A rise in populist media poses an existential crisis for advertisers

A rise in populist media poses an existential crisis for advertisers
Farage used X to launch his attack on NatWest (Credit: Wikimedia Commons and Adobe Stock)

Right-wing populist media may not have a scaled audience, but it still has influence. What does this mean for advertising ahead of a record year for elections in 2024?

I’ve really enjoyed listening to Global’s The News Agents podcast this year. Former BBC news journalists Emily Maitlis, Jon Sopel and Lewis Goodall are unleashed with less requirement for balance and the opportunity to express some pretty brutal opinions.

In their review of the news agenda in 2023, Sopel, who was North America editor at the BBC, said: “How GB News develops I think is a theme that we’re going to be watching carefully in 2024.

“Are we going to see a ‘Foxification’ of the media space? And the extent to which Ofcom is willing to hold the line over the standards in broadcasting that have actually made our broadcasting ecosystem so different and, dare I say, so much better than what you have in the United States at the moment.”

Then — somewhat gobsmackingly — he nominated his news person of the year: “If I was to be really controversial going for my person of the year… [Nigel] Farage. I honestly think that if you were going to say where were his political fortunes in January and where are they now at the end of December, you’d have to think: well, what could happen if the Tories lose?”

Post-truth model

We are in an era when right-wing populism is rising — recent examples being the general elections in Italy, the Netherlands; local elections in Germany; and the battleground for the US presidency this year will be a brutal tribal fight.

Almost all populist movements are focused on a very high-profile leader who convinces their followers that they are being subjugated by the mainstream media. They achieve this by weaponising social media and usually have powerful media owner allies.

There is a real threat that the UK’s news media develops in this way and Sopel is correct that we could see a post-truth American model emerge, where politicians with extreme views become TV personalities (and vice versa). Farage’s appearance on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me out of Here! probably wasn’t an outlier.

A recent survey of party members on the Conservative Home website showed that over half of its panel regularly watch GB News. It has influence that belies its limited audience.

Source: Conservative Home


A member commented: “There needs to be an investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority into the cartel-like behaviour of companies towards advertising on GB News. Clearly, this is a case of market failure given the viewing figures.”

Although evidently untrue, the attitude reflects the siege mentality of the audience.

What this means for advertising

This may create a serious issue for advertisers and agencies in the longer term as populism grows. Do they support populist channels with advertising or do they deliberately avoid them (as they currently do)?

It’s not a matter of the scale of the audiences — these channels punch way above their weight in creating headlines and may try to pull “avoider” brands into the melee in exactly the same way Farage did with Dame Alison Rose over the supposed reason for the cancellation of his Coutts account.

In media planning land, we tend to look at each medium in silo; in reality, populist TV news channels may have small audiences, but their presenters and viewers use other channels like X, websites of right-wing newspapers and phone-in radio shows to amplify their messages.

News is viral, meaning a small channel can have a disproportionately significant effect.

Farage’s response to NatWest “debanking” him exemplified this: he created two six-minute videos on X, immediately amplified through politically aligned media, and this was then picked up by mainstream media (including the BBC); the prime minister and the government became involved and the CEO of the bank was subsequently forced to resign.

A butterfly created a tornado by furiously flapping its right wing.

Marketing and media dangerously at odds

The consensus on politics in the marketing and media world is probably at odds with the views of some of the more populist media platforms.

The political turmoil that will be 2024 is unlikely to bring greater consensus or reasoned debate. We may not agree with the opinions of consumers and viewers, but it’s dangerous to not try to understand them.

YouGov runs a regular omnibus asking: “How important, or not, is it to you that the brands you like have a clear/transparent point of view on wider issues in society?” About 40% of us think it’s somewhat important, while only 20% think it’s very important. Surprisingly, age isn’t a big variable in this, but politics and location are — 27% of Labour voters think it’s very important and the same figure applies for people in London. Just over a quarter of people would change a brand if it didn’t have a sustainability policy.

It would seem most “mainstream” consumers don’t really see brands as platforms to improve society and perhaps we overestimate the real influence marketing and advertising can have on consumer opinion.

Relevance to consumers

I suspect there are consumers who would regard a company’s CSR policy as an expensive luxury in a period of economic stress, when the cost of food and drink in Britain surged by 27% in the last two years.

Advertising only works if it is relevant to consumers, whose views may occasionally be at odds with a company’s values. It’s a tough debate and there is no obvious conclusion.

Recent polling suggests that the result in the upcoming general election is likely to lead to a change of government in the UK. This could lead to a Foxification of right-wing media — a lurch to the right and a media war blaming the mainstream establishment. The type of response that Farage generated against NatWest will become a blueprint for attacks on the so-called woke establishment.

This could prove difficult for some advertisers and their agencies; they could become easy targets for attack in populist media. There are more elections around the world in 2024 than ever in history and there is going to be a rise in populism.

People are not seeing an improvement in their living standards and are looking for solutions and people to blame, fuelling this further.

It’s important we understand the divided society we serve, what drives people to make seemingly irrational decisions and how we can support them. We may not agree with what they think, but they will be important customers of our clients.

Charlie Makin is founder of BLM and Pintarget, and launched startup consultancy Work It Out in January

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