Analysis: Was Spotify right to take a muted response to Joe Rogan's vaccination comments?

Spotify has made headlines recently after CEO Daniel Ek seemed to have stood behind podcast host Joe Rogan and the anti-vaccine misinformation he spread on air. In a recent episode of his podcast "The Joe Rogan Experience", Rogan said healthy young people should not get the COVID-19 vaccine. "For the most part, I think it's safe to get vaccinated. But if you are 21 years old and you ask me 'Should I get vaccinated?' I'd go 'No'. Are you a healthy person? Don't do anything stupid but you should take care of yourself. If you are a healthy person exercising all the time, young and eating well, I don't think you have to worry about this," Rogan said in the podcast released on 23 April, CNN reported.

When asked by Bloomberg about Rogan's comments, Ek decline to address them, saying that he is one of eight million creators and Spotify has a content policy in place, Bloomberg reported. That said, Rogan was name dropped a few times during Spotify's first quarter 2021 earnings call by CFO Paul Vogel, clearly indicating that Rogan was an integral component to the growth of the podcasting business for Spotify. MARKETING-INTERACTIVE has reached out to Spotify for comment.

Last May, Spotify inked an exclusive multi-year deal that was reportedly worth more than US$100 million, the Wall Street Journal reported. During the Q1 2021 earnings call, Vogel said December 2020 was a strong month for the company "particularly with Rogan going exclusive". He also said that podcast advertising was strong organically in the quarter but following the deals with Rogan and the acquisitions of Megaphone and The Ringer, "[podcast advertising] is really starting to see an accelerant to growth on the advertising side".

Meanwhile, Rogan clarified in a separate podcast on 29 April that he is not an anti-vaccine person. "In fact, I said I believe they are safe and I encourage many people to take them. My parents were vaccinated," Rogan said, adding that he was supposed to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine but that scheduling did not work out before the administration of the vaccine was temporarily paused. 

"If someone said: 'Young, healthy 21-year-old people who eat well and exercise are not at high risk of coronavirus but you should think about other people.' I would say that's a different argument. I would say aren't those people vaccinated and shouldn't we vaccinate the vulnerable people? And then we have a different conversation," Rogan explained. He added that the problem with today is that "everything is all headlines and highlights, and it's all click bait" which he understands because that is part of the business. 

Spotify's revenue for Q1 2021 was approximately US$2.59 billion, up from US$2.23 billion during the same period last year. Its premium subscriptions raked in about US$2.33 billion during the quarter, marking a 14% year-on-year increase, while ad-supported revenue was about US$261 million, marking a 46% YoY increase. Meanwhile, Spotify's total monthly active users for Q1 2021 was 356 million. The number of premium subscribers was 158 million while ad-supported monthly active users were 208 million.

The company's bet on Rogan has certainly paid off on the business front. That said, the latest chatter surrounding Rogan might pose a slight headache for Spotify, as it is also pressured to take a stand. When asked what the official stance of a platform owner should be when its cash cow encounters a PR issue, Susie Hughes, Framework Communications' founder, lead consultant, said this will vary depending on the platform and the nature of the issue. However, acknowledgement followed by appropriate action is always the first step.

"While it is true that not every brand will be able to please everyone all the time when we are talking about a global health crisis that has affected everyone in the world in some way or another, it is important for platforms to recognise the role they have in disseminating information to people," she explained. 

Three main groups of content are prohibited on Spotify - infringing content, illegal content, and hate content. According to its website, content within these three groups may be removed or filtered from Spotify. It explained that any content that is provided to Spotify without rightsholder permission may be removed. Also, content providers are required to comply with applicable laws and regulations, including those governing content administered by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control and the German ​Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien.

Additionally, content that expressly and principally promotes, advocates, or incites hatred or violence against a group or individual based on characteristics, including race, religion, gender identity, sex, ethnicity will be removed. That said, Hughes does not foresee the latest issue to impact Spotify's reputation and branding given its establishment. "But there may indeed be increased scrutiny on Rogan's content and the rest, so clarity around and enforcement of its policies will be ever more important," she said.

She added that in such instances, Spotify will need to display consistency in acknowledging and acting on issues. "Specifically related to this, I think Rogan has already acknowledged the issues associated with his comments, and perhaps Spotify would consider a pro-vaccine campaign of some kind if it is not doing that already and if it aligns with the values of the organisation," Hughes explained. 

Meanwhile, Lars Voedisch, managing director at PRecious Communications, said in any such cases, where a big contributor of the platform has a controversial take, the platform or publisher firstly needs to have clear policies on what is acceptable in terms of content produced and contributed by others. Those policies then have to be clear and applied across all sorts of content independent on popularity. Secondly, Spotify should be clear on what are the values it stands for. With one of them being about transparency, it has to be open about its rules and how the rules are applied.

“Spotify’s general guidelines are quite clear and in the case of COVID-19 and explicitly condemn misinformation. If you look at the context of Rogen’s comments, he is talking about the experience with his own children. Therefore, you could argue that he is not spreading wild misinformation, but simply sharing his own opinion,” he said. Voedisch explained that technically Rogan is not breaching any of Spotify’s policies. “Do his words carry some weight? They probably do - but he has opinions on all sorts of things and never claimed to be an authority on health issues,” he added.

Voedisch added that it is growingly difficult for platforms such as Spotify to stay neutral on content, and only having a very light touch on moderation. This was seen with Facebook and Twitter during the late days of former American President Donald Trump, when they went so far as to block his accounts for hate speech. For Spotify, it is crucial that the platform remains open and consistent about its rules as well as when and how they apply across content independent of popularity or revenue impact. “Spotify simply can’t be seen as letting someone such as Rogan getting away with things they wouldn’t accept for others,” he said.

Also weighing in on the issue was Zeno Group's MD, Asia, growth and innovation, David Lian, who said brands need to define what they stand for and have the courage to stand for what they believe. "I am not one to say what Spotify should or should not do, with regards to Rogan, but it needs to act according to its values," he said.

Lian added that if there is a content policy, brands need to ensure they are consistent in enforcing the policy without prejudice, fear or favour.

Photo courtesy: Joe Rogan's Facebook page and 123RF

Related articles:
Spotify eyes ad dollars as it opens up 'On Repeat' playlist to advertisers
Spotify subscription plans cancelled by K-pop fans a month after expansion into South Korea
Opinion: How do you find the sweet Spot(ify) in marketing?
Subway MY puts own spin to Spotify 2020 Wrapped