Saturday, February 17, 2018

Unilever, Facebook freedom of the media

This is not about food. So, you can all heave a sigh of relief.

I am a lawyer and don’t have much knowledge about the Web, Social Media and Advertising. This places me in just the correct position to express my opinion.

You may recall a news item a few days ago - which I may add has received surprisingly little attention – that Unilever the global FMCG giant has threatened Facebook and Google with withdrawal of its advertisements. According to the Chief Marketing Officer of Unilever Mr. Keith Weed, companies could not continue to support an online advertising industry where extremist material, fake news, child exploitation, political manipulation, racism and sexism were rife. Mr. Weed continued to state that "It is acutely clear from the groundswell of consumer voices over recent months that people are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of digital on wellbeing, on democracy - and on truth itself," In other words, Facebook and Google do contain extremist material, fake news, child exploitation, political manipulation, racism and sexism.

Further, Unilever’s have 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

Bear in mind the rather wide language used. “Create division in society” and so on.

From my limited research, Facebook and Google accounted for 73% of all digital advertising in the US in 2017. During 2017, Google brought in £4.4bn in revenue from online advertising, while Facebook collected £1.8bn. These are significant numbers. Do note that these are not revenues from Unilever alone, but total revenue from all advertisers. Unilever is the world’s biggest spender on advertising. Hindustan Unilever, is similarly the biggest spender on advertising in India.

Media, whether print i.e. newspapers and magazines; TV; or internet based like Facebook and Google and countless other websites, all require advertising revenue to continue to survive and operate.    

Ipso facto, if you choke a medium of its advertising revenue, that medium will be in trouble and may ultimately shut. To put it differently, a large advertiser can exert considerable pressure on a medium.

Many people are today wary of what is known as mainstream media, i.e. TV and newspapers. It is believed that the mainstream media is owned by huge business houses – Rupert Murdoch owns several newspapers and Fox news; back home in India the Ambani’s control large swathes of business and other TV Channels – and, as a result, the belief is that news is biased or influenced. Because of this, hundreds of thousands of news sites and opinion sites as well as online publications grew in popularity as it was believed that these were independent, did not belong to conglomerates and were therefore free to publish news and opinions without fear or influence. Furthermore, these online news and opinion sites were cheap to run. This logic is correct up to a point, as, if you are a better or more visited news site you will get more eyeballs and consequently will become big with all the attendant attachments. Then you too will draw advertising revenue and will need it to survive. There is a lot of inevitability about growth and its consequences.

One of the beauties of the Internet is that it is “free” in the true sense of the word. Anyone can access any material on any website. Access is not controlled. The concept of” net neutrality” is very important and so far despite two battles, net neutrality reigns supreme. Net neutrality simply means that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking products or websites. I realise that Unilever is not an Internet service provider, but, I believe that the pledge could certainly jeopardise net neutrality. Could Unilever in furtherance of enforcing its pledge demand that an Internet service provider prevents access to an errant site? I feel why not.

The point I am making is that in an ideal world you must have a free media. Traditional media freedom was impacted by advertising. It was thought that internet-based media was not impacted, however, today with the quantum of advertising increasing even this medium is being threatened by advertisers. Advertising was a tool used to ensure that the media played ball with an advertiser. By way of example, to ensure that no adverse news was published, the advertiser used his media clout. This is but one example, there are several more instances. However, for the purposes of making my point, I shall stick to just this one example.

Now it is clear that with Unilever’s threat, media freedom especially on the internet is even more threatened. Not only is the medium going to be threatened if it wishes to publish something adverse about Unilever – say that Unilever is polluting a river – but the medium is going to be threated with advertising pull out if the medium publishes say any form of racist or gender sensitive material. To make matters worse, it is Unilever that will be the sole arbiter of whether any material published in the medium is violative of the broadly worded pledge, reproduced above.

