NBC's Megyn Kelly controversy shows that even TV isn't safe for marketers

Megyn kellyCBSMegyn Kelly in an interview on CBS.

On Sunday, Megyn Kelly will air an interview with right-wing provocateur and conspiracy-monger Alex Jones.

The fury over Kelly’s decision to interview Jones, who has — among other things — denied that the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting was real, is just the latest affirmation that advertising in America is becoming a minefield.

And, it’s not just the Internet or cable TV that marketers have to worry about. Instead, marketing executives now have to keep a closer eye than ever before on the kind of content their ads might end up next to on any medium, and whether or not that association will offend consumers, or stir up protesters.

J.P. Morgan Chase responded to news of the Jones interview by asking for its local TV and digital ads to be removed from NBC and anchor Megyn Kelly’s show until after this Sunday’s episode. NBC isn’t alone in getting caught up in this kind of situation. Fox News Channel lost advertisers after Sean Hannity promoted a conspiracy theory about murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich on his show last month, as did YouTube, when U.K. advertisers saw their ads appearing alongside extremist content on YouTube and Google’s display ad network.

In some cases, because of programmatic (or automated) ad buying, the ads wind up next to objectionable content without marketer’s prior knowledge. And the Kelly-Jones interview highlights how otherwise seemingly safe network TV content has marketers worried.

While more brands haven’t yet come forward to publicly denounce NBC and pull back from Kelly’s show, media buyers say that clients that could’ve been on the roster, are choosing to stay away.

“We had opportunities to move clients currently in market into her show and we decided to stay away,” said a media buyer from an independent media agency who wanted to remain anonymous. “News is an active, polarising front in the current culture wars and the potential backlash from all points on the political spectrum was too risky for us to recommend.”

Advertisers, in general, are getting more wary of where their ads might end up than before. Things are vastly different from last year, when a lot of them, including Allstate and Warby Parker, were caught flatfooted when their ads started appearing on Breitbart without their knowledge.

“In the past two years, we’ve seen a huge increase in marketers concerned about the contextual placement of advertising, both on TV and in digital,” said Ben Kunz, senior vice president of marketing and content at Mediassociates. “This is driven by the rising polarization of politics, where large groups of consumers can instantly become furious over a new scandal.”

However, while brand safety may be more top-of-mind for advertisers, the implications for media outlets appear mild. Boycotts end up having practically zero impact bottom lines, as Digiday reported in the case of YouTube, with ad spend on the platform remaining stable and most U.S. advertisers returning by this month.

“Brand safety is a constant conversation and will be one for the foreseeable future, but the individual episodes are transient,” said Rob Silver, national media lead for SapientRazorfish. “Yesterday it was Bill O’Reilly, today it is Megyn Kelly and tomorrow it will be someone or something else.”

But if you’re a brand, you probably want to incorporate editorial context in your media strategy.

“We’ve gone from a world where advertising campaigns used to focus on audience targets, planning forecasts, and measurement of results to where the sensitivity of the editorial context is a fourth strategic prong,” said Kunz. “I say strategic, because marketers must weigh the benefit of huge audiences associated with scandal with the risk their brands may be damaged by association.”

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