Unfortunate ad placements: Where does the responsibility lie?

Axe Brand Universal Oil and The Straits Times have caused an online furore over the past few days after the brand's ad was placed below a front-page report of the recent murder at River Valley High School, which reportedly involved an axe. Both parties have since clarified that the ad placement was an "unfortunate coincidence" and "unfortunate juxtaposition", adding that the ad was booked last December. ST also apologised for the distress caused as a result of the incident and replaced its e-paper with a house ad. 

A 2018 study by Magna and brand safety company CHEQ found that consumers are about three times less willing to associate with a brand that advertises alongside inappropriate or offensive content. Meanwhile, DoubleVerify's Global Insights Report last year showed that brand safety incident rates in Asia Pacific countries ranged from 3.8% to 25% by country, a far more significant variance compared to other regions. Singapore, in particular, had the second highest brand safety incident rates (5.6%) after Australia (10.4%).

While brand safety incident rates are not new in the online world, the recent news involving Axe Brand and ST concerned offline print media - which some might argue is easier to control. Following the incident, in response to Axe Brand's statement on its Facebook post, several netizens thanked the brand for clarifying and put the blame on ST saying the publication should have vetted the ad before it went to print. The statement had 1.3k reactions, 208 comments and 697 shares at the time of writing. When asked for additional information about the monetary value it invested into the ad, and whether Axe Brand is a frequent advertiser of SPH, Axe Brand did not comment on the questions and directed MARKETING-INTERACTIVE to its clarification statement. It also declined to comment on who the media and creative agencies were. 

Nonetheless, Publicis Media Singapore's MD of domestic business, Elaine Poh, said a fast response is crucial in such a situation, something which both Axe Brand and ST had done well. "In my opinion that is sufficient and both parties need not do more. Readers will come to recognise that this was indeed an unfortunate coincidence," she said, commenting on the efforts both parties have done to rectify the situation. 

"In media, we always say that the medium is the message and an ad placed in a contextually relevant environment will enhance the overall brand and creative message. This is not a feat achieved with a single placement and requires effort to build the brand presence consistently over time within the intended environment," Poh said. A single wrong ad placement may hurt a brand but not for long, she added.

With people exposed to hundreds of messages a day, Poh said it won’t be too long before the next big news takeover their attention. "I feel people in our industry - media, advertising and marketing, tend to have a heightened awareness towards such occurrence. I casually surveyed five non-industry friends on the day the ad ran and only one of them caught the association," she added.

On the other hand, Nimesh Desai, CEO of Wunderman Thompson Singapore, said wrong ad placements can come off as hilarious if a brand is lucky, or completely insensitive as we have seen with the incident with Axe Oil Brand. "Trust is a factor is most at stake. Years of building consumer trust can vanish in an instant and will take time to rebuild," he added. In this case, the media agency should be rectifying the issue as well. Whilst Axe Brand has apologised, Desai said the apology should also come from ST and the media agency if not already done so, he added.

Similarly, Anand Vathiyar, managing director of Cheil Singapore said he does not buy the explanation that Axe Brand's entire management, its media and creative agencies as well as SPH staff "did not connect the dots" between the Axe Brand name and the fatal River Valley High School incident. 

"Are we to believe no one in the Axe Brand universe connected the dots? And no one saw the front page advertisement on Tuesday that was making its viral rounds as early as 9 am?" Vathiyar questioned. According to Vathiyar, who has close to 30 years of experience in the advertising industry, regardless of when an ad is pre-booked, a client has to confirm the ad placement and submit the artwork before the ad goes to print, adding:

So were the creative agency, media agency and client sleeping at the wheel? 

Comparing the latest Axe Brand incident to another unfortunate ad placement faced by BMW Singapore during Chinese New Year this year, Vathiyar said when the BMW collision happened over Chinese New Year, BMW’s agencies scrambled to take down as many ads as they could. Even then a programmatic banner got through. According to him, that was unfortunate and understandable, unlike the recent Axe Brand incident which in his view "reeks of shoddy opportunism".

