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The latest threat of TikTok bans have caused marketers to raise an eyebrow

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While TikTok bans are gaining steam across Western governments, marketers are concerned but not worried about what’s to come.

That’s not to say marketers are oblivious to TikTok’s potential risks. But until the red tape becomes much tighter, advertisers will continue to turn a blind eye in favor of an arguably cost-effective platform to reach their target audience. With that said, there’s definitely something different about this latest flashpoint over the geopolitical tensions around TikTok.

Over the past week alone, three Western governments (the U.S., the EU and Canada) have ordered the app to be removed from federal devices. While some, like the U.K., have said they won’t be following suit, the overall message is clear: more lawmakers around the globe are making bold moves to restrict TikTok over the vaguely articulated concerns about the threat of potential future U.S. data abuses.

“We appreciate that some governments have wisely chosen not to implement such bans due to a lack of evidence that there is any such need, but it’s disappointing to see that other government bodies and institutions are banning TikTok on employee devices with no deliberation or evidence,” said a TikTok spokesperson in request for comment.

The data abuses in question, of course, are fears that the platform’s parent company ByteDance could share TikTok user data with China’s authoritarian government, posing a risk to national security.

The TikTok spokesperson went on to say the bans were based on “basic misinformation” and that it was willing to meet with officials to clear the air. “We share a common goal with governments that are concerned about user privacy, but these bans are misguided and do nothing to further privacy or security,” the spokesperson said.

Despite these assurances from TikTok, there’s been significant government pushback in a very truncated period of time. No wonder it’s caused some eyebrows to be raised in marketing circles.

Marketers are apt to keep their TikTok spend, given the channel’s attractiveness especially to Gen Z users, who have wholeheartly adopted the app as the main space for them to share, connect and build online communities. So much so, agencies have switched up their strategies to become TikTok-first, while news publishers have created specialist teams to tap into the audience.

Hannah Petts, social media director at Dewynters said her agency is already exploring more earned media options to reach Gen Z, and believes others will likely do the same given the latest wave of bans. The rationale of the strategy of reaching people via earned media, or organic content, is rooted in its ability to be less reliant on advertising that could mean sharing data with the app.

In fact, it’s fair to say that the current flashpoint over TikTok has breathed new life into concerns that had been bubbling away for a while.

Some of New Engen’s clients, for example, still refuse to implement TikTok’s tracking pixel over security concerns, said Kevin Goodwin, vp performance marketing at the agency, without naming names. And that was a tactic they’ve continued to employ since the last time Digiday spoke with the team last October, as a way to remain somewhat comfortable on the platform.

Despite these concerns, it’s unlikely that advertisers are going to invoke their own ban on TikTok. That would be inconceivable in the current climate given there’s no hard proof that the app is a privacy concern. There is proof, however, that the app is one of the main ways marketers can reach a lot of younger people at the same time. That’s a big thing to give up in any context — let alone one based on the threat of data abuses in the future, not now.

“Marketers remain unfazed as this is not their first encounter with a social media platform causing concern with privacy issues, and they know it will eventually settle down,” said Rob Jewell, chief growth officer at Power Digital. 

And he has a point. Remember Facebook and Cambridge Analytica? That was probably one of the earliest examples of a flashpoint moment for data privacy and advertising — yet the social network still managed to walk away fairly unscathed. In fact, its ads business went from strength to strength until relatively recently. 

“The lack of meaningful regulation from privacy regulators of much of the online advertising sector has encouraged marketers to avert their gaze,” said Nigel Jones, co-founder of The Privacy Compliance Hub.

For now, it’s a matter of wait and see for many marketers. And they’ve been doing this for some time — before the Biden administration in fact.

Since former President Donald Trump tried to crack down on the app in 2020, the social platform has been the center of a number of controversial headlines about the concerns around national security risks.

Of course, TikTok has always maintained that the platform isn’t a risk.

In 2020, Project Texas was born as a way to appease U.S. officials about the handling of Americans’ data, with the view that Oracle Cloud would act as a host for TikTok in the U.S. By June 2022, TikTok announced that all U.S. user traffic was being routed to Oracle — with the sub clause that the platform had long stored U.S. user data in its own data centers in the U.S. and Singapore, and those centers would still be used “for backup.”

TikTok also opened a physical Transparency and Accountability Center, as an open forum for interested parties, for them to learn about how the company’s app and associated algorithms work.

And in light of this latest country-wide threat of a ban, TikTok tweeted that it is “disappointed to see this rushed piece of legislation move forward” because it believes a U.S. ban on the app will have a “negative impact on the free speech rights of millions of Americans” who use the platform.

But as Anna Otieno, head of research, strategy & insights at New Engen noted, TikTok needs to do more to be transparent given these growing security concerns.

But it seems until either meaningful regulation, which forces behaviors, comes into play, or Gen Z moves to another trendy social platform en masse, marketers will continue to look the other way. And these security concerns closing in on TikTok will continue to enjoy a very slow burn.

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