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Almost Half of Consumers Will Abandon Brands They Love if Their Ads Run Alongside Objectionable Online Content

Nearly half of all consumers indicate they would rethink purchasing brands or boycott products if they encounter brand ads alongside digital content that offends them. This is the stark revelation from a milestone survey which looked at digital brand safety from the consumer’s perspective and found that customers are punishing even preferred brands, if they don’t use trusted media platforms, or take active steps to control the integrity of their ad environments.

Conducted by The Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council using the Pollfish platform, the survey gathered views from 2,000 adults in North America and the UK; regions which have both seen high profile campaigns withdrawn this year for their association with fake, distressing and hateful content. The consumer focus is part of a broader study of digital brand safety being conducted by the CMO Council, in partnership with Dow Jones, titled Brand Protection from Content Infection.

With trust more critical than ever, respondents made it clear that they will no longer give their brands a pass for even the inadvertent display of ads near objectionable digital and video content. A full two-thirds of respondents said they would hold a dimmer view of brands that provided “negative advertising experiences.”

The report also found that social media platforms are still not trusted content spaces. Despite listing social media as the source of the second-highest volume of ad messages they receive – behind only television – consumers ranked social media last among their five most trusted channels. They ranked friends, TV, search engines and newspapers as more trusted sources.

A large majority of consumers said they responded differently to the same ad, depending on its context, with 63 percent saying they responded more positively to ads run in trusted media channels. Consumers are, in fact, turning to trusted content providers and media to escape objectionable content. Some 60 percent said offensive context had already caused them “to consume more content from trusted, well-known news sources and established media channels.”

“CMOs and brand advertisers are increasingly concerned about various aspects of digital and programmatic advertising, including concerns about their ads showing up next to offensive content,” said Donovan Neale-May, executive director of the CMO Council.  “This consumer survey demonstrates that those concerns are well founded. Advertising placed next to objectionable content is damaging to a brand, while ads that accompany more trusted content and media are more accepted. ”

While other brand safety studies have explored adverse brand perceptions, the CMO Council research asked consumers their response to the experience of finding brand ads in proximity to objectionable content or fake news sites—and their warning to advertisers was brutal. Some 37 percent of consumers said it would “change the way (they) think of a brand when making a decision to buy.” Another 11 percent said they would flat-out “not do business with that brand.” And another 9 percent said they would become vocal critics of the brand.

“For years, it has been the hospitality industry setting the bar for consumer experience," said Liz Miller, senior vice president of marketing and programs, CMO. "From today’s technologies of smart keys, smart bands at theme parks, to even the white glove service of being greeted at the door by name and the maitre d knowing exactly what wine you prefer…but in today’s connected day and age, the customer expects that this same attention to service and customer is extended to every single touch point, be them controlled by the brand or not.

"What this study clearly shows is that customer perceptions of the brand will be swayed based on where and how brand advertising is seen," she continued. "Hospitality brands simply cannot focus only on experience on-site. The same care, intention and strategy of bringing data and intelligence to the check-in, on-site and check-out experience must now be applied to advertising strategies and placements. Do hoteliers know where their digital ads are laying their heads at night? Are their ads appearing where their customer appreciates? Or are they popping up in dark and unwanted spots?”

Negative experiences with digital display advertising are far from a rarity. According to the most recent Media Quality Report by Integral Ad Science, 8.6 percent of digital display ads in the U.S. turned up on content flagged as posing a moderate or high risk to brand reputation. Maria Pousa, CMO for IAS, told the CMO Council that the most prevalent categories of risk in the U.S. were violent, adult or offensive language content, followed by issues like hate speech and illegal downloads.

Other key insights of the CMO Council survey include:
  • A surprising 86 percent of consumers are either extremely concerned, very concerned or moderately worried about how easily they are directed or redirected to hateful or offensive content
  • The most annoying digital advertising formats, even when appearing on trusted media channels, were intrusive pop-up ads (22 percent) and auto-playing video ads (17 percent)
  • Attention to digital advertising overall was notably low, with only 14 percent always engaged, and 58 percent saying they pay attention only when ads either “interest me” or are “really interesting”
  • Just over 40 percent of consumers have already installed ad-blocking software on their devices, while another 13.7 percent said they planned to add these features.

The full report, featuring qualitative interviews and vendor insights, includes key details on the steps, tools and strategies adopted by leading advertisers and CMOs who have minimized the threat to their brands. The abbreviated consumer survey findings can be sourced from the CMO Council program page:

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