Over the last year or more, NPQ has written quite a bit about the increasing willingness of corporations to become involved in social action that reflects their institutional values base. Readers may recall the quick actions by corporations and large nonprofits last year when Indiana signed its version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into effect. Sometimes these values are driven internally, but they are also advanced by the preferences of shareholders and markets. In other words, these stances are often carefully developed as part of a coherent strategy.
But in this time of cause marketing, corporations’ careful branding can get hijacked by third-party Internet ad placement services, which may lead to inadvertent oversights. Services like these place advertisements on a wide variety of sites that the advertiser doesn’t explicitly choose. That became a problem for a number of corporations, which suddenly started hearing from consumers who saw their ads appear on the website Breitbart.com, which, following the death of founder Andrew Breitbart, moved from a controversial conservative site to something more alt-right, white nationalist, and dangerous.
Corporations do have the ability to exclude sites from their approved lists, and from this arises the “war” being waged by Breitbart against the Kellogg Company. Kellogg, along with Allstate, Nest, Nabguard, EarthLink, Warby Parker, and the San Diego Zoo all removed Breitbart from their list of approved sites over the past few weeks. A twitter account called Sleeping Giants has helped these withdrawals along by sending the companies screenshots of their ads placed near such popular headlines as “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech, They Just Suck at Interviews” and “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy.” That strategy seems to have worked to get some companies to take pretty immediate action.
Here’s the thing: advertisers opt in and out of placements all the time; it’s the nature of the business. But, in a polarized atmosphere where even the most mundane business decision can be demonized, you apparently need to gird up more than usual. Chris Charles, a spokesperson for Kellogg, said that though the company has blacklisted the Breitbart site, the action was not meant to be political.
We regularly work with our media-buying partners to ensure our ads do not appear on sites that aren’t aligned with our values as a company. We recently reviewed the list of sites where our ads can be placed and decided to discontinue advertising on Breitbart.com. We are working to remove our ads from that site.
Again, we reiterate that Kellogg was not alone in taking action. AppNexus, a large digital advertising service itself, has barred access to Breitbart through its service, saying that the publisher violated its hate-speech rules and breached a policy against content that incites violence. Still, it was apparently Kellogg’s that really got to Breitbart, which launched into a weeklong front-page serial attack against the company, often conflating it with the independent W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which it sees as funding the “far left.” On its website, the foundation says that “Guided by the belief that all children should have an equal opportunity to thrive, WKKF works with communities to create conditions for vulnerable children so they can realize their full potential in school, work and life.” It has recently had a particular focus on racial equity. Breitbart calls the foundation the “nonprofit arm” of the company, and indeed the foundation does hold equity in the company, but the Kellogg Company has its own separate corporate foundation.
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Among other things, it writes that Kellogg, by withdrawing for the lack of a values alignment, “declares hate for 45 million readers” and that serving up Kellogg’s cereal is akin to serving hatred at your table. The attack comes complete with a call to conservatives to boycott Kellogg with a related hashtag (#dumpkelloggs). Despite the fact that its petition for a boycott has garnered well over 100,000 signatures, not only is the response from Breitbart likely incredibly shortsighted in business terms—will advertisers flock to the site after this indication of such extreme volatility?—but it’s also highly unusual and unethical journalistically.
“Reporters don’t behave that way in the U.S., nor should they,” said Lee Wilkins, professor and expert in media ethics. “Most journalistic organizations have checks between the people who pay for your news work and the news work itself, so that you are as a journalist protected from those influences.”
Some may say, heck, it’s just another boycott and a part of a healthy democratic landscape, but there is something different in this misuse of journalism to bully advertisers.
Anyway, all of this is happening just as corporations were increasingly coming forward (sometimes even authentically and enthusiastically) to become involved with, among other things, campaigns for diversity, LGBT inclusion, and climate action. Will it mean an interruption of that momentum? Some think so.
“It’s definitely having a slowing and chilling effect on the willingness of some companies to step out and be as engaged in the public sphere,” said Bruce Haynes, president of Purple Strategies, an entity addressing corporate reputation and politics. “That’s even more amplified by the fact that there’s this unknown quantity about Donald Trump and his administration and how he will govern.”
This is, indeed, a different time. It will be interesting to see how this corporate moment plays out.