Intents & Purposes: Fighting Controversial Ads

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Blair Cowan

As Fake News, unethical data and inflammatory content dominate the headlines, industry watchdogs are under increasing pressure to block objectionable ads… ideally before they even run. Across the globe, banned ads and free speech are taking centre stage as publishers, brands and watchdogs struggle to avoid controversy. Here in the UK, several recent banned ads have made headlines, from Costa and Lloyds to, of course, the elephant in the room, Iceland. We’ve discussed what constitutes a banned ad in the past, but these days the definition has shifted drastically. Every time an ad is banned, publishers, brands and watchdogs all risk backlash from consumers if the wrong decision is made.

Let’s take a look at some recent banned ads that have made headlines: on the one hand, we have Spotify and MYA. Spotify ran an ad on Youtube in June 2018 that included a “horror-film style doll” that came alive to terrorise listeners. Because the ad was targeted at viewers age 10 and up (an audience particularly likely to suffer distress), the ASA banned the ad. In this instance, the case was pretty clear-cut that Spotify needed to be more careful of its targeting for such an questionable ad, so it’s easy to see why the ASA got involved.

MYA, similarly, ran an ad during Love Island promoting breast enlargements for young women. As the average age for viewers of the show was 16-34 and the tone of the ads implied that enhancement was required to live a fulfilled life, the ad was summarily banned by the ASA; again, a fairly straightforward case that didn’t generate protest from consumers or MYA itself.

Don’t let these examples fool you, though: the majority of banned ads aren’t such obvious decisions, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to draw the line on what is allowed by publishers, permitted by law and even desired by consumers themselves; correspondingly, the stakes have never been higher (for publishers AND for brands) to get it right the first time.

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Facebook has been in the crosshairs of this fight ever since Brexit, and even more so after the 2016 US elections. In an effort to get back in the good graces of governments across the West, Facebook has implemented a strict new set of policies regarding political ads. The problem? How to define what constitutes a ‘political’ ad. Unfortunately, Facebook has resorted to what amounts to an “I know it when I see it” policy, by which they haven’t provided specific-enough definitions of what is and isn’t allowed on their platform, but choose instead to evaluate on an ad-hoc basis (pun intended). This process has the (perhaps unintended) consequence of catching up good-faith players in its net while simultaneously letting bad-faith ads flourish until complaints are made.

For example, American pseudoscience group Stop Mandatory Vaccination ran an ad in the UK promoting an untrue anti-vaccination message that should never have been approved by Facebook to begin with (not least because it was placed by an organisation outside the country it was targeting), but it took a consumer reporting the ad to the ASA and the ASA’s subsequent evaluation before it was ruled to cause undue harm and banned.

On the other hand, Iceland’s recent Christmas ad (repurposed from Greenpeace), banned in the UK before it even ran, showcases an anti-palm oil message to promote Iceland’s removal of palm oil from its own-brand products. What’s political about the fact that 25 orangutans die each day from deforestation?

Websites and watchdog groups aren’t the only ones who can ban an ad, though. When Donald Trump recently released a “racist” campaign ad in advance of the US midterms, CNN was the first American news channel to refuse to air it on the grounds that it was fear-mongering and xenophobic. After NBC and Fox News came under fire for airing it, they both removed it from their broadcasts as well. In these instances, the news channels felt they had a responsibility not to disseminate a message that went against their non-partisan ideals.

Finally, consumers, though they may not hold the power to decide what ads do an don’t run, they still hold the all-important power of the purse. Back in 2016, Match.com ran a series of ads in the London Underground that many passers-by found objectionable. While the ASA never held a formal investigation as to whether the ad should be banned, Match received such a social media bollocking over the ads in question that they opted to pull them rather than continue to be bashed online.

In each of these examples, there are several entities that have the power to effectively “ban” an ad: watchdog groups, legal organisations and publishers themselves all have the ability to decide what will run, and consumers today are becoming more and more likely to join in the fight by vocalising their opinions on unethical, immoral or ill-conceived ads. So where do we draw the line between something an individual may not agree with vs. an ad that deserves to be banned? Intent.

Watchdogs and brands should focus on the intent of the ad in question when deciding whether to ban it or not. In the case of the anti-vaccination ad above, the intent was clearly to spread misinformation and fear. On the flip side, Iceland’s main goal (besides, of course, drawing attention to their own brand) was to bring about positive environmental change. In a process that doesn’t have room for much nuance, shouldn’t these intentions count for something?

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