Will brands stand up against toxic content?
The more noxious the news channel, the more viewership it has garnered. Will advertisers rethink strategies?
During a recent show on business news channel CNBC TV18, R. Balakrishnan (better known as R. Balki), veteran advertising professional turned film-maker, weighed in on toxic news channels in India and why advertisers must review their associations with them.
Television news plays a huge role in India and without sound media you cannot have a great democracy, he said. He also urged brands to take the responsibility of looking at content closely before making advertising decisions.
Balakrishnan’s remarks come in the wake of questionable standards of television journalism in the country, especially in the lurid coverage of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s tragic death. Peddling fake news, misleading and biased reportage have become the hallmark of some news channels in an attempt to drum up viewership and, hence, advertising.
However, the fact remains that the more noxious the news channel, the more viewership it has garnered. Evidently, Indians are watching the tamasha being served. Toxicity fetches eyeballs.
That brings us to whether advertisers will withdraw from these platforms. Sanjay Sarma, founder, SSARMA Consults, a boutique branding and communication advisory, believes brands that value their reputation and have an eye on the future will review their arrangements. However, he says, many news channels rarely get high-quality advertisers. “And the smaller local brands may not have such deep concerns," says Sarma.
That may not be true for every channel though as big national advertisers, even on the news channels that have become controversial over the past few months, include companies and brands like Amazon, Airtel, Kia Sonet, MG Hector Plus, Vivo, Flipkart, Hyundai, Colgate, Amul, Honda City and Samsung Galaxy Note. Any big brand moving out will be bad news for these channels.
Social media-savvy consumers are quick in calling out brands with questionable behaviour, Sarma says. He is optimistic that any brand that associates with toxic content will eventually be rejected.
Partho Dasgupta, former chief executive of TV viewership monitoring agency BARC India and an independent management consultant, agrees that brand safety is an important issue for all advertisers. A negative environment has a negative rub-off on the brand and the audience doesn’t take it kindly, he says. There are 400 news channels—and brands have enough choice. But whether they exercise these options is another matter. Mint reached out to a number of Indian and multinational advertisers to check if they would take a stand. All declined to comment. Privately, a senior executive working for a leading advertiser said that his company had shifted big media money to news channels in the belief that this was what people were watching during the pandemic. For brands to move out of news channels, viewers have to move out first, he says. “If TRPs drop, my brands will walk out. So it is the consumer who has to take a stand first."
Shashi Sinha, CEO of the Indian arm of advertising company IPG, agrees. “News channels come very cheap and brands buy commercial time in bulk and do long-term deals on time bands. So monitoring programming at a micro level is very difficult. While some brands are clear that they will chase only ratings, others who quietly withdraw will not admit openly as some of these media houses are powerful."
Given this reality, it is doubtful if there will be any real activism by advertisers. Boycotting TV channels requires a bold stand and brands are guided by the ROI metric, not yet by softer aspects like philosophical compatibility, said a brand expert.
To end the media circus, Sarma offers a solution: Ratings for news channels should be stopped and paid subscription should become the norm.
Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor.