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Megan Amrich headshot

Ethical advertising is a key emerging CSR issue that can’t be delegitimised

By Megan Amrich

Ethical advertising has arguably been the big business ethics issue of recent weeks, with Paperchase’s decision to rule out future promotions in the Daily Mail eliciting the full acerbity of Fleet Street.

It is a new issue to the CSR agenda but one swiftly and firmly established thanks to the ethical consumer campaign Stop Funding Hate (I am a Non-Exec Director). As we commence 2018, you can guarantee there are marketing and CSR departments talking about brand, values, and the suitability of advertising channels, perhaps for the first time.

Given the press furore over Paperchase’s decision, it would be understandable to consider it a controversial issue best avoided, but this is a key emerging CSR issue that can’t be ignored or delegitimised. Concern about the negative impacts of 'fake news' and 'hate news' on society is growing, and any business purporting to make a positive contribution to society must look at what its advertising procurement is funding.

To quote Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “History has shown us time and again the dangers of demonizing foreigners and minorities…it is extraordinary and deeply shameful to see these types of tactics being used…simply because racism and xenophobia are so easy to arouse in order to win votes or sell newspapers.”

In 2016, Leicester University’s Centre for Hate Studies warned that a surge in hate crime against migrants had been “fuelled and legitimised” by the media, while Cambridge University highlighted that mainstream media reporting is “contributing to an atmosphere of rising hostility towards Muslims in Britain.”

In 2012, the Leveson Inquiry into UK press standards concluded that “there are enough examples of careless or reckless reporting to conclude that discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers is a feature of journalistic practice in parts of the press, rather than an aberration.”

The issue is increasingly relevant to business as more market themselves on values and social purpose, and seek to put these values into practice. Advertising that funds and risks placement next to hateful and divisive content does not sit well with most company values and CSR commitments. Or with the public, with a recent YouGov poll finding that 58% believe ‘companies should withdraw their advertising if it placed next to content they think is racist, sexist, homophobic or xenophobic.’

It is also applicable for signatories to the UN Global Compact, who have committed to “avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their activities and relationships.”

Many businesses are already taking action. Unilever has stated it has “strict controls in place to ensure its ads appear only in media — both online and offline — that are fully consistent with its brand values.”

Numerous businesses have responded positively to the Stop Funding Hate campaign, including Lego, Paperchase, the Body Shop, JOY, the Phone Co-op, Ecotricity, Good Energy and more; all have committed to exclude certain publications from advertising procurement.

The Co-op Group takes a different approach, opting for engagement rather than exclusion. It seeks to influence editorial as an advertiser, committing to “challenge those views expressed in print which we and many of our members believe are incompatible with our values…using our contacts with publishers at every level to make the case for change.”

So how should ethical advertising be adopted as part of CSR commitments? Stop Funding Hate recommends a materiality approach that excludes the worst offenders as identified by respected and independent authorities (an approach used by many socially responsible investors). In this instance, publications most implicated in the promotion of hate and division.

For example, in 2016, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees reviewed media outlets across five European countries and concluded that, of all the publications surveyed, the Sun and Daily Mail exhibited a “hostility” to refugees and migrants that was “unique”.

The Sun and Daily Mail were again singled out when accused of “fuelling prejudice” in a 2016 report by the Council of Europe on hate speech and rising racist violence. The report highlighted discriminatory coverage towards Muslims, migrants, travellers and the LGBT community, and warned that “fuelling prejudice against Muslims shows a reckless disregard, not only for the dignity of the great majority of Muslims in the United Kingdom, but also for their safety.”

Ethical advertising is a particularly pertinent issue for the UK, with the UN stating “Elsewhere in Europe…there has been a similar process of demonization taking place, but usually led by extremist political parties or demagogues rather than extremist media.”

The Stop Funding Hate consumer campaign for ethical advertising is comparable to other successful consumer campaigns, from the Living Wage and Fairtrade to animal welfare standards. All started as ethical consumer campaigns, quickly became CSR and SRI issues, and mainstreamed soon after. Ethical advertising is already well down that road.

Colin Baines is Investment engagement manager, Friends Provident Foundation, and former ethics adviser and social goals campaigns manager, Co-op Group and Bank

Megan Amrich headshot

Megan is a writer and editor interested in sharing stories of positive change and resilience. She is the author of Show Up and Bring Coffee, a book highlighting how to support friends who are parents of disabled children. You can follow her at JoyfulBraveAwesome.com.

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