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Is bad news really bad news for your brand?

There’s been no shortage of negative news in recent months but will that have a negative impact on the effectiveness of your advertising?

For the past 18 months, bad news has dominated the news cycle; from bushfires to the pandemic and a never-ending stream of political scandals both here and abroad.  

The hunger for trustworthy and informative content has become insatiable and news readership, unsurprisingly, increased. The surge in audiences created a huge opportunity for brands. Yet many gave it a wide berth believing the negative nature of these stories would have a negative effect on their advertising.

In 2020, UK industry body Newsworks estimated that news publishers lost somewhere in the region of £50m in online ads due to over-zealous use of keyword blocking on any content related to COVID regardless of whether the news was positive, negative or educational.

While a number of brands and their agencies see this as a brand safety issue, according to Dr Duane Varan CEO of research firm MediaScience, this context does very little to damage brands. In fact, it’s much more likely the juxtaposition has a positive effect.

“We’ve done a lot of work in the US to explore the impact negative news stories have on brands,” said Dr Varan. “And the research shows that ads placed next to bad news such as COVID or the bushfires do not, on the whole, negatively affect the advertiser.”

Instead, the advertising can act as a mood repairer. If the reader is feeling low after consuming the news story, seeing the ad often lifts their spirits.

Reading these news stories also fires up people’s cognitive functions which has the roll-on effect of making it much more likely for people to remember the advertising they have seen in both the short- and long-term.

Conversely, Dr Varan says other environments may have a more detrimental effect on people’s ability to ingest and recall advertising. He gives the example of a horror movie. “People shut down and can’t process the information. What makes news different is that it puts people in a more ‘alert’ state. As people are processing the stimulus, it creates a different mindset,” he said.

Dr Varan’s firm MediaScience has measured heart rate, galvanic skin response, brainwave activity and other behaviours of study participants to come to this conclusion and the findings are backed by research conducted in the UK which found that “hard news” environments actually deliver incremental benefit to advertisers. The research found the pattern of reader response to hard news shows more and stronger peaks for ads indicating the brain is more actively engaged and a greater likelihood of key messages being encoded into memory.

However, rather than refer to this research to support the difficult decision of ad placement, many marketers and their agency partners continue to work off gut instinct.

Former CMO and ThinkNewsBrands General Manager Vanessa Lyons says: “The dots don’t join so why are brands still doing this? We hear marketers talk about contextual relevancy – which is becoming more important than ever with the pending death of third-party cookies – but people aren’t yet applying this to their marketing efforts in all channels.”

Contextual relevance is key and one brand that has embraced the ability of news to deliver on this promise is Nissan.

Nissan Marketing Director Geraldine Davys says news provides an environment to communicate with customers at key decision making moments. One such moment is the announcement of the Federal Government’s budget in May each year. “We advertised heavily post the budget announcement because we knew that there were a lot of decisions that we're going to be made that would be important to our customers,” said Davys. 

Another key advertising period for Nissan is the end of the financial year. Davys says: "There's a lot of tax benefits and a lot of reasons why you need to ensure your advertising is where the eyeballs are. And sometimes, that is in many different sections of the paper, not just the auto section.” 

Backed by examples such as this and research which highlights the ability of news to engage readers, Lyons is keen to dispel the myth that bad news is bad for brands.

She says: “With 18.3 million Australians reading newspapers across print and online every week, brands that don’t include the channel in their marketing mix are missing a major opportunity. Not all news is good news, but alert and receptive customers are great news for all brands and that’s exactly what advertising in news media provides.”

How well do you really know news? Get the whole story now. 

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