Unilever’s digital ad ban threat is long overdue

As Unilever threatens to pull its entire ad spend for Google and Facebook, Dan Machen argues it's high time we all take collective responsibility for the brand safety minefield that is the internet.

Imagine you’re an executive at Google, or Facebook. What keeps you awake at night?

Political meddling? Extreme content? Messenger aimed at children – or a $12Bn global advertiser putting you on notice?

The answer should be all of the above. Sadly, with a focus on shareholder value vs. platform values, it’s probably the latter.

This is not the post-digital dream we hoped for, nor what we promise our brand partners. It’s time to drain the digital swamp.

A call to do just that came this week, from Unilever’s Keith Weed. Weed has threatened to pull ads from Google and Facebook, claiming that digital platforms are: “Little better than a swamp in terms of transparency”.

Weed went on to say: “Fake news, racism, sexism, terrorists spreading messages of hate, toxic content directed at children – parts of the internet we have ended up with is a million miles from where we thought it would take us.”

“[We will not] invest in platforms or environments that do not protect our children, or which create division in society, and promote anger or hate.”

Hear bloody hear.

This doesn’t reflect zero sympathy for Google and Facebook, nor a lack of shared responsibility. But it’s fair to say the current mess was already lapping around their ankles as far back as March 2017.

The UK Guardian’s Hamish Nicklin said at the time that due to the pursuit of dirt-cheap inventory: “Fake news is being used as a key weapon to fight truth. And the digital advertising paradigm is helping to fund it, in fact, I’d go as far as to say that it rewards it.”

Nicklin spoke against Guardian ads on Google being placed against fake news and extremist content that people were plugging into the programmatic exchange to make serious money. “That’s digital alchemy right there. What you have done is take something totally worthless and create gold out of it … We are all complicit in this.”

With Havas Media UK suspending its $280m Youtube spend and P&G also pulling $178m in July 2017, there was a major issue was brewing then.

With Unilever’s current threat, and the danger that other multinationals could follow suit, there is a clear red flag for agencies, brands and digital platforms to collectively sort this out, before it hits us all where it really hurts – right in the revenue.

The solution could lie in what Sir Tim Berners Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, called in 2014 a ‘Magna Carta for the Internet’. This is an agreement to embrace the open values and value of the internet, both for societal benefit and as a platform for marketing communications.

As Berners Lee said at the time: “We cannot treat the internet like a fridge and just call for mum and dad if we open the door and find it’s empty. We have to take collective responsibility.”

Some of the suggested future steps for agencies, brands and platforms are as follows:

  • Invest properly in brand protection – it’s only a small percentage of media spend and will pay for itself in better quality of view
  • Investigate new media solutions that offer much greater transparency – Truth was the first offering based on blockchain for media buying. It is interesting to see Unilever subsequently announcing an IBM partnership. (Probably prompting Weed’s comments yesterday)
  • Digital platforms need to respond to bad actors creating fake news for political meddling purposes
  • Collectively we should not encourage children under 13 to take up social media at an age where it could pose a risk to their mental health

We should all consider ourselves on notice and collaborate to agree new approaches to realise the potential of digital advertising.

This calls for action now from agencies, brands and digital platforms to wean ourselves off the drug of dirt-cheap digital practices and take steps to really achieve the potential of what Tim Berners Lee called, ‘the web we want’.

Despite talking a good game, it’s worth noting that as per his latest tweet, Keith is still keen.

Dan Machen is a communications strategy director with 20 years experience working in creative, planning and strategy. Dan recently moved to Australia and is looking for new roles.


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