Kellogg's Special K

Kellogg’s is making plenty of headlines today – and this time it’s not about sugar.

The alt-right Breibart News has declared “war” (or, rather, “#WAR”) on the cereal giant after the company pulled all advertising from the US news site notorious for headlines such as “Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?”.

A Kellogg’s spokeswoman told Bloomberg the supplier didn’t care to appear on websites that weren’t “aligned with our values as a company”, and it had made its decision following complaints from customers and activists. Breitbart responded by urging its readers to boycott the “leftist” Rice Krispies maker using the hashtag #DumpKelloggs.

The Kellogg’s/Breitbart clash isn’t the only recent example of consumer companies being targeted over their advertising decisions: the StopFundingHate has been urging major advertisers, including Walker’s and John Lewis, to stop running ads in the Daily Mail, Sun and the Express because of what campaigners believe are “divisive” editorial stances on issues like immigration.

In this increasingly polarised political landscape, it’s likely companies will face ever more pressure to consider the ‘social impact’ of their marketing decisions. But the Breitbart saga also points to an interesting technical challenge that advertisers need to get a handle on urgently.

The fact Kellogg’s appeared at all on Breitbart, until recently headed by chief Trump crony Steve Bannon, was down to the manoeuvres of an (unnamed) third-party service provider that organised digital ads on Kellogg’s behalf. Such advertising arrangements are common among big fmcg businesses but are ripe for more careful scrutiny.

The problem is programmatic advertising: automated ad delivery that targets a brand’s preferred audience type. The solution, in theory, is surprisingly simple: talk to your media agency. It would be perfectly reasonable for a supplier to explain its values to an ad buyer to identify outlets to be excluded, says Paul Stevenson. He’s a digital strategist at Chris Wall Creative and says companies are careful they don’t appear alongside pornography, but they rarely think about news sites and the potentially divisive headlines such sites might carry.

Auto-ad systems will, in fact, accept blacklists of sites. Or users can create whitelists of preferred outlets. More radically, grocery brands could get off the programmatic road, and rethink their online strategy. Doyens of digital strategy, like Matt Brayley of Bray Leino, suggest dropping those banner ads – web users are more or less blind to them anyway – and working in partnership with selected sites on branded content, which allows greater control of a message. The other route would be a move from publisher to platform, switching from (dodgy) media outlets to social media sites, where extreme content is (supposedly) frowned upon. Although both options reduce a brand’s reach, warns Brayley.

Either way, what brands want to avoid is what Private Eye calls malgorithms – the unfortunate juxtaposition of news story and advert caused by a system’s search for keywords. A Corn Flakes ad automatically served up next to the headline “Puppy drowns in bowl of cereal”, or similar.

Programmatic advertising has revolutionised the way brands can distribute their ads online. But left without careful supervision, it can cause as many problems as it solves.