Taking this further, in today’s highly politically correct times, once Unilever has made this pledge it will not be to far in the future that others do too. So, you will have a whole host of advertisers with swathes of people becoming censors. Net nanny will be back with a vengeance. Unilever has today adopted the mantle of being a net nanny This situation is not only a distinct possibility, in fact with Unilever’s pledge it has already happened, but this is going to lead to media being increasingly confused as to whose diktat it must comply and whose diktat it must ignore. This whole matter is indeed frightening. Will the internet remain uninfluenced and uncensored as it is today?

This morning, there was yet another aspect to media control that I read. Jeep placed an advertisement during Super Bowl [which is believed to be the most expensive advertising time slot in the world] showing the SUV splashing down a stream. You have seen countless variations of such advertisement. Cars careening down pristine beaches, cars splashing across streams, plowing thru forests and so on. On cue, Mr. Chris Wood the CEO of Trout Unlimited a fish conservation group claiming a membership of 300,000 attacked the advertisement stating that it “glorified the destruction of aquatic habitat in an apparent attempt to appeal to off-road thrill-seekers.”

Mr. Wood went on to say, “Fish are tough and resilient critters, but they don’t do well with several-thousand-pound vehicles driving over their spawning grounds, tearing up the gravel where they lay eggs,” he said. “Why someone would want to put out the idea that you should buy a Jeep so you could drive it up a creek is incomprehensible to me.        

Frankly, Mr. Wood has a point. If advertisements that offend, rightfully or otherwise, should the advertiser withdraw those “offending” advertisements? Will all car and motorcycle advertisements now have to change? We all know that cigarette and liquor advertisements are banned in most places. In India we have also banned, or if not banned, seriously frown at advertisements for skin whitening products. Will this latest charge by Mr. Wood affect the volume of advertisement placed in various media? Would this situation of having squeaky clean, totally correct bland inoffensive advertisements, catering to every pressure or protest group become a contagion? In my view, the jury is out on this question.

As I have progressed writing this post, my opinions have changed. At this point I am more confused than ever.

We know that print advertising is on a very steady decline. Consequently, many publications are suffering. The very venerable Washington Post – the subject of the recent thought provoking film “The Post” – has been bought by Jeff Bezos. Many publications are shutting down, In India in the TV or electronic media we have a separate set of problems. There are hundreds of TV Channels all scrambling for a share of advertising. In order to survive, the TV channels are borrowing from cash rich industrial houses and on being unable to repay the loans, are being subsumed by the corporates. As far as the internet is concerned, the dominant share of revenue flows to Facebook and Google, even in India, leaving a miniscule amount to be shared by thousands of smaller players. The continued survival of the smaller players is in serious doubt. The point being that purely business reasons are resulting in a shift of advertisement spends which obviously affects media.

To compound the problem stated in the preceding paragraph, you have the older threat of a large advertiser boycotting your medium. This has been the case for years, nothing new. However, now we have the added problem of an assault on media by advertisers wanting to control the media’s basic material. This is the Unilever Facebook Google imbroglio. This brings another facet to using advertising spends to control media.

The third front that now seems to be opening is pressure groups or special interest groups threatening advertisers. With the changing times traditional advertising themes are now being questioned in an increasing number of products. This has happened in the case of tobacco and alcohol, though one can understand the need to regulate such advertising. Encouraging consumption of tobacco and alcohol has health risks. But this left of field attack by Trout Unlimited is to my mind a dangerous development. Here the argument is not that cars are unhealthy, but, that the cliched depiction of SUV glorifies a lifestyle that results in destruction or damage to the environment.

It is only a matter of time before there is a fourth, fifth and more attacks on advertising.

If advertising is going to die it will take down media and an essential pillar of democracy. The free press – as free as it could be – will no longer exist. Where would that take our own consumption of products? Where would that leave manufacturers and advertisers like Unilever? What would happen to the advertising agencies?

Will the ever-creative advertising mind create a fresh set of advertisements with different and innovative ideas to get over this?

I have no answers. I do not know if I am being too alarmist.

1 comment:

  1. So many questions arise out of this. Will we have Facebook alpha and beta at some stage? One sponsored by Lever, the other by P&G? Etc