I’m Done With These Uncertain Times

I need a break from all the heartfelt feelings and hypocrisy.

Watching television – primarily via Hulu – is becoming an emotional chore, one that needs to be prepared for and managed as if I were running a marathon or dealing with extended family. The reason? The ads.

Commercials, of course, are few people’s favorite part of the viewing experience. It’s possible to not be a big fan while also recognizing the role paid advertising plays in supporting media and such. But now these are becoming especially hard to stomach.

That’s mostly because of how the commercials have become exercises in seeing how emotional they can make audiences feel by referencing the current Covid-19 pandemic and how the business has adjusted operations as a result.

Inserting coronavirus-themed messaging into the commercials means viewers may not be getting the full effect of the break from pandemic-related news they so desperately need.

The phrases have become familiar and pervasive. “In these uncertain times…” or “As we go through this difficult period…” or “As we all try to make sense of the world around us…” Whatever the terminology, the message is largely the same: The company behind the ad has instituted contactless curbside pickup, or has given their workers a bottle of hand-sanitizer and some gloves so they can keep doing their jobs. All of it is an effort to make sure that the consumer feels doing business with them will be safe and that it treats their workers respectfully.

Sometimes these are funny. More often they’re somber and serious. In some cases they’re thinly-veiled recruitment ads.

Frequently they’re outright hypocritical. Retailers of various kinds running ads about how much they are protecting their warehouse and store workers while the news reports on how those companies are denying people sick leave and failing to track the outbreaks happening in their locations is a pretty remarkable thing to watch.

Whatever the case, there are more and more of them, now accounting for some 20 percent of TV advertising. That means nearly every commercial break now has at least one, often with a narrator speaking in soft, calming tones.

And while there are certainly more pressing matters in front of the world right now, I’m done with them. In fact, I reached my breaking point *because* there’s so much else going on. We all need to give our minds a rest from the constant deluge of terrible news and updates, and these reminders that society has been upended in substantial ways are exhausting.

Oddly, I haven’t seen many commercials talking about how we will get through these uncertain times following the police killing of George Floyd. I’m sure there’s a reason for that.

In the meantime, I could use fewer reminders that things are so uncertain. I know. Every time I go get gas and put on a mask, I remember. Every time I open Twitter, I remember. It’s just that the rationale behind them is so blatant and frequently obnoxious I can’t take much more.

It should be stated that there is one exception to this, the latest Arby’s commercial, which pokes some fun at the reality of the current situation.

Creators to Social Media Platforms: We Were On A Break!

Everyone needs some time off now and again.

Social media influencers, it seems, are increasingly deciding to log off for a bit, burnt out by the time and effort needed to keep up with the schedules they’ve established for publishing new material. They know that doing so is filled with risks, as whatever success they’ve achieved has depended greatly on constantly pushing out new content and staying at the top of people’s minds. If they are seen as no longer relevant they could start to lose subscribers/followers, which could then lead to fewer sponsorship/revenue opportunities, and once lost it could be hard to regain their previous position.

The story reminds me of the conversations that used to take place in the early days of Web 2.0’s mainstream adoption. People would regularly take time off from their blogs because of work commitments or just because they needed to catch their breath a bit and recharge their creative batteries. A running joke (rooted in reality, as most things are) was that those who started podcasts – in the first wave of that format’s popularity – were likely to abandon the project before the tenth episode. If it went beyond that it might go on for years, but that seemed to be the point where burnt out set in.

I Need To Lie Down Parks And Recreation GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

In those days – now 15 or more years ago – taking a break was something that just happened. Announcing it on your blog was kind of a joke, as people had a laugh at the author for taking themselves so seriously as to think it was a Big Deal and had to be addressed publicly. You opened yourself up for comments being left on the post that tweaked you for feeling so important and essential.

