Feb 12, 2018
Reading time
3 minutes
Download the article
Click here to print
Text size
aA+ aA-

Unilever threatens to cut back online ads over 'toxic' content

Feb 12, 2018

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.

Dove, a Unilever brand, was criticised last year for an ad that was widely condemned for racism - DR

Keith Weed, chief marketing officer at Unilever, which makes 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.


Unilever spent about 7.7 billion euros ($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 ISIS recruitment video and the realization that people do not watch video commercials any more.

Only 25 percent of online ad spending reaches the consumer, with the rest skimmed off by a “murky, non-transparent, even fraudulent supply chain” within the industry, Pritchard told a conference last year.
Last year, video-sharing site YouTube faced two advertiser boycotts after newspaper reports found ads of major brands appearing next to questionable videos.

After the first boycott, which related to videos from Islamic extremists, there was scant evidence of any impact on revenue of its owner, Alphabet.

Facebook executives visiting Europe last month made a public show of contrition about the social media giant’s slow response to abuses on its platform, seeking to avoid further legislation similar to a new hate speech law in Germany it says goes too far.


© Thomson Reuters 2022 All rights reserved.