Wednesday, February 9, 2011

On-line Opinion, Advertising and Corporate Image

Image by Intersection Consulting
Anyone who writes or lurks among the various blogs that make up the Australian political blogging community has undoubtedly come across the recent withdrawal of advertising from On-line Opinion (OLO), and by default, a number of other Australian blogs that Graham Young, the publisher of OLO organised. This was done after a number of people complained directly to the advertisers (ANZ and IBM) about the content and comments of an article written by pro-Christian, anti-gay marriage by Bill Muehlenberg. Resulting, there has been a rather large kerfuffle around the issue, with various parties calling the withdrawal an attack on free speech and an example of intolerance on behalf the gay lobby. 

An area of the debate that is getting little treatment is how the actions of the advertisers relates to their marketing strategy. Now, I don’t work for either ANZ or IBM, so my discussion on this is purely theoretical, but I think the points are still salient. To start with, I think we need to consider the basis upon which advertisers choose to purchase advertising space. The theory behind advertising goes a little beyond, “people see my ad, and will click on the ad, resulting in instant revenue.’ Indeed, if that was how marketers believed marketing worked, and how they choose to value web (and to a degree, print) marketing campaigns, publications would only receive cash when someone clicked.
While instant action is obviously a campaign goal, marketers know that this reaction isn’t going to happen all the time. Rather, marketing campaigns also aim to lodge their brand in the memory of  the audience. The notion is that, the greater the ability of the audience member to remember the brand name when considering a product category, the more likely the agent will be to recall the brand and make a subsequent purchase. To explain the process of recall, marketing/advertising (and more distinctly, consumer behaviour) researchers prescribe to the associative network model (ANM) of memory.  

According to the ANM, memory consists of a network or schema of link-connected nodes wherein, ‘nodes represent stored information or concepts and links represent the strength of association between nodes’ (Keller 1987, p.317). During recall, activation spreads from a single node throughout the schema, travelling a path based on the strength of association between nodes (trace strength) (Lee & Ang 2003, p.274). Because of this, nodes with a greater number of connections to other nodes are more likely to activate. Subsequently, recall is enhanced by improving the node prominence and trace strength of a brand within its associated schemas.
To improve node prominence and trace schema, marketers, for the most part, spend a considerable amount of time attempting to ensure that the schemas that their brand appear in, are positive[1].  To return to the OLO example, a marketing department  would not be keen on their brand being placed next to material that incites anger, repulsion, and hurt, not just on the basis that these are bad things within themselves, but also on the basis that they would not want their brand to be associated with these schemas. 

Stepping away from marketing theory, I think it is also important to connect the actions of ANZ/IBM with that of their corporate image and corporate social responsibility. In Australia and much of the western world, we luckily have legal protections in the workplace that prevent us from being discriminated against. For a range of reasons, corporations want/face pressure from society to extend upon their legal obligations to promoting diversity and impacting their staff and the communities they work within positively. They have charters, report on diversity and their charitable works, and generally, for the most part, want to be seen as good corporate citizens. In the case of Muehlenberg’s article, there is no way possible that this article aligns with the policies or actions of a corporate whom is attempting to maintain a social licence to operate and a good corporate image. Indeed, you could argue that through supporting a site that promotes homophobic sentiments, a corporation is being contrary to their desired image[2]
Despite the backlash and handwringing, this episode shows how much movement the queer movement has made in the Australian social conscience and how increasingly, the homophobic vitriol of Muehlenberg is becoming increasingly unacceptable.

[1] Unless their product fits well with fear advertising.
[2] Obviously, OLO isn’t a bastion of homophobia, but my point is that, in publishing such content, they allow for this argument to be brought up.
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