Vodafone was quick to pull advertising from Magic Talk after a recent racist outburst sparked outrage. Now it’s gone further, launching an Ethical Advertising Policy reported by one media outlet as as a “blacklist of hateful media”. How will it work? And is it a contradiction for a company supposedly all about connectivity?
It’s now three weeks since former MP John Banks - filling in as a talkback host on national network Magic Talk - took a call from 'Richard' who said Māori were “stone age” people predisposed to crime, addiction and doing badly at school.
Magic Talk‘s owner MediaWorks sacked Banks soon after that - after a number of companies warned they would take their advertising dollars somewhere else if the broadcaster didn’t take action.
One of the first was Vodafone, which said Magic Talk didn’t square with its recently-stated commitment to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.
“We don’t condone racism in any way, and instead aim to work with organisations and support initiatives that celebrate diversity and foster inclusion. We believe it’s important to walk the talk,” said Vodafone.
The company positively sprinted to distance itself from Magic Talk and Banks' comments. It suspended advertising within an hour of being alerted to the presence of its brand on the station’s site:
Took Vodafone 33 minutes to severe its commercial relationship with Racist Talk. pic.twitter.com/xANooZ7CzB— Giovanni Tiso (@gtiso) January 27, 2021
“A quick response usually elicits brand-enhancing praise,” Mark Jennings wrote on Newsroom.co.nz, analysing the fallout.
It certainly got Vodafone bracketed with the likes of its rival Spark, Kiwibank, and Trade Me in news coverage. These businesses - all highly active online and on social media - made their moves quickly and publicly.
Kiwibank's marketing manager told Mark Jennings - formerly the long-serving news boss at MediaWorks - that the decision to withdraw its advertising was “so obvious that it did not need to be made at the top level.”
Vodafone said it would be discussing a “longer-term approach” with advertisers, including Mediaworks.
Last week, Vodafone released a new ethical advertising policy based on four values-based principles: "celebrating Aotearoa; being supportive, positive and inclusive; championing honest content - and doing the right thing."
Fine words, but one person’s right thing is another one’s wrong thing - especially on social media.
“We believe in the importance of freedom of expression, and understand that different people may interpret different concepts in different ways. We also believe that freedom of expression means freedom of choice as to where we advertise,” Vodafone's marketing tribe lead Delina Shields told staff in a memo.
The new policy says:
We will not support, or have our brand associated with, content, activity, editorial, or advertising that, in our opinion, is: Indecent, vulgar, profane, or offensive; hateful or violent, advocating against any individual, group, race, or organisation.
And under the heading; 'Championing honest content':
We are opposed to the proliferation of blatantly false and inflammatory content, including misinformation and fake news. We will not tolerate extremist language. We will evaluate our marketing approach regularly to ensure we are being fair and honest in our own communications, with an aim to build a trusted relationship with our customers.
Vodafone said it would monitor media in future to make sure they are “aligned to its brand values” - and the ethical policy would specify “approved /preferred partners“ and platforms on which it won’t advertise.
“Vodafone to black-list media outlets that promote hateful content or fake news,” was how Stuff’ reported it.
Vodafone already operates a service called 'Blacklist' to protect customers from harassment by phone and text messages, but should a company dedicated to connectivity make judgments on the content that media outlets and platforms choose to publish?
“It’s about our values and our brand. It’s not a statement on the values of New Zealand,” Delina Shields told Mediawatch.
“This is the culmination of a conversation that’s been happening for quite some time. We wanted to empower our teams about where we show up as a brand and be able to make good decisions."
Does Vodafone want to change the content New Zealanders get from mainstream media?
“Absolutely not. I don’t see that as the role of any brand in New Zealand,” said Shields.
“We continue to choose not to advertise with Magic Talk, based on the current environment and their style of editorial. MediaWorks is still a major partner of ours and they have other stations and opportunities that do align with our values.
“We will need to make judgement calls. We might not always get it right. . . as (the policy) gets tested by the complexity of real life.”
(One who knows about real life advertising and the commercial media is Vodafone chief executive Jason Paris. A decade ago, he was the CEO at MediaWorks (owner of Magic Talk) - and before that he was the head of digital media, and marketing at TVNZ).
But Vodafone advertises extensively across many different channels and dozens of individual platforms - including nationwide TV and radio - as well as placing highly-targeted ads on social media platforms.
Monitoring all of those will be no easy task. Will Vodafone staffers be running to the boss every time they think they spot anything in the media that looks a bit off?
“We’ve got a wonderful team who are very media-hungry . . . so they’ve got their eyes and ears open and I’m confident that our customers can hold us to account as well and point out if we have inadvertently ended up in a place that doesn’t reflect our values,” said Shields.
“We are always using the inclusion and exclusion lists to ensure that . . . our media partners are putting us in the right places. This is just heightening the understanding for our teams about where we are going to stand up as a brand."
As self-declared “champions of honest content”, will Vodafone single out and boycott media platforms which publish or host misinformation and fake news?
“I think it’ll be on a case-by-case basis. It’s important that we get the balance right between the freedom of expression and us holding true to our values,” she said.
It remains to be seen if other corporates take similar action. Shields said clients and other companies had responded positively and Meridian Energy had already been in touch to say it could follow suit.