Are advertisements endorsements? When editorial content begins to conflict with a brand’s stated values, is continued investment a gesture of tacit approval? Faris Yakob on whether communications can or should be decoupled from their political context.

Advertising pays for content. Anytime you aren’t paying for a product, as this generation discovered thanks to social media, you are the product being sold. When commercial television was born in the USA, it was as a vehicle for advertising, as all mass media have been. Shows were created by advertisers to capture attention and sell products, there was no line between content and advertising. The host would often introduce segue with the classic line, making clear that the brand was an active participant.

Cigarettes brought you the Camel News Caravan, Fred and Wilma Flintstone unwinding at the end of an episode by sharing a Winston and The Hit Parade was ‘lightly toasted’ with performances of classics that were known as "Lucky Strike Extras.”

Eventually the economics of content production and monetization shifted towards spot advertising, which is what we largely have today. A show has commercial airtime that it sells in 30 second chunks, often as part of complex deals.

But is it still endorsement or are advertisers separated from the content they are paying for by virtue of a complex supply chain? Does an advertiser have responsibility for the content it supports and does that immediate and commercial context have an impact on brand communication?

This debate has become salient as the media discourse has become more polarized, which has led to an extreme widening of the Overton Window - the range of ideas tolerated in popular discourse. In more civil times, mainstream media could be relied upon to be a fair and balanced “view from nowhere” - a journalistic principle established specifically to avoid offending large advertisers. When previously media was principally supported by political entities and the wealthy, newspapers tended towards the more arousing and politically slanted.

Now, thanks to the creeping normalization of extreme right wing ideas on some television channels, advertisers find themselves in a bind. In order to keep up ratings and engage their base, the pundits keep saying things that cross over from dog whistles to outright racism. This triggers the attention of the activists like Sleeping Giants and Stop Funding Hate, who rally social media supporters to apply pressure to the advertisers themselves to take responsibility for their spend.

Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson has lost more than twenty large advertisers since saying that immigrants make the “country poorer and dirtier and more divided.” Director Judd Apatow called not the network, but the advertisers out directly on Twitter, saying “How can anyone advertise on a show which spouts hate?”

Advertisers unwilling to lose access to Tucker’s viewers have said that the specific placements of a national media buy cannot be considered endorsements. Others have decided that these placements are doing damage, because they are not in line with their brand values, which means they acknowledge the implicit association.

“Red Lobster’s advertising buying guidelines reflect our core values and commitment to supporting programming that represents the highest standards of good taste, fair practice and objectivity.” Ultimately it is advertisers that hold commercial media accountable.

When politics get involved in media spending decisions, there are often cries about free speech. Fox News complained "that left-wing advocacy groups, under the guise of being supposed 'media watchdogs,' weaponize social media against companies in an effort to stifle free speech." 

But this has nothing to do with free speech. Tucker and every other pundit has an absolute right to freely express their opinions, and neither the networks nor the advertisers are prohibiting that. Pundits do not have a right to get paid for their opinions. Advertising expenditure is discretionary, and how you spend your money says a lot about you, especially in this age of nominal transparency. Advertisers were the ones that originally demanded a balanced point of view and they are simply doing so again.

Equally, why and when you cut it off says a lot about you, too. These brands took the position that being associated with this content would ultimately be harmful, regardless of the reach. HSBC in the UK has been called "the advertiser you literally cannot afford to offend” because of how their advertising spend allegedly responds to positive or negative coverage in specific media vehicles.

Advertisers are being dragged into some of society’s most vicious arguments, by activists and activist investors. Larry Fink, CEO of the world’s biggest investment company Black Rock, saw his annual investor letter go viral when he called for companies to deliver a positive long term contribution to society in order to maintain the above market returns he was looking for.

It is a messy, complex issue, but some elements are beyond question. Media choices are not neutral spaces devoid of context in which to acquire the attention of an audience. How companies spend money is a strategic choice, brand is a function of the totality of actions of the company, and context impacts both our interpretation of advertising and our feelings about brands.

On Twitter, it is common to see “RT are not endorsements” in a profile because a re-tweet is easily assumed to be exactly that. The disclaimer can’t work for brands because their amplification is powered by vast amounts of money. Every ad is an endorsement, it pays for content, and to insist otherwise is wrong, both from the point of view of the consumer and the moral responsibility of the marketer and media buyer. Communication cannot be decoupled from context, be it channel, program or the larger political one.