Tuesday 13 February 2018

Unilever pulls investment from toxic online platforms

Unilever pulls investment from toxic online platforms Hermann Luyken

Unilever, the multinational FMCG conglomerate behind fashionable brands including Omo, Lifebuoy, Badedas and Brut (is this right? - Ed) has announced that it will stop using and investing in digital platforms that run counter to an inclusive society.


CMO Keith Weed, summed it up as "social media should build social responsibility" and expanded further on the point:

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.

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. 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.

Of course, this is entirely consistent with the master brand image that Unilever wishes to promote. Having ditched many of its legacy brands and businesses in recent years and acquiring more environmentally and socially-positive brands including Ben & Jerrys and Pukka Tea, it's a company that overtly wants to be seen to be doing good. Paul Polman, Unilever's CEO, has stated as such in many press interviews of late. That said, detoxofication swings both ways- for example, the company's involvement in a toxic waste scandal in Tamil Nadu.

Whilst this announcement has generated an awful lot of coverage for Unilever - mostly positive - it is a drop in the ocean in terms of what's needed by advertisers to push the matter forward. Facebook's business practices are still reminiscent of the worst excesses of Uber, with the company itself relying on bottom-of-the-ladder, badly-paid pseudo-editors to manually remove content which is likely to cause offence. These practices are well disguised by Facebook, with Zuckerburg constantly espousing the platform's value in doing social good. In other words, Unilever could pull its entire display and social media budget out of Facebook, and it wouldn't really matter to the company's revenue and profit margins.

If Unilever is merely dipping its toe in the water to see if any other company joins it, then fair enough. But, what would be nice to see is some kind of "digital ethical investment group" where advertisers make decisions as a group, rather than individually. This collective influence and buying power is perhaps more likely to see FB, and other platforms, do something about their problems.

So, let's be clear on this: there is a problem of toxic social media debate, and companies providing such platforms are not doing enough to resolve it, particularly when they are making so much money. However, because money talks to these fuc--- er, social media platforms, then maybe this is the shape of things to come. Domestos, a product of Unilever, may kill toxicity around the toilet bowl but a lot more needs to be done over the coming year to kill toxicity around the phone or computer screen.

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