Advertising ethics: Is Unilever starting the media’s own #metoo?

Angry couple using a smart phone outdoors sitting in a park

Offensive content has been the bane of brands on social networks for some time, but now one of the biggest ad spenders is fighting back.

On the face of it, trying to compare multi-million dollar industries falling out with one of the most significant gender equality and anti-sexism movements in recent history seems a little distasteful. But there’s more to the story than first meets the eye.

For those unaware of what we’re talking about, Paul Frampton, former-UK boss at one of the world’s biggest advertising groups, Havas, made the following statement earlier this month after Unilever’s chief marketing officer, Keith Weed, threatened to boycott Facebook and Google by pulling all ad spend:

“There is a rising discomfort towards the digital platforms amongst marketers… …Like #MeToo, it feels this is a movement that has stepped up a gear and Weed speaking out will mean other marketers will follow.”

So, what’s going on?

Unilever’s problem with Facebook and Google is a perception that both digital giants are failing to eradicate content that may ‘create division in society and promote anger and hate’.

It’s certainly not the first time something like this has happened. In 2017 Frampton was still at Havas, and took the decision to cut all the firm’s UK ad spend from Google and YouTube on behalf of clients such as O2 and EDF; some £175million in revenue. This was because commercials were being placed next to inappropriate videos, ranging from American nationalism to Islamist extremists.

Websites (marketing and advertisment homepages) of most popular websites in the world - Facebook, Google, YouTube and Instagram on a computer screen.

Bringing us back up to date, Unilever’s Weed sees advertisers as having a responsibility to put their power to good use and force positive change, rather than simply opting to carry on with business as usual.

“We cannot continue to prop up a digital supply chain – one that delivers over a quarter of our advertising to our consumers – which at times is little better than a swamp in terms of its transparency,” he has said. “It is in the digital media industry’s interest to listen and act on this. Before viewers stop viewing, advertisers stop advertising, and publishers stop publishing.”

Who’s really in charge?

Analytics firm Pivotal reckons more than 60% of all digital advertising and 90% of new digital ad spend in the UK happens through Facebook and Google. Respectively they brought in £1.87billion and £4.43billion from British advertisers in 2017 alone.

In comparison, Unilever is the world’s second biggest marketing spender, only P&G trumps the firm, and shelled out around £6.8billion globally last year. It’s unclear how much of this was spent on digital, and specifically Facebook and Google, but whatever the exact figure the British-Dutch Goliath is one customer few can afford to lose.

So what happens next?

The £1million question, make no mistake. Right now, Facebook and Google are both under significant pressure to clean up their acts in several ways. Advertising is just one, albeit one of the biggest.

So far the list of brands that have voiced concerns over how ads are sold on the platforms is long and distinguished; UK Government, Marks & Spencer, L’Oreal, Audi, to name but four. The biggest problem is the programmatic model— whereby ads are placed online automatically, with little moderation of the accompanying content.

Black fist painted on a red brick wall. Ideal to serve as wallpaper or the base for a bigger composition.

If Unilever acts on its threat then it seems inevitable something will need to change about the way in which Google and Facebook police themselves, providing— and it’s a big provision— the boycott isn’t short-lived, as others have been in the past.

However, here in Britain, Internet groups are seriously considering changing the status of both platforms to ‘publishers’, which would force them to be far more accountable for what they host, dictating they adhere to the same standards as newspapers, news websites, and magazines. Libel, defamation, and decency being keywords.