The Macallan was recently placed in an awkward spot when its ad appeared in the header banner of an article by The Straits Times written on 17 March regarding a car crash in Hougang. The article detailed an accident where the car mounted a curb and crashed into a lamp post. While the police said the car is believed to have skidded, no injuries were reported. The same article was also syndicated onto AsiaOne and the ads were found in the header and within the article on AsiaOne as well. The ad that accompanied the article showed a bottle of Macallan and read "Inside the historic significance of the oldest whisky released by The Macallan". It is unclear if the ad was a programmatic buy or a direct one. MARKETING-INTERACTIVE has reached out to The Macallan, SPH Media Trust, and AsiaOne for comment.
The placement of the ad has raised an interesting debate in the industry on what constitutes brand safety, and if the lens in which we look at it needs to be re-evaluated. Brand safety is an issue that has long plagued the digital advertising world and has often been touted with the ability to impact consumer perceptions of a company. Given countless public service announcements about drink driving and the associations consumers might make between alcohol and driving, it is certainly up for debate whether The Macallan's ad was placed in the right spot.
Majority of industry players MARKETING-INTERACTIVE spoke to were split on the matter. A former communications professional from the alcohol industry said that while the situation is a case of unfortunate ad placement, whether it is one that arises serious brand safety issues is debatable. “There should always be a clear distinction between marketing and editorial, in this instance, it appears entirely unintentional,” he said. He shared that such ad placements are not completely uncommon in the alcohol and tobacco industries, however, the real question one should really ask is, is there any safe alcohol ad?
Meanwhile, Ranganathan Somanathan, co-founder of consultancy RSquared Global Venture and former CEO of Omnicom Media Group Singapore, explained that there are certain categories of products that are neutral to articles such as this where the associations made between the ad and the article content wouldn't immediately trigger an association. In some cases, the association could be leveraged to reinforce a positive message even. However, in this case, given the possible association to DUI-related accidents, any presence of an alcohol brand in an article related to car accidents does not help the brand in any way.
"Also, if we take a step back and assess, no alcohol brand should have a strategy to have content associated with accidents. It is an error in implementation. Possibly, brand campaigns are running without sufficient guardrails," he said. Although no death or injury was reported, Somanathan said the issue here is if the brand communication and campaign implementation is on-strategy. "In my opinion, it is not. The publisher, client and agency must come together to do more to drive accountability in this area," he said.
Brand safety leaving publishers with untapped inventory
Hari Shankar, chief revenue officer at iVS and former CEO of Singapore Media Exchange, told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that brand safety as a whole needs to be put into perspective because currently there is a “bent perception” of what brand safety is. This in turn is making it harder for media companies to earn media dollars. He said:
News publishers today are unable to sell a significant part of their perfectly safe, premium news inventory. The keyword blacklists of some of these brands run into absolutely alarming volumes, from my own experience.
He added that in the same logic, in the offline world, brands should not be able to advertise on any OOH platforms given an accident or unfortunate incident can happen at any point. Shankar added that what the “bent perception” of brand safety has done, is allow vendors to “block millions of perfectly safe impressions in the name of brand safety and charged a hefty sum to the clients for the damage they caused”.
“I strongly believe that it is time for brands to take a step back and re-evaluate their brand safety policies, thinking purely from the angle of the customers who love their products,” he added. Another consideration Shankar highlighted is to really consider whether or not this association would really impact sales.
“Would a Macallan fan stop drinking Macallan due to the ad having appeared in the article? Would an Apple customer suddenly develop a hatred for their favourite iPhone because an iPhone ad appeared in a current news article covering an unpleasant topic? I can say with 100% confidence level that the answer is a big no,” he added.
Grey areas and context
Goh Shufen, founder of R3 added that alcohol brands have done a phenomenal job at public service announcements of not drinking and driving. Given we are living in a world of hypersensitivity, it is possible that this ad might trigger some unpleasant associations. However, whether the placement is completely wrong or not is questionable.
Adding on to Goh’s points, Penelope Siraj, principal consultant, R3 said for any digital advertising, it is best practice to ensure that brand safety measures are in place to protect a brand's reputation. This includes standard exclusions such adult content, hate speech, illegal activities and offensive or violent content. A brand should always work closely with their partners to ensure that their degree of brand sensitivity is adequately understood and managed. However, even with all the checks and balances in place, this sometimes still allows the odd placement to slip through the cracks.
“In general, due to the fast real time pace and unpredictable nature of news, advertisers should consider if the news section is suitable for their brand as it will always run the risk of not every potential disaster being something that can be caught in time to ensure the ad is not displayed. This extends to all channels and is not only something that impacts digital media,” said Siraj.
Meanwhile, speaking under anonymity, a marketer in the automotive industry said that such situations arising isn’t uncommon given the news content is one which will steal eyeballs due to the nature of the story.
“I don’t see any issue with this ad placement because this is more likely a case of negligent driving or driver losing control. It has not been reported yet if or not the driver was under the influence of alcohol. As a client, I wouldn’t yet start blaming the media company behind the ad placement. However, if the accident was caused by drink driving, things would be different,” she added.
A recent Social Ads and Consumer Perception study by Integral Ad Science found that 29% of consumers will have an unfavourable view of a brand whose ad appears next to content that does not align with the brand’s image. Most of them are also unlikely or very unlikely (47%) to purchase a product or service advertised on social feeds that is next to unsafe content.
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