Dealing With Controversial TV Content Isn't New For Marketers - But The Olympics?

Should TV marketers read better tea leaves around public sentiment of major sports or other big TV programming events?

Toyota, the big Japanese-based automotive company, will not run TV advertisingin Japan during the Tokyo Summer Olympics, which starts today. The decision is based on polls showing that Japanese citizens and potential TV viewers do not approve of the games going ahead, due to pandemic concerns.

On July 22, COVID-19 infections in Japan continued to rise, now at 3,449 a day; 53% of the peak level it had on January 13.

This is not to say that the Olympics, as a general concept, is unfavorable. For many global marketers, it is a  big brand-safe advertising opportunity over a 17-day period.

But what if your TV advertising is around a political rally event where certain politicians aren’t speaking in happy talk, or fact-based talk? If there is a poll right before the event, showing a majority of your viewers will be upset and turn away, should you as a marketer do likewise?



TV advertising based on specific content has been an issue for decades. Controversial episodes of TV shows have been part of the TV marketplace ad dynamic forever.

In 1989, Fox’s “Married with Children” witnessed temporary marketer departures stemming from letters from a Michigan housewife to major show advertisers like Coca-Cola and Kimberly-Clark about the show’s offensive, sexual-laden content issues. Some MTV shows in the 1990s also had content troubles.

More recently, some marketers pulled out of specific cable TV news programming on Fox because of controversial, opinionated content. But much of this comes after the fact.

Toyota take all this one step further.

Taking on the Olympics -- which for decades has been viewed as a positive TV event -- Toyota will make the prophylactic move to remove advertising from the event beforehand.

It's not about the content. It's the mere association by the car marketer that might be unfavorable to viewers' perceptions about the event.

Sports TV, specifically, is generally perceived to be brand-safe content. One recent exception: Some marketers had reactions to NFL players taking a knee a few years ago during the playing of the national anthem to protest social inequities in the U.S.

What trumps all for most marketers? Big viewership. A TV show with high ratings will continue to survive. “Married with Children” witnessed a return of advertisers and continued its long run. The NFL? It barely skipped a beat.

Although marketers will continue to closely gauge consumer sentiment as social media offers a near real-time read, the main question is: How far should they go?

And in this country? Expect to see Toyota TV commercials on NBC during the Olympics.

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