Microsoft's Kathleen Hall on why it doesn’t address queries about advertising on sites like Breitbart

Microsoft’s vice president of brand, advertising and research Kathleen Hall speaking at the DPAA Video Everywhere Summit

At the DPAA Video Everywhere Summit in New York, Microsoft’s vice president of brand, advertising and research Kathleen Hall took to the stage to explain why the brand doesn’t respond to criticisms of its ads appearing on far-right sites like Breitbart and outlets such as Fox News.

She framed up her argument by stating that 20 years ago, conservative advocacy groups like the Parents Television Council criticized brands for airing ads during shows like South Park and Will & Grace that it deemed offensive. At the time, she said she often responded to these complaints by stating that things like freedom of expression, freedom of choice and audience choice are what justify advertisers to run ads during these programs.

Today, groups like Sleeping Giants – an anonymous activist group that works to “stop racist and sexist media by stopping its ad dollars” – call out brands for running ads on Breitbart. In April of this year, Sleeping Giants called out Microsoft on Twitter, stating that it’s “been asking for months why you're advertising on Breitbart, an anti-immigrant inflammatory site, with no response. Why?”

Hall said that Microsoft chooses to never reply to queries like this because it believes in “the right to expression and the right to choice and consumption.”

“We will never publicly state what our media buying strategies or decisions are, because we don’t want to give in to pressure from anywhere,” she said, adding that often times the reason why its ads show up on sites like Breitbart is the result of retargeting. “We don’t engage in public debate about our media placements, our strategies, our philosophies – we just are not going to comment.”

She continued her talk by stating that sometimes the Microsoft brand is compromised online for reasons that are out of her control. She used the example of a video the brand recently created to promote Windows 10 that featured Toney Jackson, a teacher in New Jersey who incorporates rapping and technology into his lesson plans to help students engage and learn.

Once the ad went on YouTube, Hall said it was parodied a number of times by people who overlaid Jackson's voiceover with explicit rap songs, some of which referenced killing cops. When Hall asked YouTube why her brand was “being hijacked” on the platform, she said it responded by stating that these sorts of videos don't constitute a breach of its guidelines since they’re considered parody.

She shared the story to illustrate her point that there are a number of ways for advertisers to be compromised in today’s always-on world, which is why she said Microsoft does not “wait for a situation to define our actions” — and hence has made it protocol to not reply to queries about where its ads are served.

“We are true to our values. We believe in empowering people to do great things,” she said. “What we try to do is support audience choice. We don’t want to be reactive, we need to be proactive. We have principle-based guidance. So it’s not about whether it’s Will & Grace or South Park or Breitbart or Fox News, it’s about ‘what do we believe?’”

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Minda Smiley

Minda Smiley is a reporter at The Drum covering creativity and advertising. Based in Philadelphia, she primarily covers independent agencies and B2B marketing. She also oversees The Drum’s “Independent Influence,” a weekly series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies. During her time at The Drum, she has covered industry events including SXSW, ANA Masters of Marketing, 4A’s Transformation and C2 Montréal. She is a graduate of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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