Unilever threatens to pull ad spend from platforms that ‘breed division’

Unilever warns platforms including Facebook and Google that it will pull investment unless they “overhaul their behaviour” and tackle issues such as fake news and toxic content.

Unilever marketing boss Keith Weed

Unilever’s marketing boss Keith Weed is threatening to pull investment from platforms that “breed division” or fail to protect children from toxic content, and is calling on the digital media industry to “overhaul its behaviour” or risk losing the trust of both consumers and brands.

In a speech he is set to give this afternoon (12 February) at the IAB’s annual conference in California, US, Weed will make a promise that Unilever “will not invest in platforms that do not protect children or which create division in society”. He will name-check the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Google, Snap and Amazon, saying that Unilever does not want to advertise on platforms that do not “make a positive contribution to society”.

And he will say that with the rise of “fake news, racism, sexism, terrorists spreading messages of hate and toxic content directed at children”, parts of the internet have become toxic.

“The wider impact of digital on our society and the swamp that is the digital supply chain has become a consumer issue,” he will say.

“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.”

He explains that the advertising industry has so far been “sleep walking on progress”, spending far too much time talking about hygiene factors such as viewability and third-party verification without looking at the big picture and the message it sends to consumers.

We cannot continue to prop up a digital supply chain which at times is little better than a swamp in terms of its transparency.

Keith Weed, Unilever

“Consumers don’t care about third-party verification. They do care about fraudulent practice, fake news, and Russians influencing the US election. They don’t care about good value for advertisers. But they do care when they see their brands being placed next to ads funding terror, or exploiting children,” he adds.

“They don’t care about sophisticated data usage or ad targeting via complex algorithms, but they do care about not seeing the same ad 100 times a day. They don’t care about ad fraud, but they do care about their data being misused and stolen.”

READ MORE: From commodity to lever for growth – The future of media

And so Weed is calling for digital platforms to make a stand against “things they see are not right”, saying that “social media should build social responsibility”. And he will make three pledges.

  1. On responsible platforms: Unilever will not invest in platforms that do not protect children or which create division in society, and promote anger or hate.
  2. On responsible content: Unilever is committed to creating responsible content, initially by tackling gender stereotypes in advertising through the Unstereotype Alliance.
  3. On responsible infrastructure: Unilever will only partner with organisations that are committed to creating better digital infrastructure, such as aligning around one measurement system and improving the customer experience.

READ MORE: Keith Weed – The industry must join forces to banish gender stereotypes

Weed’s comments come a year after Procter & Gamble’s brand chief Marc Pritchard issued his own rallying cry to the industry, calling on the digital media supply chain to clean up its act or risk P&G pulling investment. He gave digital media companies a year to adhere to his deadline, a date that passed last month.

So far, P&G has given no indication that it plans to pull spend from the big players, although it is yet to go back to advertising on YouTube having cut spend when brand safety problems were brought to its attention.

Weed’s speech shows Unilever remains concerned about the digital media supply chain, particularly as it accounts for a quarter of Unilever’s advertising. However with progress being made on issues such as viewability and verification, Weed is moving the conversation onto the role of digital media in society and the types of platforms and content the company wants to be associated with.

“We cannot continue to prop up a digital supply chain which at times is little better than a swamp in terms of its transparency,” he will say. “We have spent a lot of effort building a business on sustainability… And the current digital supply chain is far from being sustainable.”

What is less clear is how Unilever will hold digital platforms to account or at what point it would actually pull spend. And while Weed will mention the likes of Facebook and Google and the conversations he is having with these companies, he will not mention rising concerns about content published by some publishers, such as the Daily Mail and The Sun, that have been the subject of campaigns such as ‘Stop Funding Hate’.

READ MORE: Should advertisers ‘Stop Funding Hate’?

The speech also shows that Unilever is concerned about a lack of standardised metrics for online ads and the rise of ad formats that are detrimental to the consumer experience. Unilever is a member of the Coalition for Better Ads, which is in the process of coming up with a set of global standards on internet advertising, but many publishers still run ads that interrupt, rather than enhance, the experience for viewers.

Digital media is also the only medium that doesn’t have its own “currency” to measure engagement, with each platform having its own definition of engagement that makes comparing audiences more difficult.

To deal with this, Unilever is piloting a partnership with IBM that will use blockchain technology to record how media is purchased, delivered and interacted with by audiences. Unilever hopes the technology will be able to provide more reliable measurement metrics although it is unclear at this point how it will work.

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