For most people at that time a personal blog was either a branding mechanism – showing off your skills in the hopes it would lead to job advancement in some manner or to further writing opportunities – or simply a passion project where you let your freak flag fly on a topic you loved or were passionate about. Revenue wasn’t really a concern, so a heads-up to readers about a break was more about showing you hadn’t abandoned the blog.

Taking time off may have been important to you, but because a good amount of reading happened via RSS and links from other blogs it didn’t impact your audience much unless it extended for a significant period. Whenever you picked back up, your readers would know about it and things continued on.

That the stakes are so much higher now for taking the kind of break independent online publishers have needed from time to time for over a decade says something about the state of internet media. Social media platforms own a sizable percentage of online behavior, taken in large part from blogs. LiveJournal has shuttered, Tumblr has fallen from grace after multiple acquisitions. Medium isn’t the hot site it once was and other platforms have come and gone.

A break of some duration is understandable, then. When the stakes were much lower it made sense, especially for people who produced podcasts or held themselves to a strict, heavy publishing schedule. Now, with so much more on the line it’s even more justifiable, especially since time off might mean a producer’s content is weighted differently in the platform algorithms that determine who succeeds and who doesn’t.

While I’ve been critical of “influencer marketing” over the last several years, that’s mostly because it feels like a cheapening of the infrastructure that was built by the early online publishing pioneers. It used to take hard work and dedication to amass a substantial readership, now it takes a bit of spending on Promoted Posts and some help from the brand that hired you to make their new product introduction video.

But it is a job, and a hard one. Many of the best ones, the ones who aren’t overt Nazis or misogynists, put a lot of effort into their channels and productions and depend on the revenue generated in the same way a freelancer or other independent worker would. Many companies offer long-term employees a sabbatical of some length after X number of years to help avoid burnout, and people can use their vacation time to get away from the office (hypothetically, at least, since a big percentage never really does) and gain some perspective.

Just like what the article mentions about online influencers, those employees face some amount of risk by taking advantage of the time off available to them. They may come back and find their responsibilities have been assigned to others, or that they’ve been cut out of an important upcoming project. The boss might have a new favorite or they may receive negative feedback on their next performance review as they’re seen as not fully committed to the company and its success.

All of that is to say the problems faced by these individuals are common, felt by people in a variety of positions and circumstances and should therefore be taken seriously. Everyone needs a break now and then, as long as both parties are aware it’s happening.


Everything Old Is Still Old

Influencers still peddling the same bromides they have been for years.

I recently had the misfortune to watch a video of an influencer talking about…well…the stuff influencers talk about. This individual is someone who has been recognized as a deep thinker by various news organizations, put on important lists and given opportunities to spread his message via high-profile speaking gigs.

It was someone I had never heard of despite his apparent fame and that the video being shown was of him sharing his worldview at the headquarters of a massive multinational corporation.

empty chair sketch

As soon as he started talking, though, it was clear I knew the type.

They’ve certainly been around for a long time, but this particular sub-species has blossomed fully thanks to the birth of the social web 20 years or so ago. The talk was filled with the same sort of generic “insights” that have been floating around the internet for a good long while. He spoke of connections and empathy and getting real and all the other associated buzzwords and topics.

None of it meant anything, of course. The same milquetoast sentiments didn’t mean anything 20 years ago, either, but they were packaged in such a way that they seemed new and fresh, mostly because they involved the internet we were all just getting used to being on for hours and hours at a time.

They were packaged into clever little sayings and sentiments, sometimes with a catchy little cartoon attached to them in some manner. Even before Twitter and other social media, these trifles were designed to be shared. And we were meant to take these people seriously because they amassed large followings – which they were always broadcasting and crowing about – of people ready to have their itching ears scratched by thoughts they could leverage into their own work.

The same playbook is being used by someone who has gathered around him a new generation of followers who are entranced by his ability to distill serious topics down to their most basic, stupidest elements. He’s used that ability to sell books, command large fees and more.

