John McLellan: Advertising debacle puts a spoke in the wheel

In the age of digital petitions and crowdfunding you are never more than a couple of clicks away from a protest, but when a news industry website calls for a boycott of a bike shop it really has come to something.

Bike chain Evans, which counts Sir Chris Hoy as a brand ambassador, has ridden into a media storm. Picture: Contributed
Bike chain Evans, which counts Sir Chris Hoy as a brand ambassador, has ridden into a media storm. Picture: Contributed

At the heart of the row is the national bicycle chain (sorry) Evans which was prompted by the “Stop Funding Hate” (SFH) campaign to announce it wouldn’t advertise with The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express because of some articles it didn’t like.

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The Daily Mail in turn accused Evans of cooking up a publicity stunt because it didn’t advertise with them in the first place. In fact, there are no formal deals and any advertising on the papers’ websites is as a result of automatic programming.

As cycling becomes an increasingly lucrative and competitive market, Evans has expanded rapidly out of its south-east heartland in the past 12 years to establish a nationwide network of large and very well-stocked high-street stores. On the back of the 2012 Olympics it teamed up with Sir Chris Hoy to launch an eponymous range of bikes and promote its brand at the same time.

Newspapers are used to advertisers cancelling their accounts on the back of publicity they didn’t like and when I was Evening News editor we lost a major car dealer’s account because of a feature about the treatment of female customers in which it did not fare well.

Another big car dealer associated with Celtic pulled its ads from the Daily Record in 2003 because of a negative story about players on a Christmas night out.

The difference in the latest case is that the articles were historic, one an inflammatory comment piece from 15 years ago, and nothing to do with the bike company at all. The Evans adverts were juxtaposed against the stories because of the search history of the browser, someone connected with the SFH campaign.

Evans says the articles go against its core values, and although it hasn’t explained what they are, the Cycling Weekly website has suggested that coverage of the trial of killer cycle courier Charlie Alliston might also have had something to do with it.

Whatever the reason, the fact is that a major retailer has lined itself up with what is a broad political campaign against particular papers and by extension their millions of online readers; Mail Online 14 million every day and The Sun 5.4 million.

The Press Gazette website has in turn called for journalists who cycle to boycott Evans for what it describes as an attack on freedom of expression, and although I doubt Evans will be bothered, the next time I need an inner tube I’ll get it somewhere else.

• John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society and a City of Edinburgh Conservative councillor