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Tina Casey headshot

Unilever to Facebook, Google/YouTube: Clean Up Your Act, Or Die

By Tina Casey

In recent years the pressure has grown on Facebook, Google (which owns YouTube) and other major social media platforms to do a better job of policing their content, and now Unilever -- the global giant with popular consumer brands from Dove and Axe to Knorr and Marmite under its wing -- has upped the ante with the threat of an advertising boycott.

The Internet has been cast ideally as a medium for the free and equal dissemination of ideas. That sounds good in theory, but the missing link is people. Ideas are generated by people, and a fairly large number of people who share commentary and information on social media do so with arguably bad intent -- and often with a clear intent to bully, exploit, foster violence, promote scams and spread lies.

When Boycotts Work: Social Media Edition

Last year Triple Pundit took note of a surge in boycotts, many sparked by the runup to Election Day 2016. One common denominator that emerged was that consumer boycotts rarely, if ever, succeed. Starbucks is just one example of a company that has weathered a long string of consumer boycotts in recent years.

Boycotts that do succeed tend to occur when a good company shows signs of decline. Even if consumer behavior does not change measurably after a boycott is announced, a boycotted company's stock can slide as a result of negative publicity.

Boycotts can also be effective in the business-to-business arena. One recent example of a business-to-business boycott involves the conservative television personality Bill O'Reilly, who lost his longtime platform on Fox after reports of high-end settlements for multiple sexual harassment cases surfaced. His viewers may have stood by him, but advertisers quickly fled the scene.

That brings us to the Unilever announcement. Last week, The Guardian and multiple other outlets reported that the company's chief marketing officer Keith Weed told attendees at a conference lead by the Interactive Advertising Bureau that Unilever "...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."

Weed warned that a consumer backlash is building,and he all but predicted that Facebook and other social media would bring about their own demise by failing to police their content:

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.

Do read the Guardian piece for parallels to other boycotts. As described by reporter Julia Kollewe, the torrent of offensive content on social media has weakened formerly strong brands in digital media, making them vulnerable to boycotts like the one threatened by Unilever.

As described by Kollewe, digital media already took a hit last year when Proctor & Gamble followed through on a similar warning. YouTube suffered an additional blow last year when it was dropped by several major advertisers on the heels of a Sleeping Giants boycott campaign.

When good brands go bad: Facebook's very bad two years

Facebook's troubles seem to run much deeper than other platforms. In recent years Facebook has been losing a crucial generation of young users to up-and-coming platforms like SnapChat, and its reported entanglement with Russian propaganda schemes during the 2016 election cycle adds more fuel to the fire.

Earlier this week, Wired took note of the firm's travails over the past two years, assembling interviews with 51 current and former employees into a "tumultuous" picture:

...most people told the same basic tale: of a company, and a CEO, whose techno-optimism has been crushed as they’ve learned the myriad ways their platform can be used for ill. Of an election that shocked Facebook, even as its fallout put the company under siege. Of a series of external threats, defensive internal calculations, and false starts that delayed Facebook’s reckoning with its impact on global affairs and its users’ minds.
Wired reporters Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein seem to accept that Facebook was unaware of the abuses unspooling beneath its nose during the 2016 election cycle. That's not necessarily an accurate representation, considering Facebook's vigorous defense of board member Peter Thiel after he emerged as a major supporter of the Trump campaign. Thiel's ties to white supremacists also surfaced during the 2016 campaign.

In fact, near the end of the article Thompson and Vogelstein themselves sound a little incredulous. How could the smartest kids in the room be so unaware of the goings-on in their own room:

Numerous security researchers express consternation that it took Facebook so long to realize how the Russian troll farm was exploiting the platform. After all, the group was well known to Facebook. Executives at the company say they’re embarrassed by how long it took them to find the fake accounts, but they point out that they were never given help by US intelligence agencies...

Spotting a weakness, other media organizations are already waiting in line to pick up the slack. Recode reports that the Yahoo/HuffPo mashup Oath could provide companies like Unilever with a curated platform that operates more like a conventional publisher -- in other words, that fact-checks content and screens for offensiveness.

Advertising and supply chain issues

Proctor & Gamble's move against social media looked like a one-off last year, but this time around the issue could have legs. The influential French marketing firm Havas, for example, anticipates that other companies will follow Unilever's lead.

If they do, one factor could be Weed's ability to articulate Unilever's standards in terms that any company with a solid CSR profile can understand (here's that Guardian link again):

Weed compared cleaning up the digital supply chain with efforts made by Unilever to find sustainable sources for its food ingredients and other raw materials and said the Anglo-Dutch business would no longer “invest in platforms or environments that do not protect our children or which create division in society, and promote anger or hate.”

BBC News elaborates on Unilever's application of supply chain principles to its advertising platforms:
Unilever has pledged to:

  • Not invest in platforms that do not protect children or create division in society

  • Only invest in platforms that make a positive contribution to society

  • Tackle gender stereotypes in advertising

  • Only partner with companies creating a responsible digital infrastructure

Keep a lookout in the coming weeks. If other global companies begin to pile on, 2018 could be another rocky year for Facebook and other digital media.

Image: Esther Vargas/flickr.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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