Often the audience for this material are those who want to feel they are pondering something new and expanding their thinking without having to do any of the actual heavy intellectual lifting. They are comforted by the fact they can report back on all the big ideas they’ve now been exposed to and can drop in their next presentation slide deck but are unburdened by the need to apply any serious rigor to the material.

Good for them that they have found a way to make a relatively easy living. All they have to do is draft off more substantial thinking done by others, using smaller words and creating warm feelings in the audience.

What’s clear is they’re not adding anything new. They weren’t 20 years ago and they aren’t now, but you would never know that by the attention they receive.

The Egg on North Face

North Face is not, by any means, the first company to try and alter their own Wikipedia entry for marketing-related purposes. They might, though, be the first to so publicly tout doing so and have their success presented as a successful effort to overcome the “obstacle” presented by the site’s own dictum that such efforts were strictly verboten.

There’s quite enough blame to go around here. Parties to be held accountable include:

  1. Those that pitched the campaign, regardless of whether they were junior or senior staffers at the agency involved.
  2. Those at a more senior level who approved the idea as one suitable to be presented to the client.
  3. Those at the company who approved the campaign and gave the go-ahead for implementation.
  4. Those at Ad Age who presented the campaign as a cheeky “subversion” of the rules, like we should reward those involved for willfully defiling a public space and see them as innovative instead of the vandals they are.

The situation we find ourselves in is one where professional ethics in the marketing industry seem to be all but completely abandoned. It’s not just that times have changed and norms have been adjusted in the last 20 years. Influencers don’t bother disclosing affiliate posts, celebrities don’t bother disclosing their paid posts and a shocking number of marketers aren’t even aware there are guidelines around influencer marketing.

15 years ago the people running online marketing programs were the same ones who had come up with the rise of the industry, many of whom were intimately involved in the creation of professional guidelines and best practices. As that generation was phased out they tried to pass on what they’d learned – sometimes the hard way – to those behind them. At some point it became a game of telephone, though, to the point that some current marketing professionals don’t even try. And the industry press, afraid of losing access, isn’t pressing on these points.

All of that is in service to the belief that the best way to run a successful campaign or program is to be “edgy.” Throw norms out the window, because all they do is get in the way of making money. If one agency says they won’t execute a program because it violates some standard or guideline, all a company has to do is find one that suffers from no such moral burden, at which point the original agency has lost the business and will have to report the reason why to their holding company. Failure is not an option because there’s always someone willing to cross the line and leave before having to face any consequences.

You see this all the time, particularly with agencies and consultancies built around a single personal brand. They will come up with the most outrageous idea and convince someone to execute it because they’re not in the business of having consistent, repeat clients. Instead they parachute in to a project, rack up scores of billable hours developing a half-baked idea that’s then dropped on another party’s lap and have moved on before the grenade explodes in someone’s hands.

The reputations of everyone involved remain intact because hey, at least there was some press coverage of the campaign, right? It may not be a Cannes Lion but it certainly broke through the media clutter and got some attention. So long as no one’s stock price was harmed, the only parties held responsible might be the junior staffer tasked with copy-editing the campaign.

I’m painting with broad brushes here and there are certainly ethical people operating at all levels of the marketing and advertising industry. Each time a story like this emerges, though, it’s hard to think those people aren’t becoming fewer and farther between while those free from any consideration beyond what will make the biggest impact proliferate.

Less Of Your Marketing Matters Than You Thought

There’s a standard in the marketing/advertising field that someone has to be exposed to X number of messages about your product or brand before they choose to make a purchase. In some cases that’s up to a dozen instances of what’s called “effective frequency” in others it’s as little as three. A good chunk of the content marketing industry is based on that premise, since putting more material out there to either pushed to the public or available to them via search.

There may be some truth to that, but a new study shows less of that marketing may be influential than previously thought.

