Would Unilever really pull its online ads over extremism?

The company has impeccable ethical credentials, but it's hard to advertise these days without Google or Facebook.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 13 Feb 2018

In what some are already branding as advertising’s #MeToo moment, Keith Weed, Unilever’s Chief Marketing Officer actually threatened to withdraw advertising from sites like Facebook and Google unless they do more to make the internet a more ethical and transparent sphere.

It’s a commendable message and one that is on brand with the FMCG giant’s Sustainable Living Plan, but is this latest move really about being ethical or more about keeping up with the competition?

After all Unilever is not the first to wage war over the nature of online advertising.

In 2017, the UK arm of the French marketing giant Havas pulled ads from Google and YouTube and in the same year Procter & Gamble, one of Unilever’s great rivals, also pulled millions pounds out of its digital advertising.

The timing of Weed’s comments also suggest that there is a little more to this story than mere ethics.

Facebook had already announced plans to combat malicious content by investing in artificial intelligence and recruiting 3,000 new staff to monitor posts flagged by users; exactly the kind of stuff Weed was hinting at.

What does Unilever really have to lose?

Unilever is in a privileged position and in reality has little to lose from a little game of moral brinkmanship - at least not straight away.

It is a multinational behemoth that turned over $53.7 billion during the last year. On its website it states that seven out of every 10 households around the world contain at least one of its products.

Unilever knows that its sales are unlikely to take an immediate hit if it does drop some of its digital advertising; P&G's didn’t. In the meantime, the publicity reflects very well on the Anglo-Dutch giant.

As the world’s second largest advertising spender it has a lot of pulling power, but whether the company would actually risk the long-term effects of dropping digital advertising altogether - which is more or less what ditching Google and Facebook would mean - is a different matter. 

Brands need advertising, after all, and in the 21st century that increasingly means advertising online. Unilever itself would be able to bask in the PR glow of doing the right thing, but that would only help its recruitment activities, not its brands. No one buys Marmite because of Unilever's ethical credentials, after all.  

So while we shouldn't doubt Unilever’s commitment to doing the right thing, the proof of that commitment will be in the pudding - if the tech giants don't move far enough on extremism or illegal content for the FMCG firm's liking, how much of a top line hit is Unilever willing to take in the name of its principles? Watch this space.

Image credit: 360b / Shutterstock.com

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