advertising. Once it starts, it’s a crisis and issues management scenario.
Think of it this way. If you’re a marketer and you get sued, do you decide to handle it yourself, or do you bring in an attorney? Or, if the IRS comes knocking on your door for an audit, do you handle it yourself, or do you call your accountant?
Keep these things in mind before you decide to take a DIY approach to managing the next advertiser boycott you may face.
To be sure, while the battleground for an advertiser boycott is most certainly the marketing arena, the decision on whether to continue advertising is issues management. Yes, any and all decisions made here will have an impact on the success of your marketing program. But the criteria for making decisions has been intentionally, calculatingly and effectively muddied by the activists.
An objective crisis or issues manager will help to triage the factors that must be considered to ensure you do not overreact, and you do not make overly emotional decisions. Tied to this, a good counselor will help you best frame for the public any decisions you ultimately make.
If you’re an advertising agency leader, you may be thinking, “What does a crisis manager know about advertising?” The truth is not as much as you, which is why your role in the process remains critically important. But it doesn’t mean you have to go it alone.
You may be surprised at what a true crisis and issues manager can do for you.
A good crisis and issues manager has become accustomed to telling clients what they need to hear and what they don’t want to hear, and if need be is willing to get fired for it. Wouldn’t it be better to have the crisis manager take the heat so that once the current crisis passes, you still have the account or your job?
The value an experienced crisis manager brings is a battle-tested point of view who knows what works, what doesn’t, and how things are likely to play out, from a best-case scenario, to a worst-case one. The crisis manager follows a process for making and framing these tough decisions just as you do for marketing.
Of course, the time to add a crisis manager to your bench is not after the Twitter storm against your brand has already started. The best time is long before an activist decides to make an example of your brand.