At least that’s the conclusion that can be reached after reading a new study showing people don’t use as much information in their decision making processes as they claim to. What the research found is that people tend to overestimate how deeply they ponder or evaluate factors and new inputs to appear smarter and more prone to deep contemplation and evaluation. Instead, the actual decision is made early on and is predicated largely on an emotional reaction to the first instance they’re exposed to.

To coin a phrase, first impressions matter.

Think about that the next time you’re considering a campaign that has as a central tenet reaching the same audience a dozen or more times. Everything beyond those first couple of ads or messages hasn’t done much at all to change someone’s feelings or opinions of your product or service if they’ve already elicited a negative emotional reaction in the audience.

Advertisers and marketers are used to that old adage “Half my ad budget is wasted, I just don’t know which half,” an expression of the frustration felt over not having insights into which parts of a campaign actually changed people’s minds. This study would suggest that it’s whichever half is devoted to repeatedly putting the same message in front of the same segments. Such repetition isn’t reinforcing anything, as the decision was likely made well before the campaign got to that point.

The researchers ran several tests in a variety of environments to come to their conclusions, and it may be worthwhile for marketers to devote time and resources to conducting their own testing about how much frequency actually moves the needle on interest or intent.

Here are some question to ask:

  • Is the audience’s intent substantively different after the second or third repetition compared to after the 10th or 12th?
  • How are you altering the media mix to reach different segments instead of the same one or two over and over again?
  • Can you increase interest or intent by reaching the same segment with markedly different messages each time instead of the same one repeatedly?

There are more, of course, that can go into your message testing, but having some idea of how repetition truly changes people’s minds has the potential to help you make more informed media placement decisions. That means you’re getting more return on spending, something that should be a priority for every marketing professional around.

Content Marketing Insights: Developing a Program Framework – Creating a Mission Statement

A content marketing program is more complex than some would have you believe. This is one in a series of posts laying out some best practices and essential steps to take when developing or evaluating a program for you or your organization.

Corporate mission statements really came into vogue in the last 40 years or so as companies sought to set themselves apart and define what the image they wanted to present to the public really was. You read a lot of these and you see repeated use of phrases like “be the best in class” or “become the market leader” in a way that’s related to their industry.

The actual business value of such mission statements has always seemed a tad questionable to me. They always appeared to be more about a board of directors feeling like they’ve contributed or a consultant preying on fears of being left behind than anything that will matter to the public.

That their primary purpose is as in-house positioning is actually a big reason they play a large role in the development of a content marketing program.

When writing your program’s mission statement, the question that needs to be asked is this:

What is it we want our message to be?

It’s a bit more nuanced than that, of course, But if you can’t answer that question right off the bat, the program is in trouble from the outset.

As you begin putting together the structure and purpose of the program, the mission statement begins to focus the defining principles laid out previously. As with any other mission statement, one for a content marketing program should hit the following points:

  • What are you doing?
  • How are you doing it?
  • Why are you doing it?

Here’s a quick, generic example.

Be a valuable source of company and industry news through regular publishing of relevant, engaging updates on important topics to raise the company’s standing among buyers, customers and media.

Your own will be specific to what you want to accomplish and may include mentions of direct sales or other metrics, but be careful to not set goals that are too specific in this mission statement. Those goals will be outlined later on, after tactics and strategies have also been provided.

Right now you’re setting the vision for the program more than anything.

The purpose of the mission statement at this stage is mostly about gaining internal approval. This is you selling the purpose of the program to higher-ups, as well as giving everyone involved something to rally around. So it should be aspirational yet achievable, with a bit of hyperbole built in so everyone feels they’re signing off on something visionary or groundbreaking.

There are some who feel you should include mentions of target audiences, sales funnels and other details in the mission statement, but those will only get you into trouble later on. Target audiences change, sales funnels are altered based on user experiences and testing. The mission statement should, with some caveats, be evergreen and as applicable two years from now as it is today. Like other elements of the program it should be revisited from time to time to make sure it’s still relevant, but it shouldn’t be so fungible that any change in tactics is going to necessitate revisions.

