Advertisers shrugged: When Gawker crosses an ethical line, business won’t take a hit

When Gawker published — and later took down — an exposé Thursday evening about a sex scandal involving a Condé Nast executive (we’ll pass on repeating the details here), readers quickly slammed the gossip publisher. Within a few hours of the story’s posting, there were more than 1,000 comments on the site, many of them critical. But one Gawker constituency has been less vocal — its advertisers.

“It’s business as usual,” said Steve Carbone, chief digital and analytics officer at Mediacom, North America, who has clients who have advertised on Gawker.

The lack of reaction may be surprising, given Gawker co-founder Nick Denton himself admitted publishing it was a mistake, given that the executive isn’t a public figure. But other buyers said they expected no immediate fallout, either. (Denton hasn’t said if any advertisers have pulled their business.)

Above all, advertisers are already well aware of what they’re getting into when they do business with the site, and the story was classic Gawker. “Condé Nast is connected to it,” quipped one media buyer, who would only speak anonymously. “A high-profile Obama connection. And rent boys. It’s perfect. I bet the New York Post is kicking themselves for not breaking it first.”

A big part of the Gawker pile-on was that as a private citizen, the executive should have been off limits. Gawker has never played by the rules of traditional journalism or shied from controversy. But as it’s grown into an eight-blog independent media company that’s been forced to act more like a traditional business, Denton said Gawker has gone beyond its roots as an “insolent blog.”

“I believe this public mood reflects a growing recognition that we all have secrets, and they are not all equally worthy of exposure. I can’t defend yesterday’s story as I can our coverage of Bill O’Reilly, Hillary Clinton or Hulk Hogan,” he wrote.

If anything, it was the outing of a private person aspect that may give advertisers some pause, at least the next time they review their media plans.

“It does make a lot of us feel differently about the pub in general,” Carbone said before the story was taken down. “I think down the road, when you talk about brands about publications that are on brand, you’re going to say, ‘Let’s make sure you’re OK with Gawker being on the plan.’ Some may say, ‘We don’t want to be a part of that.’”

But the so-far muted reaction in the ad community speaks to broader market trends. The threshold for scandal has gotten higher, especially among young readers who make up Gawker’s audience. At Gawker itself, the practice of outing public figures has lost its impact as gay people have gained mainstream acceptance.

“In today’s climate, what was scandalous a decade ago is less so today,” said Dylan Howard, vp and chief content officer at American Media Inc., parent of tabloids including the National Enquirer and Star. “Will the boundaries eventually start to close back in? That’s a question that the consumers of this content will have to answer.”

The rise of automation plays into this situation in a couple of ways. On one hand, with the advent of automation and layers of ad tech intermediaries, an advertiser might end up on a site like Gawker without even knowing it. On the other hand, keyword targeting technology can enable an advertiser to advertise on a site like Gawker while keeping their ads from showing up next to stories they don’t want to be their brand associated with.

At the same time, the proliferation of media outlets and shortening of the news cycle means stories don’t have the impact they used to. “Given the extra clutter out there, it almost feels like small potatoes,” said Ben Kunz, vp, strategic planning at Mediassociates. “Nobody remembers these things in a week.”

As of Friday morning, the story was the second-most popular term on Twitter in the U.S. The sentiment toward Gawker was overwhelmingly negative, according to Brandwatch, with negative tweets outnumbering positive tweets 3 to 1 within mentions that the firm categorized as having sentiment. The story had just shy of half a million hits on Gawker’s site.

And as readers become more comfortable with salacious stories, the many advertisers who optimize to page views will follow them. “We’re witnessing a migration of ad comfortability,” said Kunz. “And it will continue until inevitably major brands end up on PornHub.”

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