#Instapanic! Is advertising on social media safe enough?

With more than 2 million advertisers, Instagram has become one of the most popular social media channels for brands to catch our gaze. However, it has not been without its issues.

Along with the likes of Facebook and YouTube, companies advertising on these platforms have faced seemingly uncontrollable threats to their brand safety over the past couple of years. In particular, the suicide of a 14 year old girl in 2017, which has been the centre of discussion as of late due to its link with graphic self-harm related imagery - readily available for her to access on Instagram.

We can’t deny that this is scarily reminiscent of the Tumblr days, which anyone who experienced their adolescence in the last decade will tell you, faced the same scrutiny for promoting eating disorders and secrecy. Our recent work with Beat has demonstrated that anyone can be affected, and it is a terrifying prospect that social media can fuel and often worsen depressive thoughts. But unlike ad-less pre-2015 Tumblr, it was not only Instagram’s team which bore the backlash, as brands whose ads had appeared next to graphic content, such as M&S, British Heart Foundation and Dune, were caught up in the storm.

It is safe to say this caused a stir amongst marketers, with brand safety being dubbed one of the biggest issues of 2019 according to an Industry Pulse report from Integral Ad Science. Paul Bainsfair, the Director General of the IPA, described the issue as an ‘inherent challenge’ which comes with ‘managing user generated content’ and the ‘risk of ad placement on social platforms’. But while the big bosses are running around trying to save their necks, what do consumers actually think of this? After all, they are the ultimate decision makers when it comes to a brand’s fate.

While a Twitter search suggested Instagram itself, rather than advertisers, was the main target of public discontent, a Leadpages poll highlighted the importance of brand association. 1,010 people were asked whether advertising next to an offensive video or website changed their opinion of the brand and 40% said ‘I like them less. They should know better’. We must not forget that the average person does not understand the ins and outs of algorithms, however.

So what does this mean? Should brands stop advertising on social media platforms all together? It’s not like a corporate social media boycott hasn’t happened before; the first half of 2017 saw over 250 brands pull advertising from YouTube after campaigns for global companies like Mercedes-Benz were placed alongside videos supporting terrorist groups. Lucky for Instagram, it seems that brands are not ready to miss out on the 60% of users who discover products on the platform, and are sticking to cautioning it to do better rather than withdrawing ads all together.

Earlier this year, Instagram introduced sensitivity screens which prompt the user that a hashtag could contain potential graphic content, but beyond this, I found that material on self-harm and pro-anorexia was still a click away. Now recent developments have led to Instagram banning self-harm related imagery all together, which not only helps prevent the glorification of unhealthy outlets, but also ensures some peace of mind for brands working with the platform.

Despite the devastating teen death, it’s clear that Instagram use is not gonna fizzle out anytime soon, with 500 million active users everyday and projected growth over the next 4 years. It is important now for Instagram to recognise its higher social responsibility and continue to work with mental health organisations to create a safe environment for both its users and the brands which have a stake in this user satisfaction.

This post is by Hannah Vatandoust who is currently studying a BA in History from SOAS University.