Unilever threatens to cut back online ads over ‘toxic’ content


A woman stands by a machine that is part of a toothpaste manufacturing line at the Unilever factory in Lagos, Nigeria, on Jan. 18.

ReutersLONDON/FRANKFURT (Reuters) — Unilever, one of the world’s biggest spenders on advertising, has threatened to pull ads from digital platforms such as Facebook and Google if they “create division” in society or fail to protect children.

Keith Weed, chief marketing officer at Unilever, which makes Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Dove soap, will explain the plan in a speech on Monday at the annual Interactive Advertising Bureau conference in California.

Weed will call on the technology industry to improve transparency and consumer trust in an era of fake news and “toxic” online content.

“Unilever, as a trusted advertiser, do not want to advertise on platforms which do not make a positive contribution to society,” Weed plans to say, according to a copy of the speech seen beforehand.

The speech does not accuse any specific platform, but says trust in social media is at a new low due to a perceived lack of focus by tech firms in keeping illegal, unethical and extremist material off their websites.

Unilever also said it was committed to tackling gender stereotypes in advertising and will only partner with organizations committed to creating better digital infrastructure.

“Fake news, racism, sexism, terrorists spreading messages of hate, toxic content directed at children ... it is in the digital media industry’s interest to listen and act on this,” Weed plans to say. “Before viewers stop viewing, advertisers stop advertising and publishers stop publishing.”

Weed will also discuss a new partnership with IBM, piloting blockchain technology for advertising that could reduce advertising fraud by providing reliable measurement metrics.

Unilever itself was heavily criticized last year for a Dove advert on Facebook that many saw as racist.

Big budget

Unilever spent about €7.7 billion ($9.4 billion) on marketing last year. Digital advertising accounts for about one-third of its spend, the company said in September.

Over the last five years, its spending on digital media has more than doubled while its investment in creating digital content has gone up by 60 percent.

Its spending on traditional media is down slightly, but under a cost savings drive it has cut the number of ads it makes and agencies it works with. These efficiencies resulted in 35 percent lower investment creating traditional content.

Google, part of Alphabet, and Facebook are estimated to have half of online ad revenue worldwide in 2017 and more than 60 percent in the United States, according to research firm eMarketer.

Officials at Google in Europe did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Facebook said in a statement: “We fully support Unilever’s commitments and are working closely with them.”

Weed has recently explained his views in meetings with all of Unilever’s digital partners, including Facebook, Google, Twitter, Snap and Amazon.

His comments echo complaints made by Procter & Gamble Chief Brand Officer Mark Pritchard, who has lamented fake ad clicks by automated ‘bots’, the risk an ad can appear online next to an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) recruitment video and the realization that people do not watch video commercials any more.Speech

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