After reading through another story about Sunday’s horrific terrorist attack in Las Vegas, I scrolled to the bottom of the article where bostonglobe.com – my general outlet of choice – lists related articles. As a former journalist and still certified news junkie, I wanted more, regardless of how awful and depressing the news was.
What I found first instead was a headline that read, “How to use cheddar for every occasion.” Sponsored by Cabot Cheese, it’s what the newspaper industry calls “sponsored content.” It is, very clearly, an advertisement that reads like a story.
And it enjoyed unfortunate real estate on the Globe’s website Monday night and Tuesday morning. It should have been pulled down, or at least repositioned to a space on the website far away from the Las Vegas coverage.
At Melwood Global, shortly after we learned of the massacre on Monday morning, we rushed to take down any scheduled social media posts –advertisements in a different form – on behalf of clients. No one wants to be peddling their offerings in the midst of a national tragedy. It is tasteless.
This used to be an issue with traditional media, too. I worked on a gubernatorial campaign in 2002, and, one week before the September primary, all the campaigns opted not to advertise during the first anniversary of 9-11. Other advertisers wrestled with the decision, with most opting to go dark that day.
Since social and digital media is a relatively new phenomenon, ethics around it are also emerging and evolving. It can be an invaluable tool during a crisis – Facebook’s “Safety Check” was used effectively during the recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean islands, as well as in the aftermath of terrorist attacks around the world. But it can also harm brands, reputations, careers and potentially lives.
No one expects for-profit outlets to strip away all of their advertising when a tragedy strikes. Rather, it should be up to the individual brands (or their representatives) to pull down their ads for the day. This smart process was written by the British group Armadillo Social following the Manchester, England bombing after an Ariana Grande concert last May:
- Take it down
- Make a thoughtful decision
- Create a response
- Talk to people
- Pause, then carry on
I would add a final one:
- Practice humility, and then use common sense