Once it was enough just to be careful where you placed the company logo or how you stated an advertising message. It was fairly simple. Prudence dictated that the company’s persona should not appear in a publication or in a position where accompanying content would cast a negative light on the brand. Certain publications were off limits, depending on the brand and the publication’s content. Messaging followed some basic dos and don’ts, usually established by some unseen censor whose job it was to monitor the sensitivities of “Joe or Josephine public” and establish some simple set of norms to be followed. Generalized messages were broadcasted to a wide audience and communication channels were fewer and relatively easy to monitor.
Careless advertisers were often chastised for testing the limits of the accepted norms of society, presenting content and images that nudged the outer edges of what was considered responsible behavior. Offenders either earned the rebuke and condemnation of a community or received accolades from those who appreciated a marketer’s sense of adventure. Either way, the risk of serious damage to a brand’s reputation was often tempered by an off-setting reward of increased public notoriety.
Ethical conduct in advertising and marketing has long been ripe with controversy and the subject of intense debates. The field of advertising is quickly becoming an environment where the definition of responsible is increasingly fragmented and more comprehensive than ever before. The process of creative discipline in advertising is changing dramatically and at warp speed. Parsing every word of content and scrutinizing every image in order to ensure (as much as possible) that the final effort doesn’t offend an increasingly diverse universe of consumers is a challenging effort.
“Niche is the new mass market,” says director and producer Justin Ching. “Gone are the days when you can appeal to everyone with your messaging, because of audience fragmentation.” Thirty years ago it was enough to sell a man a close, comfortable shave; today razor makers are selling a myriad of socially responsible issues as much as they are the blade and razor. Advertising is becoming a boxed set of social messaging and product features and benefits, carefully crafted to sell a solution while avoiding offending any one consumer or market segment.
YouTube is defending itself against what many are finding as objectionable content. Several big-name companies have pulled advertisements from the site over concerns their ads were running on videos of young children, primarily girls, on which pedophiles were making objectifying comments. In response, YouTube has disabled thousands of inappropriate comments and has suspended more than 400 offensive channels. “Any content, including viewer comments, that endangers minors is abhorrent and we have clear policies prohibiting this on YouTube,” a company statement said. “We took immediate action by deleting accounts and channels, reporting illegal activity to authorities and disabling comments on tens of millions of videos that include minors. There’s more to be done, and we continue to work to improve and catch abuse more quickly.”
It is hard to imagine that YouTube or any other marketing platform would deliberately risk such embarrassment and condemnation from its advertisers. The situation is an overt example of the difficulty and complexity of the challenges being faced by advertisers today.