Money Talks. And Sometimes It Yells, “Shut Up!”

Part One of an (at least) two-part series on Marketing and the Culture wars.

On January 8, 2017, The New York Times published an article in the Sunday Review section with the title How To Starve Online Hate. In it, writer Pagan Kennedy (great name) describes how Nathan Phillips, an environmental science professor, visited the right-wing website, Breitbart News, for the first time, just to see what all the recent fuss was about

Breitbart Headline: Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy

On the website he was surprised to see an advertisement for Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, the very grad school where he’d gotten his degree. Why would an environmental science program willingly spend money to advertise on a website that’s famous for denying climate change?

Breitbart Headline: Climate Change: The Greatest-Ever Conspiracy Against The American Taxpayer


Right wing website Breitbart News

The answer, of course, is that they wouldn’t. Anybody familiar with how programmatic online ad placements work will understand how something like this can happen. People don’t buy online ads, algorithms do. Even the most major, mainstream marketers often don’t know exactly where and when their ads run (don’t get me started).

By letting his alma mater know, to their surprise, exactly where they were spending some of their advertising dollars, Professor Phillips became one of a new form of activists. In the past several months, a Twitter group called Sleeping Giants has sent screenshots to more than 1,000 marketers whose ads ran amidst “hateful” content. More than 500 of those advertisers – including some sizable, mainstream marketers like Lenovo, Novo Nordisk, Chase, Clarins and Visa – have pulled their ads from those websites.

Naturally, there’s been all sorts of entertaining hullabaloo over this, with loyal readers of sites like Breitbart News threatening to boycott marketers who pull their ads and people on the other side of the argument pledging to buy more from brands who refuse to give ad money to the perceived bad guys’ websites.

One Million Moms, a conservative group dedicated to fighting back “against the immorality, violence, vulgarity and profanity the media is throwing at (our) children”, has been using a similar strategy for years, calling out marketers who run ads in media that promulgate what they perceive as undesirable values.

One Million Moms campaign against indecency in the media

One Million Moms campaign against indecency

One Million Moms Headline: Urge Red Lobster To Pull Sponsorship From Impastor

In some instances, they take issue with the ads themselves, such as a Zales jewelers commercial depicting two women exchanging wedding rings and vows.

One Million Moms headline: Zales Attempts to Normalize Sin

Whether your sympathies lie with the Giants or the Moms, any true capitalist has to acknowledge that this is exactly how the world should work. To the venerable five P’s of marketing; Product, Price, Place, Promotion and People, we’re going to have to add a sixth P, Principles. From now on, a brand’s principles are going to have to at least appear to align with those of the people it wants to sell to.

If your detergent brand stands for cleanliness and wholesomeness, how can you justify paying to place an ad on a violent TV show, or a sitcom that features a sexually active pair of seventeen-year-olds? If your car brand stands for safety, then explain why you give money to a website that makes marginalized groups feel unsafe.

It’s going to be up to individual marketers to decide how to wrangle this. Can you afford to alienate group A if it gets you more business from group B? Can you message to group X and hope group Y doesn’t find out?

More and more, marketers are going to be forced to take sides in the culture wars. It won’t be comfortable, but it will be interesting.


How To Starve Online Hate
Pagan Kennedy
Nathan Phillips
Breitbart News
Nicholas School of the Environment
How programmatic ad placement works
Sleeping Giants
One Million Moms
Zales Jewelers Love and Pride Collection


  1. Interesting article. Seems to me, the decision whether to be up in arms about where your online ad gets placed rests more with the product or service you’re selling rather than the brand overall. With 50% of the public liberal and 50% conservative, you’re always going to be offending someone. But my guess is that 90% of the public will use my soap if it cleans better, smells fresher, and doesn’t cost a lot more than other alternatives. So, I’d probably go with the most eyeballs. Niche marketers might see things differently. To paraphrase Lincoln, you can fool some of the people most of the time and most of the people some of the time but you can rest assured that at some point in time you’ll eventually piss off someone.

    Joe K.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Joe. You’re right. A lot of products are above, or below, the cultural horizon. But given how online display ads follow us around the web, and how they can take on a life of their own, beyond the purview of the companies paying for the ads, we might be surprised at what can become politicised. A personal example; I was shopping for some new cookware around the time I was writing this blog post and on a visit to Breitbart News, surprise, there popped an ad for Le Creuset cookware. I don’t view Dutch ovens and braising pans as being especially right or left wing, but there they were, right next to a headline reading, Obama Left Democrats Decimated With No Bench…And They Continue To Alienate Voters. (Come to think of it, it is called a “Dutch” oven, and Le Creuset is a French brand, so this may take on all sort of EU/Brexit overtones).


