Yesterday, Slingshot sent out a release to the media saying that Sky had taken the "unjustified and petty" step not to play any ads from the internet service provider (ISP) that feature references to global mode, a new service that hides the IP addresses of users and gives them access to international video streaming websites such as Netflix and HULU.
And now, in a follow-up announcement, Slingshot has confirmed that TVNZ has followed suit by also pulling the plug on ads that reference the controversial service that was unveiled a few weeks ago.
Slingshot general manager Taryn Hamilton says Sky imposed the ban late on Friday, and expressed the opinion that the move "smacks of protectionism and censorship".
“It’s a sad day when our TV stations start to ban ads because they feel threatened by one of their advertisers and the products they are offering," says Hamilton. "In this case Sky is using its position to obstruct Slingshot because they feel intimidated by Global Mode."
Hamilton says that the initial email sent in response to Sky's move wasn't an effort to protect the ISP's marketing strategy, but rather to inform the public about what had happened.
"We only spend about two percent of our media budget with Sky ... so you can take from that as its importance in our marketing efforts," he says. "It's a hugely important issue and the public should be aware of their behaviour. It’s important that consumers be able to have access to uncensored messaging."
Sky's director of communications Kirsty Way has however said that the decision was made for legal reasons, given that the legality of global mode is still unclear.
"We are always careful about not undermining intellectual property rights and we don’t carry ads if we think there is any risk that they may breach local laws, whether that’s the Fair Trading Act or the Copyright Act or any other applicable law," she says. "This applies to all of our advertising clients, no matter who they are ... We just aren’t sure the global mode product is legitimate so we prefer not to carry those ads."
Way explains that the decision was grounded in a company precedent that Sky established several years ago.
"We had to hold up some advertising a few years ago for an offshore company that wanted to run ads for text based competitions on our platform. At the time, we had questions about whether those ads complied with the Fair Trading Act, so we refused to carry them until those issues were resolved. We have no problem with Slingshot’s products generally." (We asked Way for the name of the company, but we are yet to receive a response)
In its code of ethics, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) says that "all advertisements must comply with the laws of New Zealand". And while global mode's position is still unclear in the New Zealand context, Sky TV is within its discretionary rights not to publish a piece of advertising that it deems to contravene laws of New Zealand. Also, given the emphasis that the ASA places on self-regulation of the industry, it is important for Sky to adhere to the best-practice guidelines that it has established.
TVNZ's communication manager Georgie Hills has similarly said that TVNZ is happy to run advertising for any of Slingshot's offers apart from those that feature global mode (a move that makes financial sense given that Slingshot spends 40 percent of its media budget with the broadcaster). However, the reasons given for drawing the line are of a commercial, rather than legal, nature.
"It’s simple really: it doesn’t make any business sense to promote a competitor’s service that encourages viewers to watch international programmes that we hold the exclusive rights to in New Zealand," says Hills. "Our studio partners would look askance at us if we actively plugged a service that’s diminishing the value of these content rights."
As illustrated earlier in the year when Fox decided not to run SodaStream's ad featuring Scarlet Johansson, broadcasters can pull advertising even when there isn't a legal infringement at play. In that instance, Fox decided to pull the ad simply because Coke and Pepsi were also commercial partners.
Interestingly, when Fox decided to reject the ad, SodaStream responded by sending out a series of press releases liberally dispersed with words such as "uncensored" and "banned," vernacular usually associated with autocratic rulers. This move paid off for the company. In spite of not making it onto television screens, the 'uncensored' version of the spot tallied up over 14 million views on YouTube as curious consumers rushed online to see what all the fuss was about.
Hamilton says that something similar is happening in the Slingshot case, in the sense that the Herald, Stuff and various other publications have already covered the story (Slingshot also featured a full-page ad in today's Herald).
“It certainly is an odd position for them [Sky and TVNZ] to take given the ads feature only about one second of global mode. There’s definitely a bit of the old Streisand effect kicking in for sure.”
In addition to the mainstream media attention, the Slingshot Facebook page has also garnered significant levels of attention, with Kiwis using the platform to contribute to the debate on global mode.
Thus far MediaWorks has not announced plans to reject Slingshot's pair of global mode ads and, while we are yet to receive a response to questions on the likelihood of the company following TVNZ and Sky, the Twitter-based spokesperson Guy Williams has expressed his opinion on the matter.
TV3 is the only station that hasn't banned slingshot ads as part of our "Money over everything dollar dollar bills yo" strategy.— Guy Williams (@guywilliamsguy) August 5, 2014
UPDATE: MediaWorks has also joined the party
MediaWorks TV understands there are serious questions about the legality of what Slingshot is advertising in television commercials for its Global Mode service.
Our advice is that Slingshot’s latest development to Global Mode means the user of Global Mode is breaching copyright, and advertising that presents it as legitimate and legal is misleading, and may also be a breach of the Fair Trading Act.
MediaWorks takes its responsibilities as a broadcaster seriously. We understand complaints may have been made to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and have informed Slingshot we are withdrawing these commercials until such time as the ASA has ruled on the matter.
The attempt by Slingshot to use the media to draw awareness to the 'banned' campaign isn't unique. Generally, this area is dominated by animal welfare and religious organisations that attempt to have controversial ads aired, but, as illustrated by the SodaStream example, major corporations do also sometimes get involved in this unconventional marketing strategy.
In the United States, where news organisations are increasingly partisan, companies that have had an ad rejected by one news organisation sometimes run to a competing agency to express their discontent at an example of censorship. This tendency was again illustrated in June when NBC refused to run ads for the Obvious Child, an upcoming film that deals with abortion.
The story eventually ended up in the New York Post, which covered the debacle and, in doing so, gave the film even more exposure.
The problem with this strategy is that it can also draw attention to some of the problems associated with an offering, and the Slingshot case is a perfect example of this. In decrying the issue as censorship, Slingshot has drawn significant attention to global mode—and to the legal murkiness that comes with it. That being said, a little online illegality hasn't stopped millions of people around the world from downloading content from dubious sources.