Sridevi's Death: Should Brands skip news channels that sensationalise content?

Brand safety issues arise in the face of sensational reporting on Bollywood actor Sridevi's death

e4m by Venkata Susmita Biswas
Published: Mar 1, 2018 8:59 AM  | 4 min read

The unanimous outrage against news channels sensationalising the death of Bollywood superstar Sridevi has raised questions about the quality of journalism on Indian television and made us wonder : What should brands do when television news channels air distasteful content?

Some have called out the advertising that fuels news channels to continue to broadcast insensitive and distasteful content. Commenting on the same, Suprio Guha Thakurta, ex-Chief Strategy Officer, The Economist, tweeted: "News survives on ads. Advertisers buy spots based on views. You would think you need an audience to justify the spend. Who watches this?India’s top 1% by income are forwarding bathtub jokes. They do. Like water,  news in India seeks its own level. Someone, pull the plug." 

Brands are highly conscious about brand safety on digital platforms like YouTube. Yet, television is not a space where brands have exercised open discretion about advertising.
Brand safety on the video sharing platform dominated conversations in 2017. YouTube took cognisance of this and placed checks and balances to curb instances like that of Logan Paul’s Suicide Forest video. Inventory on television news channels is however sold with very little idea about the content that will air. News programming is fluid and brands have no control over the content next to which their ads might appear.

Noting that quality of content across platforms is surely a concern for marketers, Rahul Pansare, Head Marketing, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles India, said, “We are very careful when it comes to social media and digital. However, advertising on television news is not completely in our control because we don’t know their programming.”

Therefore, brands that did not know how the Sridevi death coverage will pan out, could not have had the chance of rethinking their placement. “Everyone realised only later that the coverage on Sridevi was a case of bad journalism and the reporting had gone too far in some cases. It is too late by the time brands can get back to the television channels with feedback about the content,” noted Pansare.

Pansare added that brands can improve the filtering of content for advertising by giving broadcasters feedback about the content.

Brands generally have 24 hours to cancel an ad and reschedule the period of advertising with the broadcaster. “But rarely do brands pull out ads. In addition, the prerogative of accepting a cancellation lies with the broadcaster,” said a senior sales executive with a television news channel. She added, “Advertisers on vernacular language news channels are not known to cancel ads. But top brands which advertise heavily on English news channels are careful about the content on the channels and do consider pulling ads in case sensitive content being broadcast.”

Boycotting news channels has a flip side as it might be construed as dictating their editorial policies, said Vikas Mehta, CEO, PointNine Lintas. "Difficult as it may be, brands have to respect the editorial freedom of the news channels. What to say (or spew) on a subject, needs to be left to the channels. One can hope, they’d use that freedom wisely," he said.
Tweeting about brands which have continued to show support to channels during the entire period of coverage on Sridevi, Karthik Srinivasan, National Lead, Social, Ogilvy & Mather, suggested a campaign to cut ties with brands which have been advertising on channels airing sensational news.

Perhaps a campaign online to,
1. Identify brands that are advertising on news channels that are outright sensationalist
2. Make a list of the top 10 advertisers
3. Identify their apps, and run an uninstall/downvote campaign
4. Mass spam their social handles with protests

— Karthik (@beastoftraal) 27 February 2018

In the US, brands have boycotted the National Rifles Association for its position on gun-control. Could brands boycott news channels which broadcast tasteless and fake news? “Sooner or later that could happen. Brands may not make a public statement about not associating with certain channels. However, when brands make their media plans, these channels will slowly disappear from the list,” added Pansare.

If brands do wish to pull out ads from channels that consistently air content that is poor in taste it should be because the "channel is not the right environment for the brand rather than I like/dislike the channel's coverage of the story," cautioned Mehta.

In the past, a leading retail brand from India did blacklist a news channel for airing content that was sensational, frivolous. “Brands should take a stand against channels which air content for the sake of grabbing eyeballs and TRPs,” said the marketing head of a retail chain on the condition of anonymity.

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