How social media storms-in-a-teacup are sweeping away ads
The Blogfather puts Paperchase up against the wall and in the spotlight, to dissect why brands are scurrying away from media publishers in the name of virtue, and for fear of controversy.
We live in a time when Robert Mugabe was appointed as a goodwill ambassador by the World Health Organisation. It’s not as bad as that. That decision was like Green Peace sending Darth Vader to oversee Ewok habitat regeneration.
Of all the brands out there, the last one you would expect to inadvertently wade in to a social media shit storm is Paperchase. Brew Dog, yes. Paddy Power, yes. Knowing those two reprobate rascals, they would probably start it on purpose. Of course, Volkswagen are one of the most memorable brand to unintentionally end up in bother in recent times, with the emissions scandal.
But Paperchase, stationary supplier to the middle class? How did this happen?
To recap, Paperchase pulled advertising from The Mail Online due to public outcry ignited by the primer that was the Stop Funding Hate Campaign. This group pressures and lobbies brands to pull their ads from media outlets they perceive as publishing material that creates rifts, fear and hate in society. The Daily Mail certainly falls into this category.
But enough of the politics. Firstly, it’s presumable that Paperchase knew of the Daily Mail’s reputation when planning their advertising, and didn’t see it as creating a brand conflict issue. The more pertinent question is arguably whether The Mail Online is the right audience to reach their core demographic.
Seeing that the Daily Mail and its readership is perceived as being on the ‘Right’, and Paperchase’s customer base is allegedly more on the ‘Left’, then you have to question the choice to advertise with them in the first place (although this summation is itself questionable, judging from skim-reading a sample of several hundred social media comments). The readership of the Mail Online, whether you like it or not, is massive. Forgetting online advertising’s own problems currently, it makes some sense for a brand giving away two rolls of Christmas wrapping paper to advertise there.
So how bad a decision was it to advertise with the Daily Mail? In the grand scheme of things, not that bad. We live in a time when Robert Mugabe was appointed as a goodwill ambassador by the World Health Organisation (now there’s a decision which was rightly reversed). It’s not as bad as that. That decision was like Green Peace sending Darth Vader to oversee Ewok habitat regeneration on the Forest Moon of Endor.
So let’s keep some perspective. Arguably the worse decision was the pulling of the ads. You would assume that Paperchase believe their core demographic are at least in part to be found reading the Daily Mail. Otherwise why advertise there? Thus, by pulling adverts, the inference can be drawn that they agree with the view that the Daily Mail is a paper for right wing bigots…well, you can see how this can get messy.
Paperchase issued an earnest, if slightly grovelling, apology, backtracked and removed the ads. Probably on the strength of just one/two thousand people tweeting their disgust. But this then awakened a further one/two thousand people indignant with rage at Paperchase’s spinelessness.
If Paperchase had stayed silent then the story would have got about as much interest and coverage as the Rugby League World Cup.
Brands have become too consumed by ‘Virtue Signalling’. By emitting such a strong ‘virtue signal’, Paperchase immediately split a section of their followers into two camps, when before they probably wouldn’t have even thought twice about their ad spend.
Even now, looking at their social media pages, their followers are bickering and trading bile, comments utterly incongruous with festive posts like “20% off crackers anyone?” Ironically, by trying to do the right thing, Paperchase have saturated and spread hate through their social channels. They should have taken a leaf from Volkswagen’s book. What did they post on social after the emissions scandal? Nothing.
Hindsight is a great thing, but these situations can largely be foreseen, there is enough history of social storms. Brands should make a decision, based on well thought out strategy, and stick to it. Have the strength of your convictions. Don’t be panicked and forced into a knee jerk reaction. Often the best thing to do in life, when you are on the end of a verbal hiding, is to stay silent and listen. They soon pipe down. If Paperchase had stayed silent then the story would have got about as much interest and coverage as the Rugby League World Cup.
I thought I would convey my view of the situation in the form of a quick clip:
“Social media campaigns, when amplified in the media, give the views of a tiny number of virtue-signalling people a volume out of all proportion to their numbers. They are statistically irrelevant..." Rory Sutherland
The vast majority of Paperchase’s customers don’t particularly care that they advertised on the Mail Online; they just want some good deals and products before Christmas. Like a couple of free rolls of wrapping paper.
Rory Sutherland’s words on the situation are well worth quoting here:
“Social media campaigns, when amplified in the media, give the views of a tiny number of virtue-signalling people a volume out of all proportion to their numbers. They are statistically irrelevant outliers, but we allow them to control the moral thermostat. This contributes to a climate of fear in which it will be very difficult to do any interesting advertising for fear of the 5,000 hypersensitive people who will choose to be offended by almost anything.”
YouTube is another publisher to be abandoned by brands this week. This situation is markedly different, as adverts are yet again appearing against very questionable content. Google (owners of YouTube) have a tough problem to solve here. The videos themselves are mostly posted innocently by children, just sharing activities from their lives, but they have been hijacked by paedophiles commenting on them, and thus take on a very different and dark form.
For YouTube to quickly identify such content that has a chameleon-esque context, and for them to also ensure ads don’t appear associated with it, surely they will need to rely on AI that works on language based sentiment. Humans can’t police this. Well, not all of it. This situation also doesn’t reflect well on the much-maligned Programmatic Advertising.
But if the AI over at Facebook is anything to go by (where an innocent guy posting ‘Good morning’ was translated into ‘Attack them’, leading to him being interrogated for 4 hours on suspicion of being a terrorist), then it’s questionable if YouTube can currently do any more, for all that people are demanding that they do so.
The situation at YouTube is almost a microcosm of the bigger question of “How do we police the internet?” You can’t. Not completely, certainly not quickly enough. We are nowhere near a ‘Minority Report’ style society, no matter how much AI is touted as the next great thing. Don’t believe the hype.