What the Alan Jones advertising exodus says about modern brand strategy

Marketing leaders and industry pundits talks to CMO about the latest advertising boycott of Alan Jones' 2GB radio program and modern brand reputational risk

Brands pulling advertising from 2GB following Alan Jones’ derogatory comments against New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinta Ardern, is yet another sign of how intertwined brand association with societal and cultural trends has become, industry and marketing leaders say.  

But there’s at least one industry commentator who remains unconvinced the boycott is as commercially significant as it’s being made out to be.  

Approximately 19 high-profile brands have pulled advertising from the radio shock jock’s breakfast program in the past week following Jones’ comments suggesting Australia’s PM, Scott Morrison, should “shove a sock” down Ardern’s throat as she called for the nation to do more about climate change. The list includes ME Bank, Koala, Bing Lee, Anytime Fitness, Snooze, Volkswagen Australia and Chemist Warehouse.  

Over recent days, additional comments made by Jones and released by ABC’s Media Watch program suggesting Ardern be “backhanded” have also emerged, earning further condemnation and contributing to the growing advertiser exodus. And brands have largely chosen to broadcast their decisions via Twitter and Facebook, attributing it to a misalignment between Jones and their brand values.    

As TRP Agency head of strategy, Kyle Ross, put it to CMO, how and where brands choose to invest their media money says an awful lot about them.  

“And what brand would knowingly choose to be associated with inappropriate comments?”  he asked. “There is real and measurable risk to a brand’s bottom line when it comes to ad placement around inappropriate content. The Brand Safety Institute has shown over 80 per cent of people would reduce or stop buying products that repeatedly advertise near extreme or dangerous content.”

For Telstra Super GM marketing, Jean-Luc Ambrosi, brand association is more important than ever given the rise of social media.

“Ten years ago, if it didn’t make it to main media, it barely existed and was confined to a few. Now in a matter of minutes your brand is exposed,” he told CMO. “Not only has social media taken a more active and influential role in our lives, it’s also become the main channel for activism, above mainstream media. The more brands rely on social media, the more reactive they need be.”

It’s for this reason industry pundits said using social media to communicate the advertising boycott is an obvious choice for brands trying to exhibit modern social conscience.  

Agents of Spring co-founder, Troy McKinna, said the recent actions of advertisers is reflective of a new media landscape, where public sentiment on social media outweigh paid media channels. He also noted many of the brands taking to Twitter to voice their decision are harnessing the platform “they get the most consumer grief from”.  

It’s also worth noting activist groups like @slpng_giants_oz and @MadFckingWitch are directly putting pressure on advertisers supporting Jones’ show, using Twitter and Facebook to campaign for brand action.  

“We wouldn’t have seen this five or 10 years ago, because there wasn’t the platform for this type of public backlash and brands didn’t have the confidence to have a social conscience like they do today,” McKinna said. “There are clearly some crazy things happening at the world at the moment and consumers expect brands and their influential media spend to get involved in debates.    

“There is no place for the type of comments Allan Jones made in a modern Australia, so it’s the right thing to do for the brands to pull their advertising. But there is also likely to be an element of pulling the advertising to take their brands out of the spotlight.”    

Of course, pulling advertising in response to derogatory comments made by 2GB hosts isn’t a new phenomenon. As Ross pointed out, a numbers of sponsors including Mercedes-Benz, Freedom Furniture, Woolworths and Challenger pulled advertising in 2012 following remarks Jones made about Julia Gillard’s father.  

“Each brand was quick to respond on social media, saying the remarks did not ‘reflect their values’,” he said.  Yet sure enough, once headlines faded and reputational risk ebbed, these advertisers returned to the program, Ross said.  

Ambrosi pointed out the aggravating factor with Jones in the current scenario has been the violent nature of his comments.

“Pulling advertising and letting people know about it was the best risk management strategy you could take,” he said. “Many advertisers could have simply pulled out, but some would have been genuinely irritated by the comments and would see it as part of their social responsibility to take a stand. Others have been more opportunistic in leveraging this event to promote their own brands. But as more brands make public statements about their stance, you have a snowball effect taking place and it became absolutely necessary to publicly dissociate your brand with Jones.

“There’s little choice as other brands but to act and communicate about it, especially via social media.”

