So … that was fast. Last week, Kellogg Co. pulled its advertising from Breitbart, a website that has emerged as the voice of the so-called “alt-right” white supremacist movement in the U.S. Kellogg’s decision immediately set off a loud, hot firestorm of protest from Breitbart, which called on its audience to boycott the company’s iconic, all-American brands including Corn Flakes, Rice Crispies, and many (many, many) more.
In a classic case of backlash, the attention likely alerted other advertisers to Breitbart’s role in providing a platform for racist, nativist, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hate groups. That could come back to haunt the site and its former chief executive, Steve Bannon.
Kellogg drops Breitbart
For those of you just catching up on the Kellogg’s news, the basis of the issue is that a good portion of Internet advertising occurs through automatic platforms. Advertisers have to track where their ads appear and take steps to opt out if they wish to keep their ads from running on websites they deem offensive.
“We regularly work with our media buying partners to ensure our ads do not appear on sites that aren’t aligned with our values as a company,” Charles said. “This involves reviewing websites where ads could potentially be placed using filtering technology to assess site content. As you can imagine, there is a very large volume of websites, so occasionally something is inadvertently missed.”
You can find a full list of Kellogg’s company values on its website, which makes clear exactly why Breitbart does not make the cut.
“We’re the platform for the alt-right,” Bannon told me proudly when I interviewed him at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in July. Though disavowed by every other major conservative news outlet, the alt-right has been Bannon’s target audience ever since he took over Breitbart News from its late founder, Andrew Breitbart, four years ago.
Kellogg’s diversity statement is especially interesting in the context of the Breitbart blowup:
A Message From Our President and CEO:
We believe diversity and inclusion are essential to living our values, achieving our business goals and building a stronger Kellogg.
In an increasingly competitive global marketplace, we can only succeed when we attract and retain the best talent and when our employees reflect the diversity of our consumers.
And we are committed to creating an environment where all employees are included, are treated with dignity and respect and are in a position to contribute to our future success. Fostering all employees’ passion for our business will help us win in the marketplace.
Words matter, Part I
Breitbart could have just sucked it up and said goodbye to Kellogg’s without fanfare. But someone up the food chain made the decision to punish the company by calling on readers to boycott Kellogg’s products.
In the days since, the Intertubes were flooded with the kind of news that most A-list companies hope to avoid. And Kellogg’s trickle could quickly turn into a flood as the awareness grows over Breitbart’s role in the white supremacy movement.
One interesting development occurred last month, when Bloomberg noted that the Web advertising service AppNexus dropped Breitbart from its exchange over the use of “coded or overt” language inconsistent with the company’s prescription against advertising on sites that promote violence.
The ripple effect could be significant, wrote Bloomberg staffer Mark Bergen. Though not nearly as well known, AppNexus is second only to Google in annual revenues for the automated advertising field.
That’s no accident. AppNexus is backed by major-league companies including Microsoft, the global communications firm WPP and, somewhat ironically, News Corp., the parent company of Fox News.
AppNexus’s focus on the language promoted by Breitbart turns up the heat on Google and Facebook, both of which are already facing blowback for their roles in circulating fake news.
It’s also worth noting that AppNexus did not rely on an automated word filter to alert it to offensive content at Breitbart. The company used a “human audit” to catch dog whistles and other loaded language. Similarly, Kris Charles’s statement indicates that Kellogg’s deployed human input to fill a gap that automated filters left open.
Words matter, Part II
If Breitbart has been relying on coded language to slip under the radar of automatic filters and retain advertisers that might otherwise flee, its day of reckoning may be near.
A focus on Breitbart’s use of coded language came into full bloom this past week, just as the Kellogg’s boycott began to catch the media spotlight.
It’s a day late and a dollar short, but news organizations have finally exposed the verbal sleight-of-hand Bannon deployed to make white supremacy palatable. His promotion of the term “alt-right” provides his audience with a simple way to deflect criticism, by making it appear as if their views represent just another degree of accepted conservative principles.
The Associated Press quickly added its weight. AP is the go-to source for professional journalism. In a blog posted dated Nov. 28, AP’s vice president for standards had this to say:
“The ‘alt-right’ or ‘alternative right’ is a name currently embraced by some white supremacists and white nationalists to refer to themselves and their ideology, which emphasizes preserving and protecting the white race in the United States in addition to, or over, other traditional conservative positions such as limited government, low taxes and strict law-and-order.
“The movement has been described as a mix of racism, white nationalism and populism.”
AP’s instructions include using quotation marks and other qualifiers, for example, “the so-called ‘alt-right.'”
AP also emphasizes:
“The term may exist primarily as a public-relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience. In the past we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist.”
Where will the Kellogg’s boycotters go?
If Breitbat’s call for a boycott is effective, many readers will most likely turn to other top companies like General Mills or Post.
That’s not going to be very effective if the aim is to punish companies that value diversity.
Here’s a snippet from General Mills’s CSR statement:
“We cultivate an inclusive environment by considering all dimensions of diversity – not just the primary areas of gender, race and sexual orientation – but also cultural aspects including values, preferences, beliefs and communication styles.”
General Mills notes that its employees are active in affinity networks including: American Indian Council, Asian Heritage, Betty’s Family LGBT, Black Champions, Hispanic, Middle East and North Africa, South Asian, Women in Leadership, and Veterans.
Under the umbrella of Post Holdings, the Post brand also promotes diversity and inclusiveness. The company also makes a bottom-line case for its position:
“We believe diversity brings strength and flexibility to our supply base and increases competition in the sourcing process. At Post, we value cultivating strategic procurement relationships with minority ‐ , women ‐ and veteran ‐ owned businesses that provide high quality and cost effective products. Above all, we want to support the businesses of the people who buy our products.”
If either General Mills or Post advertise on Breitbart, they probably won’t for long.
Meanwhile, reports of other companies pulling their ads from Breibart are beginning to pile up. Business Insider lists Warby Parker, Allstate, Nest and the financial firm SoFi.
As for Bannon, he left Breitbart earlier this year to become one of the chief architects of President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign. He was tapped for the role of chief strategist for Trump as president.
If he was depending on Breitbart to continue amplifying the Trump message for the next four years with a healthy assist from its advertising income, he may be disappointed.
Image (screenshot): via Wonkette.