During Thursday’s four-hour-long grilling of TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, lawmakers covered a lot of ground in terms of national security and dangerous content concerns around the wildly popular social app. But one question was not explored.
Where are the brands in all of this?
When software services firm Capterra recently surveyed more than 300 U.S. marketers, 60% of them agreed that concerns over TikTok’s data privacy and national security are justified. And 45% said they believe that TikTok spies on U.S. users. Yet three out of four still expect to increase their TikTok spending in the next 12 months despite these security and brand safety concerns.
That disconnect between brands furrowing their collective brows and sagely expressing concern—and actually, you know, doing something—is troubling.
Advertisers and marketers know that there have always been concerns around the dark side of social platforms, and sometimes they’ve at least feinted toward action. Remember 2020’s Stop Hate for Profit? More than 1,000 advertisers—including such major brands as Verizon, Diageo, Ford, and Target—took at least a month off Facebook to demonstrate their concern over the company’s lack of action against white supremacist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and other hateful groups on its platform.
When it joined the boycott, Unilever told The Verge, “The complexities of the current cultural landscape have placed a renewed responsibility on brands to learn, respond, and act to drive a trusted and safe digital ecosystem. Continuing to advertise on these platforms at this time would not add value to people and society. We will be monitoring ongoing and will revisit our current position if necessary.”
Meanwhile, Coca-Cola’s CEO, James Quincey, posted to the brand’s website at the time, “We will take this time to reassess our advertising standards and policies to determine whether revisions are needed internally, and what more we should expect of our social media partners to rid the platforms of hate, violence, and inappropriate content. We will let them know we expect greater accountability, action, and transparency from them.”
While the Facebook social teams did all that monitoring, reassessing, and expectation setting, these brands’ Instagram managers operated as usual. What’s that, you say? They’re owned by the same company?
As seemingly always, most brands talked a big game at first. But when greater accountability, action, and transparency never arrived, neither did any real response. There was no outrage, no naming and shaming, not even a stern word when what they theoretically asked for didn’t—and still doesn’t—measure up. I’m not expecting major brands to get all “hard cut, Cheetos” about the dangers of social media, but certainly they could show a bit more backbone than Milton in Office Space.
The current debate over a potential ban of TikTok brings to the fore not only the issue of dangerous and misleading content (which, yes, applies to all platforms) but also the advertising and marketing world’s power—and its seeming disinterest in using it. These companies spend billions of dollars every year on TikTok and the rest of ad-supported digital media yet they act like they’re just passive participants.
Players in the advertising industry are so powerful that they’ve completely transformed the world of streaming services in the span of about two years. Yet they continue to act as if they have absolutely no power in the dynamic, even as they’re paying the bills. For TikTok specifically, they’re listening to the app’s hard sell on its own brand safety and otherwise sitting back, like any other user, waiting with bated breath to find out what will happen next.
Between TikTok’s continued failings, the Facebook boycott, and even the 2017 YouTube brand safety crisis, advertisers and marketers as a whole have been willing to accept very little in return in order to get back to business as usual. They seem to just flit to whatever platform will deliver the biggest, most enthusiastic audience, with little, mostly performative, concern for real, cultural, and societal consequences.
Ad agency execs I spoke to on background tell me that most conversations over the past few months on the issue of a possible TikTok ban have ranged from a shrug to a strategy of simply following the audience. If TikTok is banned and the audience moves to Reels or YouTube Shorts, then off they’ll go, too.
In the case of TikTok, the draw is those 150 million U.S. users, and the lion’s share of teen and preteen eyeballs. I don’t want to be cynical, but sometimes I wonder if those juicy engagement metrics serve as blinders for everything else. I’ve got my audience. All the bad stuff? Let the government sort that out.
TikTok was wrist-slapped in 2019 by the Federal Trade Commission after being accused of illegally collecting personal information from children younger than 13, and paid a $5.7 million pocket-change fine. Did any brands stand up—even behind closed doors—to establish clear content and algorithm standards for appropriate content and data collection? I don’t know. What I do know is that four years later, law enforcement officials are sounding the alarm over TikTok becoming the biggest, fastest-growing platform for child exploitation. Hey, culture drivers like Chipotle, Dove, Amazon, and VW, where is your voice on these issues?
If 60% of marketers agree that concerns over TikTok’s data privacy and national security are justified, and 45% believe that TikTok spies on U.S. users, why aren’t they doing or saying anything about it? These are huge companies, all with PR machines of their own, that advertise on other platforms, in other media, and lobby in Washington, D.C. It doesn’t appear that any are actually using these levers of power to make TikTok and other social platforms better overall.
With such a bright spotlight on these issues now, there’s no better time to start. Pick an issue and get going. Don’t want to jeopardize a major consumer audience by touching the third rail of Chinese involvement and national security? Fine. Then look at the study from the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate that claims TikTok may surface potentially harmful content related to suicide and eating disorders to teenagers within minutes of them creating an account. Or the lawsuit that Seattle Public Schools filed in January against social media companies, blaming them for worsening mental health and behavioral disorders including anxiety, depression, disordered eating, and cyberbullying, forcing schools to take steps to deal with the fallout.
Back in 2018, former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris and then-CEO of Omnicom media agency Hearts & Science Scott Hagedorn delivered a dire warning to ad agencies, marketers, and brands in a presentation at Cannes Lions called “Addicted to Likes.”
“At some point, when there’s a public health crisis around developmental challenges of millions and millions of teenagers, and people are lonely, leading to more suicides,” Harris said, “people are going to ask, ‘Who paid for all this to happen?’”
That question still resonates, loud and clear, and marketers should know that if TikTok is eventually banned—or as my colleague Mark Sullivan wrote, never the same again—they won’t be able to simply turn their back and walk slowly away from the explosion. The result will be less Wolverine, more Other Guys. By not speaking out and up more often, they won’t just find themselves directly in the blast radius, their fingerprints will be on the detonator.