Again, this is a big part of receiving buy-in on the program being developed, so any change to what’s here will impact how those you report to view what you’re doing and how much they support it. If you are constantly changing the mission statement because you made it too specific, those who have signed off on it may be confused or irritated when what they see now doesn’t match what they had previously agreed to.

Create your mission statement with tomorrow in mind and you’ll be on solid footing as you continue developing the content marketing program.

Marketing Is Partly Fixing Non-Existent Problems

One of the hallmarks of the first era of PR blogging was that everyone was a problem fixer. Any time a company made the slightest misstep and experienced any kind of blowback from its behavior there were a dozen experts right there to identify what went wrong and share their solutions to the reading public, solutions that coincidentally often matched the writer’s overall philosophy or the consulting services he was happy to offer.

That editorial approach has seeped into the media at large. Anytime there’s a rallying of public opinion around a perceived issue, there are sure to be editorials on well-regarded sites with suggestions on how the problem can be fixed and advice on how to avoid such obvious issues in the future.

It’s an approach I’ve tried my darndest to avoid over the years. I may take issue with something, but I try to steer clear of making it a central theme of my blog archives because it’s self-indulgent, egotistical and just annoying. It’s also startlingly transparent since these editorials are now likely to come from execs at companies and agencies whose goal is still to drum up business.

Many of the “problems” identified in such pieces are also only “problems” if you ignore the fact that that they’re often features of wildly successful products or companies. They may be slightly annoying or sub-optimal from a user-experience perspective, but they’re not massive issues requiring immediate fixes.

Take the recent attention paid to Netflix and how previews on the site’s home, category and search results pages auto-play when you hover over them with your mouse. There have been countless articles like this that have identified it as an issue that must be addressed lest Netflix suffer irreparable damage to its product and brand.

The reality is that it’s going to be fine. That UX might be slightly annoying, but it’s not the kind of thing that is likely to truly and strongly discourage anyone from using it, not when measured against the advantages of the service and site as a whole and what it offers. It’s a small speedbump, not a barrier to usage.

Still, the “X company has a problem that can be fixed in five easy steps” genre is an example in and of itself that marketing is often not about selling aspirational (if unattainable) goals but simply offering a solution to a problem. McDonald’s is selling customers 1) the idea that its food will help the whole family be happy, something every parent wants, and 2) a solution to the problem of not having enough time to make dinner for everyone given conflicting schedules, picky eating habits and other obstacles. Netflix wants subscribers to 1) feel well-informed on the shows and movies that are at the center of the cultural buzz, and 2) use it as a one-stop shop for all their viewing needs instead of subscribing to dozens of cable channels they never watch.

While there’s more than a little BS in the editorial genre of offering solutions to non-existent problems, it does reflect how quickly issues can escalate from the imagined to the very real, providing an opening in the corporate armor just big enough for a competitor to slide a knife.

There are real problems and there are trumped-up problems that “the internet is freaking out about” but which amount to nothing. People calling out the latter often overlook that these features are well-tested and considered and have some positive purpose. They haven’t been slapped up without forethought or planning, no matter how they’re made to sound by those looking to stir up a hornet’s nest.

Content Marketing Insights: Developing a Program Framework – General Principles

A content marketing program is more complex than some would have you believe. This is one in a series of posts laying out some best practices and essential steps to take when developing or evaluating a program for you or your organization.

When you, your team and whatever other stakeholders are laying the groundwork for a content marketing program the first step is to create some sort of structure for that program. These aren’t hard and fast rules on what content is or isn’t included or instructional how-tos on publishing and engaging.

Instead the Program Framework is a set of ideas and objectives the program will use as its guiding document. If content marketing programs are a journey – and they very much are – the program framework isn’t a map with specific directions. Instead it’s more of a repository for where you want to go, what you want to see along the way and at your destination, who’s going to decide where to eat and how you’ll decide whether or not the trip was a success.

