As Political Toxicity Grows Online, Advertisers Pause on Social Networks

The tenor of the political conversation in the United States is growing increasingly divisive and in some cases violent, causing many brands to rethink their advertising strategies, especially in light of this week's Capitol riots. 
"Brands and content creators that continue to market in a business-as-usual way during tumultuous times either get drowned out completely or face backlash," influencer marketing company Collectively head of innovation Natalie Silverstein said. "We recommend that brands always hit pause quickly, then assess whether their messages align to their values or contribute meaningfully to the conversation. If not, they should stay quiet." 
Collectively estimates there were about 75 percent fewer sponsored content posts on social platforms on January 6 than projected based on general trends. Many marketers that decided to halt their online advertising campaigns will likely keep pausing throughout the weekend Silverstein added. Other agencies are advising the same. 
"The advertising community could not just go on with business-as-usual given yesterday's heavy unrest," said marketing agency Digitas group's director for paid social, Danisha Lomax. "For in times like these, when the country's attention is focused on matters of decency, democracy, and of the heart, pausing your media might make sense – not purely based on messaging, but in an effort to respond to a higher call."
Some will continue to be cautious about advising advertising campaigns during heightened political tension. 
"At this point, we're continuing to monitor everything and stay in close communication with our clients about how to proceed, particularly between now and the inauguration on [January] 20," said media agency Havas Media group director of biddable media Rob Pearsall. 

Rethinking Ad Spends

Online spaces have become a great way to reach the masses, and social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Snap have been able to leverage their user bases to create industry-leading advertising platforms. U.S. social media network ad spending is expected to take in $48.94 billion in revenue during 2021, according to eMarketer. Online video has also become increasingly important during the pandemic as people spent more time at home. YouTube alone is estimated to earn $5.56 billion in revenue this year.
Social platforms can connect people, and have been used to create awareness and attention to positive causes. But, as evidenced by the Capitol riots on Wednesday, it has also been harnessed to create political instability and encourage others to act violently. 
"Social networks are our public squares at this point, and that means the tenor and volume of conversation can turn almost instantly," said Collectively's Silverstein.

The Trump Effect

In light of President Donald Trump's inflammatory rhetoric, many platforms decided to take down posts they felt encouraged violence. In one video, he praised the Capitol rioters, saying he loved them and they were "special people." Other statements continued to spread the false narrative that the election results were fraudulent like one that declared riots, like the one seen Wednesday, happen when "a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously and viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly and unfairly treated for so long." 
Twitter suspended Trump temporarily for violating its policies, and Snapchat, which has not promoted Trump's channel in its Discover section since June, also blocked access to his account. Facebook took the strongest stance, deciding to ban Trump from its platform indefinitely, but for at least two weeks, until the peaceful transfer of power to President-Elect Joe Biden has occurred. While some have raised concerns that this may drive users away and towards smaller, less-regulated spaces, thereby shrinking their user base, many agencies think these moves will make things better. 
"We have zero concern around deplatforming Trump," Collectively's Silverstein said. "Most brands will likely welcome safer, less toxic social spaces." 
Even after Trump leaves office, the schism in political ideology will remain. It also means marketers will be wary, which could have an impact on social platforms' ad revenue temporarily. However, with the size and scale of these platforms, the dollars are sure to come back — although companies will be more conscious about their campaigns. 
"It's important to remember, once a brand resumes their posting schedule and turns media back on, that social communities are made up of real people, expressing real opinions, grief, happiness, joy, anxiety, and uncertainty," Digitas' Lomax said. "The crucial lens to review your content through these days is a human one."
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