Unilever threatens to pull advertising from ‘divisive’ digital platforms

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

As digital channels become a more important way to reach consumers Unilever believes it is important that they tackle issues of trust ©iStock
As digital channels become a more important way to reach consumers Unilever believes it is important that they tackle issues of trust ©iStock

Related tags Advertising

Unilever has suggested it could pull its advertising spend across digital platforms that “breed division” in a warning shot across the bows of tech giants like Google, YouTube and Facebook.

Speaking at the Internet Advertising Bureau annual leadership meeting in Palm Desert, California, Unilever’s chief marketing officer Keith Weed called on the tech industry to build trust back into digital systems.

“Across the world, dramatic shifts are taking place in people’s trust, particularly in media,”​ Weed observed. According to his assessment, there is a growing split between digital and traditional media, with mounting mistrust around information disseminated on social channels.

The industry has spent too much time focusing on internal discussions and the question has now become a vital consumer issue, Weed argued.

“The wider impact of digital on our society and the swamp that is the digital supply chain has become a consumer issue. Thus far, it has been mainly an internal industry concern… A an industry we are sleepwalking on progress here. We are spending far too much time talking about what are, essentially, hygiene factors.

“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. 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.”

Unilever thinks trust in digital platforms has become a consumer issue ©iStock/scyther5
Unilever thinks trust in digital platforms has become a consumer issue ©iStock/scyther5

Weed’s warning continued: “Fake news, racism, sexism, terrorists spreading messages of hate, toxic content directed at children – parts of the internet we have ended up with [that are] a million miles from where we thought it would take us. 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.”

Sustainability and the digital supply chain

Unilever has invested heavily in building sustainability into its business model. It has made a commitment, for example, to source all of its agricultural inputs sustainably by 2020.

Weed stressed that Unilever's commitment to sustainability must also be built into the digital supply chain.

“Just because one is physical and one is virtual, they are still absolutely part of our value chain. And 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.

“We have spent a lot of effort building a business on sustainability. Our future strategy is based on the fact that consumers care about this, and will increasingly so. We can no longer continue to meet the values of one while holding the other at arm’s length. If we are committed to making our supply chains sustainable, that is all of our supply chains. And the current digital supply chain is far from being sustainable.”

Weed insisted that brands must play a part in developing trust in digital platforms“I am not interested in issuing ultimatums or turning my face while I demand others sort this out. I prefer to be part of the solution. At Unilever we believe we are as strong as our partners, as our supply chain. If they succeed, we will succeed with them.”

Unilever’s three-point commitment

As one of the world’s largest advertisers, the Unilever executive revealed the Magnum-to-Hellmann’s maker is making three commitments that it believes will spur action.

  1. Unilever will not invest in platforms that fail to protect children and which “create division in society”;
  2. The company said it will tackle gender stereotypes in advertising; 
  3. Unilever will only partner with organisations committed to creating a “better digital infrastructure​”.

Speaking ahead of the speech, Weed explained: “As a brand-led business, Unilever needs its consumers to have trust in our brands. We can’t do anything to damage that trust – including the choice of channels and platforms we use. So, 2018 is the year when social media must win trust back.”

Is digital too big to challenge?

Digital platforms continue to be an increasingly important channel for brands to engage with consumers.

Ronan Stafford, lead consumer analyst at data and analytics firm GlobalData, suggested that this makes the issue of tackling the reliability of social media complex.

“Social media sites have not had great press in recent months, but consumer brands and media companies need to find a way to work together as people’s lives move increasingly online and the ability to reach them using traditional media channels diminishes. Brands have to follow consumer and the decline of traditional media such as print and television cable services means that brands don’t have a strong alternative to online advertising,”​ Stafford said.

However, according to GlobalData, this makes it more – not less – likely that branded manufacturers will act to build trust in digital.

“This makes it even more likely that they’ll take action: a safe and clean online world is increasingly vital to their profitability,”​ Stafford predicted.

This is not the first time a CPG company has threatened to step away from advertising unless social media companies improved their services. Proctor & Gamble reduced its spend on digital platforms after it was discovered that P&G brands were being advertised alongside inappropriate material, such as pro-ISIS videos.

Stafford said that social media providers are taking action. Just last week, YouTube announced a new initiative dubbed “preventing harm to the broader YouTube community​” that aims to improve standards. However, while Stafford suggested such initiatives were a “good first step​” he stressed that there is still “a mountain to climb​”.

“Further active measures will need to be taken to repair the fractured relationship between advertisers, content creators, and viewers.”

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