The YouTube Boycott & Brand Management in the Age of Trump

This recent incident of hundreds of brands boycotting YouTube and Google is very different from anything we have seen before. The situation all seemingly started with an article breaking the news of video ads appearing alongside extremist videos and, within a week, hundreds of brands decided to boycott YouTube. Writing exclusively for ExchangeWire, Dilip DaSilva, CEO, Exponential, asks whether this is an orchestrated event. These brands are likely not talking to each other and collectively deciding to pull out. Yet, this situation has snowballed fairly quickly, which leads us to scratch our heads wondering why.

We are all puzzled, because I don’t believe this response is about brand safety alone or even about supporting terrorist organisations, as described in the initial article. I believe something else is going on and it would be helpful to understand the context.

After Trump was elected, a global grassroots movement developed to boycott publications that post or support hate or fake content. Groups like Sleeping Giants have sprung up and have made it their mission to spot and boycott brands that support certain publications. No brand wants to be called out and boycotted by this grassroots movement, as it can have a major and immediate impact on their revenues. And it can have a lasting negative impact on the brand.

Breitbart was the first content site that was targeted and now over 1,000+ brands have banned advertising on the site. I believe people contacted the brands to let them know they would boycott their products if they did not stop advertising on Breitbart. This grassroots movement developed and grew via social media and is global. People are fired up. It is the same movement that saw massive protests during the Women’s March in cities across the world; and is the same movement that’s flooding the phone lines of every representative in congress. People within this movement are contacting the brands and the press.

Google continue to serve adSense ads on Breitbart, as they want to take a neutral stance and leave it up to the advertisers to decide where they run. Google have taken a similarly neutral stance with YouTube. The company believes that allowing advertisers to better choose on what content they run is the way they can navigate this situation. This grassroots movement cannot boycott a publisher like YouTube or Google and have much of any impact on the publisher’s bottom line. However, they can threaten to boycott the brands that support YouTube and Google. I believe this is how hundreds of brands ended up boycotting YouTube in a matter of days. Brands are clearly highly sensitive to being caught on the wrong side of this movement. It may also be possible that this grassroots movement is punishing Google because they continue to support Breitbart.

In a time when power has tilted too far in favour of large corporations and the government, Trump’s presidency has become a catalyst for activating a large group of people who have just started realising how to flex their muscles. We have already seen this with people boycotting Nordstrom for carrying Ivanka’s brand and a similar boycott of Under Armor and Uber because of their CEOs’ support of Trump. Now this movement seems to be going after Google for supporting Breitbart. Given this perspective, it seems that adding better filtering to avoid inappropriate content is not going to end the boycott.

As the saying goes, with all free products like YouTube, if you are not paying for the product, you are the product. Google make money by attracting consumers to their content and then getting advertisers to pay to display ads to those consumers. Consumers have little power in this dynamic and Trump’s pro-business position tilts the balance even further in favour of corporations. However, the Trump presidency has activated people around the world, and consumers are connecting with each other to fight this new world order. As they fight back with their wallets, brands are having to react. What is different now is that consumers are banding together around a shared initiative and brands have to figure out how navigate this shift in power towards consumers.

Google are in a tough position. They would rather not have to censor content and leave this to the advertiser. They will have to weigh whether continuing to support content like Breitbart is worth the cost of the boycott. And should they cut off Breitbart, it will only further embolden this grassroots movement. For the first time, Google have to face this new shift in power created through consumers banding together on social media.

In the case of brands, they will need to be much more agile and make sure they do not get caught on the wrong side of this movement. In the past, it might have been safest to remain neutral and avoid controversy. However, with consumers who are activated and banding together, some brands may have to decide whether they need to take a position that demonstrates that their own values are aligned with the common values of this movement.

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