Drill, tech and toxic masculinity: why Mars was right to pull its ads from YouTube

Mars has pulled its advertising from YouTube after it discovered a pre-roll ad for its Starburst brand was shown before a drill video – a form of trap music associated with London gang violence. Amplify's Krupali Cescau explains why Mars' decision to distance itself from drill was the right one.

Brands have previously been able to distance themselves from problems such as street violence with a ‘not my responsibility, not my fault’ attitude. But as my agency’s latest research shows, audiences – especially young ones – are holding brands more and more accountable.

When we published our initial report into modern British youth culture – Young Blood – in 2016, only 8% of our young respondents said they wanted brands to make statements about their beliefs. In our 2018 research, that number has shot up to 20%.

Now, young people will walk away from brands that step wrongly. You only need look at the social backlash against Dove or Pepsi to understand the damage that can be done, even with the best intentions – or a misplaced pre-roll ad.

The music of toxic masculinity

It may be a form of music, but drill embodies the essence of toxic masculinity: aggression, ego and risk. These are the very behaviours that are contributing to the continuing isolation of young men in this country. At a time when suicide remains the leading cause of death for men between 20 and 34, even accidentally aligning your brand with a sub-culture that promotes a prescribed idea of man sends a strong message.

In fact, 50% of the 18-30-year-olds we spoke to feel gender stereotyping has a negative effect on children. As a family brand, Mars are no doubt aware of this.

While the rest of the UK’s mainstream youth is thinking more progressively about gender issues, drill and its associated subculture is actively pursuing a different point of view – probably not one helping its followers with their mental health.

With this lifestyle, once you are in, you’re all in. These young men probably aren’t spending much time talking about their fears or vulnerabilities.

Which brings us back to music: young people’s release, and a way to connect with others and express themselves. In fact, half of our respondents stated that music is their number one passion, rising to nearly six out of 10 in London where the scene is more vibrant. It is their lifeblood and entertainment: 81% of young people think life without music is uninteresting.

So, considering this, is Mars’ distancing itself from a type of music that mostly represents young black urban men who are expressing themselves and their realities racist or elitist? It’s a valid concern. Will young people see brands like Mars acting as judge, jury and executioner?

There will certainly be an element that. But for the main part, we have found young people just want to be happy and want society to be better. Most of them are liberal, forward-thinking and emotionally mature.

The majority are more likely to support Mars’ decision and put pressure on YouTube to better police inciting content than to criticise a brand that has taken an anti-violence stance.

Pressure to do better

With pressure from brands and audiences, social platforms will have to pay attention. Young people also want tech companies to be more responsible, not just with regards to their data but also over fears they have surrounding online platforms: privacy, cyber-crime, fake news, online abuse and extremist groups radicalising people.

Ultimately, the buck will stop with them and algorithmic excuses won’t be tolerated much longer.

And after all that, it looks like the power of social may be waning. We found that seeing a brand on social media is becoming less and less important, with only 45% of our 18-30-year-olds attributing significance to it.

So, unless YouTube and other content platforms pay attention, they could lose more than just the spend of one brand.

Krupali Cescau is brand director at Amplify and the author of its Young Blood research into modern British youth culture.

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