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Why did brands fail to pause ads on #BlackoutTuesday?

Brands have been pausing advertising activity at the slightest risk for years. Why then, asks World Federation of Advertisers global diversity ambassador Belinda Smith, are so many continuing to push brand messages in the midst of a violent face-off? 

I have been working in either marketing or digital media for the past 13 years. During this time, I’ve gone from brands to startups and back in-house, and over this course I’ve learned a lot.

In an industry that lives and dies on media dollars flowing from brands, the key to success is being sharply attuned to everything your client (or company) wants and needs, and using that knowledge to be the ultimate steward of its budgets and campaigns.

The art of knowing where to pause or stop a campaign is media management 101. It is pause first, ask questions later. It may be uncomfortable to pause prematurely, but it can be account (and career) ending to be the asshole running ads at the wrong time.

I’ve built many systems for companies and clients designed to cut media before anyone sees an errant ad and calls a review. Fires in California? Pause. Google and Facebook accused me of something? Pause. Something in politics? Pause. The shooting of someone, somewhere, on planet Earth? Pull. Those. Ads!

And then, last week, something bizarre happened. Something I have never encountered in all those 13 years. Another unarmed black man was murdered by white police (which was not the weird thing – these videos are sadly becoming an American pastime) and this was followed by protests in more than140 American cities as well as major cities across the globe. Then there was even more police violence, this time against white Americans. Our president went into a bunker for the first time since 9/11 and brands updated their social status to decry racism.

It was incredible. I sat in front of my computer for hours sobbing at Twitter. I just felt so loved by humanity. People were actually giving a shit. After 400 years, things were happening.

And then I got an email from HBO Max. An email telling me the new HBO Max is here and I shouldn’t need to sign in, but I can go sign in and it’s where HBO meets so much more, and it will care for all my streaming needs. 

Clearly my first thought was: ’What poor kid forgot to turn off this dumb email campaign and when are they getting fired?’ Then I did some digging and cross-referenced brands putting out statements with friends and confirmed that actually everyone was still advertising – in the midst of a violent faceoff in one of the world’s most powerful countries.

People are in the streets protesting racism and …everyone still has their media running? That’s not how this works. The rules are that we turn off for anything upsetting. We pause in fear of running next to it, in the respect that something real is happening and advertising can wait, in service of giving people time to heal and discuss without being bombarded by ads.

I’ve paused social for clients who are afraid to run media when people at the women’s march are wearing pink vagina hats. I’ve seen campaigns stopped because Ariana Grande said something controversial. 

It was at this realization that things began to shift. Another emotion was sitting beside the love I felt. That emotion was horror. It was remembering that Black Lives still don’t Matter. The global economy had spoken with their budgets and their lack of action and the verdict was: ’who cares?’ 

As I type this during #blackouttuesday – a day of tribute, amplification and lifting up of black voices and resources in this protest – Instagram is a platform full of black tiles and colorful direct response ads.

We get it. You don’t care enough to adjust your business, operations and creative as you did for Covid-19. You don’t care enough to pause and give us a moment to digest, collect and organize like you did for the vagina marches. You don’t care enough to consider re-routing your media spend to black-owned media outlets and issues like you do when you’re gaslighting the LGBT+ community for Pride month. 

So far, the actions of Verizon and Bank of America stand out. Notice I didn’t say Nike. It has produced a short video it is relying on us to organically distribute, but at the time of writing zero tangible commitments have been made – on top of its not-perfect record. 

And for everyone else I have to ask you: Ain’t I a human? Is my pain not important? Does the fact that I’m living every day expecting to die because of my skin color not matter? I hope it does. But whatever you say, I know your actions will tell me exactly where you sit on the issue.

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