Unilever stops advertising on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter in bold stance against hate speech

Dive Brief:

  • Unilever will stop advertising on Twitter, Facebook and Facebook’s image-sharing platform Instagram for at least the rest of the year in the U.S., according to an announcement made Friday.

  • The packaged goods giant behind brands like Dove and Hellmann’s mayonnaise said the high degree of polarization in the U.S., including the proliferation of hate speech, informed its decision, along with the Unilever Responsibility Framework it introduced two years ago to improve the overall health of the digital advertising ecosystem. 

  • Unilever said it will maintain its prior planned media investment budget in the U.S. for 2020, but redirect spending to other media. The company also affirmed it is continuing to work with the Association of National Advertisers, World Federation of Advertisers and Global Alliance for Responsible Media to create more transparency and accountability in digital media.  

Dive Insight:

Unilever stopping ad spend on Facebook and Twitter for at least the remainder of the year adds sizable force to a growing advertiser boycott against social media. The news could mark a watershed moment, where the prolonged absence of deep-pocketed brands on sites like Facebook forces digital platforms to make changes that have been called for by the marketing industry for years, but which have seen only incremental progress, even in the face of mounting regulatory pressures to better police content that’s shared online.

Unilever has previously pushed for systematic improvements to the health and transparency of a digital media ecosystem it views as fractured and rife with fraud, including through the Responsibility Framework the organization debuted in 2018. Last March, Unilever expanded the initiative with a Trusted Publishers network that elevated its internal standards around viewability, verification and brand value. More drastic measures in the form of outright spending freezes arrive during a historically divided period in the U.S. that’s seen the country roiled by the coronavirus pandemic, a crumbling economy and mass civil unrest over racial violence and injustice.

We have made substantial progress, and we acknowledge the efforts of our partners, but there is much more to be done, especially in the areas of divisiveness and hate speech during this polarized election period in the U.S.,” Unilever wrote in its note Friday. “The complexities of the current cultural landscape have placed a renewed responsibility on brands to learn, respond and act to drive a trusted and safe digital ecosystem.” 

Some of Unilever’s individual brands have been highly vocal about social issues, namely its Ben & Jerry’s ice cream line, which in recent weeks has actively called for dismantling white supremacy and defunding the police. The latest move is more significant in coming from the entire organization, and also for its scope. 

Unilever is blacklisting Twitter, which has largely been absent from other boycotts, and putting out a set time frame where it will remain quiet on social media. Even if Facebook and Twitter were to make the demanded fixes to their services tomorrow, Unilever’s announcement indicates it would not return to advertising with them until 2021 at the earliest, a major resetting of investments for one of the top advertisers by media spend in the world.

If other companies of Unilever’s scale join the boycott, this could put a dent in Facebook and Twitter’s revenue streams, which are already under pressure as advertiser demand drops due to the pandemic. However, some financial analysts are skeptical of how deep any damage would be.

Procter & Gamble, a top rival in the CPG category, has not stopped advertising on Facebook, but also hasn’t ruled out doing so, as reported in Ad Age. Speaking during a virtual Cannes Lions event earlier this week, P&G’s Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard said the company is more closely reviewing where it puts its media dollars and will work to ensure it’s not advertising near content that is “hateful, denigrating or discriminatory.”

Marketers that have pledged to pause their Facebook advertising include Verizon, The North Face, REI, Patagonia, Eddie Bauer, Ben & Jerry’s and Arc’teryx. Brand boycotts have emerged at the behest of civil rights groups, which have targeted sites like Facebook through a #StopHateForProfit campaign.

It’s clear the message is getting across in some capacity. Facebook earlier this week arranged a call with close to 200 advertisers where an executive admitted the social media giant has a “trust deficit,” according to The Financial Times.

Facebook has faced harsh criticism in recent months for a stubborn resistance to flagging unverified claims made by politicians, including President Trump, and a failure to weed out hate speech. The company last week removed ads run by Trump’s reelection campaign that featured a symbol that strongly recalls one used by the Nazis to mark political prisoners held in concentration camps, The Washington Post reported. Eighty-eight ads ran in total, a number that is also linked to Nazi ideology

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