A good program framework, in my experience, consists of five overall sections, the first of which is.

General Principles

When drafting the general principles for a program, remember to think big picture and not get caught up in granular tactics or even goals. These are the kinds of statements that make for effective principles:

We will share information that is relevant to our business and interesting to our audience and customers.

To be a resource for those seeking information on the kinds of products and services we offer as well as address the needs of customers and others.

To be fresh and funny while still conveying a clear message about all aspects of our business or organization.

Each of those can be fleshed out a bit and tweaked to your particular industry, business or audience, but the overall tone should be clear: That you want to lay out “this is what we’re all about and the kind of tone we will seek to take in our communications.”

These principles are, as you may notice, platform agnostic. At no point do they mention any one outlet because they should be applicable to as many platforms as the program encompasses while allowing for new ones to be added. You can adhere to those principles whether you’re talking about Instagram, email, a blog or whatever new platforms will come on your radar two years from now.

There will, of course, be shifts that occur in those principles since, while they are flexible enough to be relevant most anywhere, business goals and needs will change over time. So if responding to customer questions becomes less of a priority, or direct sales become a bigger element of the program, it’s alright to revisit this statement of principles and make revisions.

That being said, doing so lightly can lead to confusion and cause more problems than it solves. This is the basic foundation of the program and should be treated as such.

Going back to the analogy of taking a trip, this is the part of the planning process where you say “We are going to Disney World for four days.” You haven’t laid out what route will be taken, what form of transportation you’ll be taking, where you’re eating meals or how much money you’ve budgeted. It’s just the high-level statement that should be easily understood by all involved parties.

Changing the statement of general principles is akin to saying “We’re now going to New York City for five days.” The entire premise on which what’s coming next has changed, leading to the need to secure buy-in and agreement from those involved all over again.

In that way, the general principles of a content marketing program are both vague and specific. They can be applied to many aspects both present and future of the program and don’t tie you to specific tactics or goals, but they also explain to everyone who touches the program what there is to be gained.

Everyone Is Competing Against Everyone, Just Like Everyone Else

The only thing surprising about the comments made by Netflix in its shareholder report about how it’s competing against Fortnite more than it is HBO is how surprised so many people were.

That level of surprise and bewilderment seems indicative of how companies are viewed almost solely within the silos of their industries, assumed to be competing only against others who are also in that category. So Sears is only seen as competing against J.C. Penney, Whole Foods against Kroger and so on.

If you’re in marketing and have been for any length of time you should know that such a narrow view of the world is problematic and can keep you from not only seizing opportunities but anticipating problems. It’s essential to take a more holistic view of the world if you’re going to successfully help your clients or employer succeed.

The reality is that of course Netflix is competing against Fortnite. It’s also competing against Fallout, Avengers: Endgame, the new Stephen King novel, YouTube, Starbucks, iMessage, Superman comics and everything else.

Marketing means you are asking the audience for two things:

  1. Their time
  2. Their money

It’s that simple.

The problem is everyone else is making the same requests. They all want the same time and money, but people only have so much of both. If they are spending $12 on a Netflix subscription that’s $12 less they have to spend on food or other goods. If they spend two hours seeing Aquaman in theaters, that’s two hours less they have to read a book or magazine.

Marketing’s goal is to make the product being sold appear to be more attractive and worthwhile than *everything* else that’s out there, not just the other options within a specific category.

Now there is some level of direct competition that happens. Target wants to make its stores more attractive to shoppers than Walmart and will work to send that message as frequently and effectively as possible. Similarly, each individual movie that’s released is hoping to get the $X someone has that’s dedicated to entertainment.

That’s why so much of marketing conveys a strong sense of urgency. The people sending that message wants to make the audience feel like they *need* to see a movie on opening weekend, or buy a product as soon as it’s available. When you are able to create or latch on to those moments where the product you’re responsible for crosses over to become a conversational touchpoint, you’ve done something special. And you have to seize those moments because they are fleeting and there are always scores of other things out there waiting to get people’s attention. Your product can be knocked off its perch – or kept from ever reaching the top – by any of them.