The automotive brand previously told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that once it was made aware of the accident on 13 February, it instructed its media agency to halt all digital communications. However, the changes took some time to go into effect as it was a public holiday.

"If I can apportion blame, I would say Axe gets 70% while SPH/ST/creative/media agencies get 30%. SPH/creative/media agencies need the money and Axe Brand is money they cannot refuse," Vathiyar explained. He was also of the view that the placement and apology were done "in poor taste and in bad faith" and while consumers can accept it, they really should not.

To really rectify and ensure such an incident doesn't occur in the future, Vathiyar says a case study should be shared of the ad spend range on such a prime ST spot, along with previous ads that have graced the front page. It would have also been helpful to know why the staff members who were in the last line of defence did not pull down the ad before putting it to bed.  

A brand experience nobody wants to have

Companies today are concerned about brand experiences and Dick van Motman, founder and chairman of UN:Ventures and ad industry veteran, said this was a brand experience nobody wants to have. If one calls themselves a publisher, van Motman said this means they are responsible for the whole publication - to the public, their advertisers, and the society at large. This also includes not just the editorial but also the advertising part. 

"ST as the publisher has a responsibility to their advertisers to look at things contextual. Not programmatically. Once more I like to highlight when the tragic incident happened, when the article was written and when the paper went to press. There were at least a few if not more hours in between," he explained. 

He added that the ad was bought at a certain size and specific placement. "The size dictates the usage of the remaining part of paper, in other words, the ad is there before the news articles. Somewhere somehow people look at the paper and definitely the important front page in its entirety," van Motman said. According to him, ST had the responsibility and one cannot go the traditional route of saying it was the responsibility of a particular department's, not in this day and age.

While it was explained that the ad had been bought months in advance, van Motman said there is "no excuse for looking at things dynamically and contextually". "With so few newspaper publications in the country, where would this news appear?" he added. 

A brand is built over time and a collection of interactions/experiences with its stake holders. Too often, however, it’s managed by moment, piecemeal and compartments. Not contextual but programmatically. That’s the issue with the process.

To remedy this situation, responsibility, authenticity, and sincerity are key. He was of the view that a sincere worded apology recognising oversight and the insensitive signal it might have given should be at the centre. Together with a promise that process and protocols will be reviewed; a simple statement signalling it knows it needs to do better and it will.

"To date on the social media pages of both ST and Axe Brand, no clearly visible message is present. This says to me that everyone hopes this will blow over soon. As usual, the mistake is large, the apology is small and being searched. Another element of contextual? I am sure ST wants to do better. Axe Brand wants to do better. We all want that. So standing still at this with the single aim to achieve that and to create a more mindful business where we look at things in its entirety, contextually and morally. Now is the time to not just give that signal but actually implement that," he added.

Learning lessons for brands

Brands need to realise the importance of implementing brand safety measures, Publicis Media's Poh said, especially in the digital space where they could be running on multiple sites with placements next to editorial or user-generated content they cannot control. When a negative incident occurs, regardless in Singapore or overseas, she explained that the agency will respond speedily by blocking keywords related to the incident, in this example, words such as "axe" and "River Valley High School" and block URLs that carry the headline news. Besides digital ads, brands should also not neglect their offline placements.

Offline placements are easier to monitor as you will know exactly which media channel, insertion dates, formats and positions you have booked. This is not the task of any single party, it should be a shared responsibility among the advertiser, the media agency and the media owner.

"Should any of the three called an alert, a decision could be made in time if the ad should be pulled out," Poh added.

On the same note, Wunderman Thompson's Desai said this incident highlights the importance of brand safety and establishing specific checkpoints where human intervention is required at every level with all involved. The reason being, the damage from a single incident can far outweigh the cost involved.

"In the current climate where much is automated and people have more channels to voice sentiments openly, what is entailed in brand safety may need to be revisited. Quite often is focused on response management and/or damage control. How can the industry come together to establish basic principles to avoid such incidents?" he added.

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