Advertisers should seek trusted contexts, not hostile ones

Advertisers should seek trusted contexts, not hostile ones
John Lewis' 2023 Christmas ad: 'Snapper: The Perfect Tree'

Between a rise in anti-Semitism on TikTok and X and a pledge for more of the same from News Corp, brands should vote with their feet in pursuit of more positive contexts for their ads.

Television and online video advertising is important but so is context — perhaps more so than ever before.

John Lewis’ Christmas advertising is watched and trusted, as is the ITV context in which it appears.

Which is why on my kitchen table, and on thousands of others, there is the most bizarre symbol of Christmas ever — a Venus flytrap plant in a small red pot.

Thanks to the ad, the £10 carnivorous plants have sold out everywhere and if you haven’t got one by now you will have to go without at Christmas.

For those who were lucky, remember the plants have to be kept moist and must have only rainwater.

Avoiding hostile context

Behind such strange advertising success stories lies a much bleaker picture.

The world is increasingly polarised between those who support the Palestinian cause and defenders of Israel, between populism and supporters of social democracy, and in the US — between members of the Trump tribe and the more reasoned approach of President Joe Biden.

Such divisions, and often the lies attached to them, present a nightmare for advertisers who must, if they are wise, avoid a hostile, and negative context for their ads.

TikTok is just one of the huge international platforms that have become problematic not just for advertisers but also for civil society.

The app has been accused of, inadvertently or not, stoking up anti-Semitic hatred because of the large number of young people watching pro-Palestinian videos on the site.

Analysis by data scientist Anthony Goldbloom found that there is more than a little truth in the accusation.

Opinion polls show there is a moderate degree of pro-Palestinian sentiment among 18-24-year-olds; among TikTok users the proportion is off the scale.

According to Goldbloom, in the US, “For every one-pro Israel TikTok video that is viewed, 50 pro-Palestinian videos are viewed.”

For the UK the ratio of 1:65 is even more dramatic in favour of pro-Palestinian material.

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Nobody knows for now why this is, although countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan, where Islam is the dominant religion, have accounted for a large proportion of the pro-Palestine videos posted.

Until more is understood about this phenomenon advertisers would do well to avoid such a hostile battleground.

An X-odus

In another more dramatic manifestation of extreme views, widely seen as anti-Semitic, advertisers have made their voice heard loud and clear.

The latest and most extreme troubles for Elon Musk, current owner of X, the former Twitter platform, began earlier this month when media watchdog Media Matters found corporate advertising by IBM, Apple, Oracle and Comcast’s Xfinity alongside anti-Semitic content, including some praising Hitler and the Nazis.

This prompted an advertising boycott, or at the very least a pause, by those affected.

Equally predictably, Musk immediately threatened a “thermonuclear lawsuit” against Media Matters.

Yet at the same time Musk, who has denied he is anti-Semitic, appeared to agree with a post on X carrying the bizarre claim that Jewish people were pushing the “great replacement” conspiracy theory that the white majority is being deliberately replaced in the US.

Meanwhile NewsGuard, the body that rates media organisations for reliability, has found that the advertisements of dozens of major brands had appeared unintentionally on X alongside highly questionable viral posts.

These posts had advanced “false or egregiously misleading claims about the Israel-Hamas war.”

Two Musk-inspired developments have greatly damaged the company since the entrepreneur bought Twitter a year ago for $44bn.

One was the initial sacking of a large proportion of the Twitter staff involved in safeguarding and taking down offensive content, so Musk could not do much to patrol such content even if he wanted to.

The second is Musk’s fervent belief in what some would regard as an extreme version of freedom of speech theory.

“For speech to be truly free, we must also have the freedom to see or hear things that some people may consider objectionable,” explained Musk.

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Indeed, but it is not clear what, if any, limits Musk places on freedom of speech.

Meanwhile advertisers — and it is they who provide by far the largest share of X revenues of around $2bn a year — have been voting with their feet and may well continue to do so.

In search of kinder places amid ‘no changes’

TikTok and X may continue to have troubles with advertisers emanating either from their policies or the current hostilities in the Middle East.

Lachlan Murdoch who has just, at least officially, taken over the running of Fox and its controversial news channel Fox News, has problems of his own.

The dilemma facing the channel has barely changed.

It remains: how can they continue to feed Trump supporters with arrant nonsense about stolen elections without facing even more lawsuits?

Tone down the right-wing rhetoric and conspiracy theories and the channel faces losing its loyal viewers, and associated advertising, to even more right-wing outlets.

There is the other “small” problem for Lachlan Murdoch, the fact that 92-year-old Rupert has hardly gone away and has recently promised to continue to play “an active role in the company.”

Lachlan Murdoch has promised investors that there would be “no change” in strategy, although at a dinner in Australia last week he spoke of an era of “generational alignment” that would need “clear vision, great courage, and political will.”

A lot of Lachlan Murdoch’s vision in the short term will be needed to fend off corporate, shareholder and individual lawsuits.

Following the $787m Fox News settlement with Dominion Voting Systems, a similar lawsuit will come next year involving another voting machine company, Smartmatic.

Then there are suits from pension funds in Oregon and New York, which have stakes in Fox, claiming that Fox News breached its fiduciary duty in broadcasting false claims about the 2020 Presidential election.

More about embarrassment than multi-millions, but former Fox News reporter and producer Jason Donner is suing for unlawful dismissal for refusing to report false information about the Presidential election and the January 6th attack on the US Capitol.

Much larger questions could be on the way. What if at least one of the many indictments Donald Trump is facing leads to jail? How will Fox News cover the crisis and how will advertisers react to that coverage?

Lachlan Murdoch will indeed need clear vision, great courage and political will — just to survive.

John Lewis Christmas ads, even with ferocious Venus fly-eating plants, seem a kinder, more gentle place to be.

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.

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