Part of the problem is that so much of marketing industry as well as the economics industry is siloed, which limits perspective. If you’re a “retail marketing expert” or “retail industry analyst” you’re more likely to view everything that happens to a member of that industry through the very specific filter of their experience. So the demise of Toys ‘R’ Us is chalked up solely to changes in the retail industry, not to the role Netflix and other streaming media might play in taking up more of kids’ time and parents’ money, or the rising cost of equipment necessary to pay for kids to be in traveling soccer leagues or any of a number of other factors.

Successful marketers, I’ve found, need to see the whole board, not just the section their client says they want to own or dominate. Only then are they fully able to advise those they’re working for about what’s coming, what’s hot and what they need to know about in order to successfully sell their products or services.

“Brand Safe” Has Never Been a Thing

Last week AT&T made headlines when it was revealed it would once more be advertising on YouTube, something it hadn’t done in two years after discovering to its great dismay and shock that those ads might be appearing alongside offensive – or at least questionable – material. The company had decided that YouTube had addressed those concerns and assured it those ads would receive more favorable placement.

At the same time, those same concerns about content on Instagram aren’t dire enough to result in advertisers leaving that platform anytime soon as they still want to reach the audience there.

These conversations are the same ones that have been around since the early days of social publishing, as brands at one point were concerned about their Google Adwords ads showing up on offensive blog posts. There’s always been a fair amount of hand-wringing about online advertising and consumer-generated media. The fear is that if your ad shows up alongside some piece of neo-Nazi propaganda it might harm your band reputation.

It’s worth considering, though, just which platforms or media outlets may by any stretch of the imagination be called “brand safe.”

In the last few years we’ve seen a number of instances where advertisers have been pressured through boycotts to stop advertising on various Fox News shows featuring Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingarahm and others. Those shows regularly feature all sorts of white supremacist talking points, nationalist rhetoric and lots more of what could generally be considered hate speech. Many of those stoppages have been short-lived, though, with either the original advertiser returning or new ones coming in to fill the void.

While those are extreme examples there’s plenty on TV or radio that could be considered controversial or too edgy for brands to want to be any part of. Yet you rarely hear about that sort of concern being expressed. The reach and influence of those media platforms, just like Instagram is now, too great to spur companies to take actual action.

There’s always a fair amount of risk involved in any marketing. Sometimes that means your ad or other message is going to be seen during or along with content you may not wholly approve of. Two main differences are in place now, though.

First, it’s no longer just large companies producing the ad-supported media, even if they are still the ones providing the publishing platform. Advertisers aren’t placing their ads alongside YouTube’s video, for instance, they’re placing it against PepeICE4Evah’s video that’s hosted on YouTube, which is very different.

Second, the ability to pick and choose where and when ads are displayed is much more granular. YouTube and other platforms have introduced tools along advertisers to whitelist or exclude certain content or producers because of what they’ve put out in the past. So the advertiser has more control over the situation than they did when mass media was the only game in town.

Put together that means the amount of risk that brands even have to consider being comfortable has diminished to some extent. When it does become an issue, then, they are extremely sensitive to even the slightest threat, pulling ads from Fox, YouTube or whomever else as long as the math of “whose loyalty or trust will we gain” and “whose loyalty or trust will we lose” works out in their favor.

And there’s the key to this. No platform or outlet contains material that’s 100 percent safe to advertise against. This is all extremely situational, depending to a large extent on whether there are dollars to be gained or lost by taking one or another action in any given situation. When a platform is considered “brand safe” it means they have decided their corporate reputation will incur minimal damage, not that they necessarily approve of the content the ads appear within. It’s simply a pragmatic calculous being used, not an indication of brand values.