  2. Good piece. I think you make a great point that this is as much a fight over “principles” as it is over money and market share. I also think it will force even more pointed discussions on what may have short-term benefit (or pain relief from the online agitators) and what “principles” are best long-term bets for the brand.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, Jerry. I had a conversation about this last night with several laypersons; none of them are involved in any aspect of marketing. I’d asked them to read this post to get the views of some “regular people”.

      One of my friends said that she has a positive opinion of Zales Jewelers now, whereas before she’d had no feelings about the brand at all. She said that she thought it was great that Zales was making “a sincere effort to embrace a more diverse audience.”

      Another friend accused her – good naturedly – of being naive and Pollyannaish, because, “Zales is making a sincere effort to sell more rings, period.” In his opinion, Zales’ decision to create a line of rings for same sex couples and to run a commercial showing two women getting married was a purely business decision, not a principles decision.

      I pride myself on being the most cynical, detached, cold-eyed guy in the room (come on, I try) and even I have to wonder if my second friend is completely right. Zales is a mainstream brand. Their stores are located in malls across America, right alongside Foot Locker, Sears and Applebee’s. Based on absolutely zero information other than my own opinion, It seems that it would be far less risky for a high-end brand like, say, Tiffany, Van Kleef & Arpels or Harry Winston. to overtly market to gay people.

      But here’s a fun twist. In those same malls where you’ll find Zales stores, you’ll also frequently find Jared, Gordon’s Jewelers, Kay Jewelers, and Helzberg Diamonds. Zales, Jared, Gordon’s and Kay are all owned by the same parent company, Signet Jewelers. Helzberg is owned by Berkshire Hathaway. Like any smart holding company, Signet would want to create distinct personalities and positions for their “competing” brands, just as P&G does with its Tide, Dreft, Era, Gain and Cheer detergent brands.

      It might make perfect, business sense to make Zales the “liberal” brand and see if sales to gay consumers, and people with a more liberal point of view, increase. If they run off the Million Moms, then maybe they can scoop them up at the other end of the mall by positioning Kay as the Traditional Values store.

      Let me emphasize again that I’m making every bit of this up and that I have no inside knowledge whatever about the goings-on inside the Signet Jewelry marketing department. But it’s fun to think about. And, so long as the world keeps inching toward more tolerance and enlightenment, whether the decisions that bring that about are principled or cynical doesn’t really matter.


  3. I made a healthy living making many of these well thought out and researched decisions.

    The game is to get advertising (or any promotional message) in front of as many people as you think might react/buy as cheaply as possible. Period.

    I have had advertisers request their ads not be in publications or TV/radio shows they disagreed with and others who overlooked their issues and said ‘spend my money to make the most sales’. Those advertisers didn’t care if gays or Nazis or the Cleaver family bought what they were selling.

    I have often wondered what the economic gain was for advertisers that associated with, and promoted that association, with ‘good causes’. Are you more inclined to buy a Subaru if they sponsored the Olympics? Buy the Kraft brand because they support 4H? Shop for a hearing aid because it had an ad in PEOPLE or The New York Review of Books?

    Personally I have not found data proving it improves sales. At same time it is the person peeing in dark pants adage. The only one feeling the warmth is the person in the pants. And more often than not ..nothing wrong with that.

    But isn’t the issue; can social media be turned on itself? Can the tactic of social media’s immediate mass penetration be reversed?

    I learned through social media that LLBean was illegally donating to Trump. Trump and illegal being the operative words.

    I have been buying LLBean products since the early 50’s. Their stuff is without peer. I sent an email saying as a private company what the owners do is synonymous with the company and thus the brand. And because I vehemently disagreed expensing that kind of message I was no longer buying LLBean. They argued it wasn’t and it didn’t and wished I wouldn’t.

    Now my single note won’t amount to a hill of beans. But there is a tipping point that might have an effect. I can use social media to reach that tipping point and maybe change LLBean thinking. It will be quicker, cheaper and maybe more impactful than the traditional way.

    we know the medium is the message but which medium and which message?

    The new POTUS will (has) disposed of the diplomatic pouch and policy will be now made universally in 140 characters. So no need to worry about ad adjacencies.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great point of discussion Bill. The benefits of aligning your client’s messaging with the right audience is what media planning professionals have been striving for and achieving for years. And one of the greatest benefits of digital technologies is just that. There is a tremendous amount of targeting that goes into digital campaigns and even more in programmatic. And of course, for those sites that a client would like to avoid, you can blacklist them so that you can be assured you don’t align with their content. With many of the sophisticated technologies that incorporate data capture and audience profiles including 1st, 2nd and 3rd party data the tools for better aligning your client’s messaging with the optimal prospect exist. However, there is no substitute for human attention and campaign management and if you are staying true to your client’s brand positioning, you’ll pay close attention to the content you associated the brand with in a campaign. Even in the days of old, before the digital world, I recall placing a healthcare ad and the newspaper inappropriately placing it on the obituaries page – not a morning I will ever forget when I opened the paper that morning or the call I got from the client.

    Liked by 1 person

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