Ross also suggested brands operating in a category plagued by low trust will find their choices defined by a very different set of circumstances. It’s for this reason CEO of brand agency Re, Patrick Guerrera, saw Australia’s recent Royal Commission into misconduct across the banking, insurance and financial services sectors as such a powerful contributor to the way brands are viewing their position in society right now.  

“In this post-royal commission climate, brands are very much judged by their actions not just their point-of-view or carefully measured PR responses,” he said. “Authenticity and integrity are more critical than ever in driving consideration and choice. The wrong response could leave your customers questioning what you fundamentally stand for.

“Continuing to advertise essentially means you are complicit with the views expressed. These brands are not willing to put their reputation and the trust they have built as a brand at risk due to a media choice. As a consumer, I would question if they are OK with this, what else are they OK with?”  

Contextual relevance  

Context is another important part of ad effectiveness, Ross continued. He noted a recent paper titled ‘Impact of Media Context on Advertising Memory: A Meta-Analysis of Advertising Effectiveness’ published by the Journal of Advertising Research, which showed high media involvement and program liking positively affected advertising memory.  

“If you want your brand to be noticed and correctly recalled, don’t make a habit of appearing in contexts that create negative emotion,” he warned. “This type of second-level thinking means you can’t simply rely on ratings, reach, or readership but on specific media-context factors that provide positive influence on memory.”

Ambrosi admitted plenty of brands are still struggling to move beyond social responsibility as a PR exercise. Nevertheless, he saw the industry at the start of a genuine evolution inevitably changing how brands behave. The push isn’t just from activists but from every echelon of organisations.

“Modern marketers need to understand this. Many organisations are reviewing their core values to align themselves with their social responsibility,” he commented. “The difficulty is to distinguish who really means it versus who simply leverages it: The reality is often found somewhere in the middle.

“While it may start as a ‘paint job’, employees want to be more and more engaged in providing meaningful contributions. So you really have a push to act responsibly and provide a positive social contribution.”  

Guerrera is convinced brands play a significant role in not only taking part but shaping culture today.

“Think Nike, Patagonia, Tesla,” he said. “As senior marketers, we all know it’s not just about the products or services we make – it’s about how we show up, what we truly stand for and staying true to those beliefs in everything we say and do. By pulling the advertising, these brands have given a clear signal to their customers of what their beliefs are, and what they cannot accept. It’s a powerful move.”

Long-term effects  

Yet is it a move with long-lasting impact or commitment? Will brands end up returning to the program? If history is anything to go by, the consensus is yes.  

On the more cynical side, a post yesterday from InsightOut Data Solutions chief, Lory Vecchio, found of the seven brands initially boycotting Jones’ radio program, all were spending less than 1 per cent of their total media spend on it. Across the seven, Vecchio reported radio represented 5-15 per cent of total media budgets, with 2GB in its entirety getting just 2-5 per cent of that spend.  

“From this, that it is actually really easy and inconsequential to make a stand against such a program,” Vecchio said in a LinkedIn post. “Shifting such a small amount of money would have very little impact on the media outcome, but the upside from a PR point of view is massive. Especially given the average person on the street is oblivious to media budgets and network splits.  

“When they hear about a boycott, they immediately have warm feels towards that brand which may never have occurred with traditional advertising – the advertiser builds awareness without spending a cent on media.”  

Jones himself believes advertisers will either return or others will fill their places. Speaking to Nine News, he shrugged off advertising concerns and said brands “can make their own judgement if they go”.

Ross said brands won’t return while Jones is still making headlines, but they will cautiously return. “Repeat offenders need to be treated with caution. Advertisers can and will be judged by the company they keep,” he said.

Ambrosi also saw several brands returning once the storm is passed and if they believe their audience is listening to the program.

“It will be a matter of leveraging risk versus opportunity. While social responsibility is becoming more important, if the nature of an organisation is to make a profit, then these two sides will be weighed against each other,” he said.  

With the churn in marketers and agencies, McKinna said it’s all-too-easy for someone to sign off on a media campaign with spots on Macquarie Media. Nine announced last week its intention to acquire the remaining stake it doesn't own of Macquarie Media's radio business.

“Brands will have to be disciplined to ensure they do not advertise again. No doubt if they do, someone will ask the question and remind them of their public statement,” McKinna said.

Guerrera, meanwhile, encouraged brands that lead or espouse a noble purpose that Jones’ comments are at odds with to take care.

“Your reputation takes years to build and one bad move to fracture. Is it really worth the risk? Ask your media agency where else to spend your money,” he added.


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